Ah, a secret garden to call your own — a place where you can sprawl out in that faded bikini from three seasons ago and mascara from last night, reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” and slurping a good-morning margarita away from the judging eyes at the public pool.
Spacious yards might be an anomaly of city dwelling, but you don’t need an ivy-choked wooden door (or McMansion lawn) to turn an outdoor space, whether eighth-floor balcony or row-house porch, into a city oasis. An alfresco perch’s style equals the sum of its parts — not its square footage. D.C. garden stores stock a variety of plants that can thrive in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes, especially prime for urbanites looking more for a place to escape than a full-time Farmer McGregor gig.
“Plants are wonderful for creating lushness, providing privacy and adding beauty to a small space, but it’s the details — the containers that hold the flowers, the rug beneath your feet, the lantern on the table — that transform a space with plants into a true garden retreat,” writes Fern Richardson in her new book “Small-Space Container Gardens” ($20, Timber Press), inspired by her popular blog Life on the Balcony.
Creating a plush refuge doesn’t require harvesting a money tree, just an eye for detail and a willingness to think outside the (big) box. In other words, step away from the Ohio State tailgating chairs and plastic dining sets; say hello to charming bistro tables and repurposed planters (metal colanders, wooden wine crates). Small touches, like cushions and candles or string lights, also encourage lingering after the sun goes down. “Don’t be afraid to bring the indoors out,” says Washington designer Jill Sorensen of Live Like You (Livelikeyou.com). “Don’t just arrange a seating area — create a room outdoors.”
Katie Knorovsky, freelance writer
The mission: After spending five summers in D.C. in apartments sans outdoor space, when I saw the second-floor back deck on the condo I bought this past November, my mind skipped straight past closing costs and on to lazy Saturdays sipping mint juleps in the sun (with mint plucked fresh from the window boxes, naturally). My goal: Make this 10-by-12-foot wooden slab a roost — part lounge, part dining room and greenhouse.
Garden center: From the previous owners, my husband and I inherited four window boxes lining the railings along with two rusting faux-stone pots (dead plants included). Following Fern Richardson’s golden rule to “first consider how much direct sun the deck gets,” we determined the edge of our bright, north-facing deck could support full sun and partial shade plants. As for our dead-houseplant-checkered past? “Beginners have the most success with annual herbs,” Richardson explained to me, so we filled our window boxes with basil, mint, chives and lavender from Old City Green in Shaw (902 N St. NW; 202-412-2489) plus some edible flowers. Lime-green creeping Jenny spills over the edges of a planter perked up with a few heat-resilient moss roses, which bloom during the day and close by dusk. In the floor planters: a blueberry bush (fingers crossed for July berries, my summer crack), a gardenia bush (not the best pick for beginners like us, we later learned) and a euonymus shrub from Johnson’s Garden Center (4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-244-6100).
Style notes: Heeding the advice of D.C. designer Jill Sorensen to mix and match furniture but keep a cohesive look by sticking to one or two hues, I went with a mod palette of lime and black. I spray-painted stone planters glossy black lacquer and draped screen-printed canvas cloth over a ready-to-be-retired side table. A few pops of yellow — a round button pillow, a metal watering can — offer sunny accents, and a rattan chaise (an Ikea-via-Craigslist find) serves as dramatic focal point (and a reading spot).
Jim Pollack, left, D.C. landscape architect (with partner Eric Tobin)
The mission: There’s not a lot of privacy in this busy downtown hood, so I wanted to create a “green wall” that would provide a barrier from Mr. Nosy Neighbor while at the same time offering major curb appeal and maximizing space on my snug (3-by-10 feet) east-facing balcony.
Garden center: Planters that hang over the edge of a balcony? Call them an expensive lesson. In my experience, those vessels are so small the plants dry out faster than a Kardashian marriage. So I used tall restaurant trash-cans as planters (order from a restaurant supply company like Katom.com). The cans are plastic, so I cut holes in the front and cultivated plants shooting out the sides. The tall cans hold more soil, which retains moisture. I mixed edible herbs (rosemary, basil) in with flowers and have plotted out plants so something is blooming all year.
Style notes: I bought my tiny tables at Ikea, which still sells a similar folding model, Kalvo ($20). Low-slung chairs also make the space feel private. It’s a really tight space, but everybody loves to go out there.
Mount Pleasant Porch
Jennifer Barger, Express features editor
The mission: My townhouse has a muggy, buggy back patio and a breezy, shady front porch. I wanted to turn the latter — and the steps leading to it — into a relaxing spot for cocktails, dinner parties or laptopping alfresco. And since my front lawn is a tiny ski slope (and Spider-Man doesn’t do landscaping), I wanted to plant flowers and herbs in pots on the stairs.
Garden center: Twin long, skinny cement planters original to our 1920s pad sit at the top of the stairs. I decided to use them and bought 12 aqua blue ceramic pots (for similar planters, try Marshalls or Abaca Imports, 1201 N. Royal St.; Alexandria; 703-684-2901). For a coordinated look, the blue vessels echo the color scheme in the house. “Keep the flowers and plants you buy to a few hues, too,” advised horiculturist Barbara Wise, author of the new “Container Gardening” ($15, Cool Springs Press). Wise also advised asking for help at the garden center, so when I headed to Johnson’s Garden Center, the guy I corralled not only heard about my northwestern exposure, but also that I only wanted white, green and blue posies and plants. The resulting growing things — purple lobelia, white petunias, violet salvia, sweet potato vine — plus herbs got transplanted into my pots, and now I glimpse what seems to be a shrunken Impressionist garden from the porch swing.
Style notes: “The porch is the forgotten room,” says James T. Famer, garden- pro/author of “Porch Living” ($20, Gibbs Smith). “It can be a dining room, a living room, an office.” He said to keep these many uses and the furnishings in the house in mind when decking it out. Since vintage furniture and a French vibe rule inside, I painted the porch roof’s underside Benjamin Moore’s Palladian Blue. A vintage medical stand from the dumpster plus a dining table skinny enough to fit on the porch made it party-ready; an indoor-outdoor rug ($79, Overstock.com) and Pottery Barn chairs ($150 each) added to the romantic retreat. Pals are now fighting over who gets the swing.