Like many gardeners, Miriam Settles oversees a lush space full of herbs, vegetables and flowers, but all of her plants are in artfully mismatched containers, on the wooden deck of her Northern Virginia townhouse.
“Small-space gardening is taking off in urban areas, both due to a lack of square footage and people’s busy schedules,” says Settles, who blogs at flatbottomflowers.blogspot.com. A surge of millennial transplants and a hot downtown real estate market are contributing to the trend locally.
But whether they’re working on decks, balconies or backyard patios, these green thumbs see advantages. “Smaller gardens mean less time watering and fewer pests chomping on your plants,” Settles says.
And they can be less overwhelming. “One thing I like about gardening on the balcony is that I’m limited,” says Adams Morgan’s Barron Womble, who, with husband BradSchou, produces a traffic-stopping flower garden on 16th Street NW. “I can only plant so much, whereas in a yard, you keep having to buy things and create different spots.”
Anna Fuhrman agrees. “A small garden is perfect for filling up and layering on,” says the Georgetown resident, who putters with her husband and daughter on a patio behind a narrow rowhouse. And then there’s small gardens’ proximity to the living space: “I can drink in all the blooms, butterflies and birds from my back window,” Fuhrman says.
THE CONTAINER DECK GARDEN
On summer evenings, the salsa Miriam and Greg Settles serve atop grilled fish tastes farmers-market fresh because Miriam grows her own herbs and tomatoes on their deck. “Last year was my best year ever for Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes — we easily grew hundreds of them,” says Settles, who has been tending her containers-only garden in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County since 2002, babying heirloom roses, strawberry plants and annual and perennial flowers. “Anything you can plant in the ground, you can plant in a pot: broccoli, fruit, veggies.”
Settles, who works in communications for the federal government, began blogging in 2008, doling out green-thumb advice while posting photos of her successes, occasional failures (ornamental grasses that craved less sun) and wild visitors. “We get bees, goldfinches and toads,” she says. “And there are hummingbirds who love to stick their beaks into flowers. I try to get them trumpet-shaped blooms.” Settles is also resolutely against pesticides. “Once the garden is in, I don’t fiddle with it.”
The growing season starts around Mother’s Day, when Settles heads out to the deck to see how her perennials and shrubs weathered the winter. She’ll prune dead branches, then go shopping. “I get plants from all different places: Merrifield Garden Center, Lowe’s,” she says. “I used to turn up my nose at big-box stores, but they’ve actually gotten hip to the gardening scene. They have more varieties of herbs and a greater selection of flowers.” Settles also orders some specimens, including roses, online.
Settles’s dozens of containers — purple snapdragons in a blue ceramic pot, thyme and cilantro in a repurposed wooden wine box — are stacked on risers fashioned from other pots and bricks. This makes the deck feel layered and luxuriant, and it helps her pots drain. “There’s nothing that can kill a plant faster than being waterlogged,” she says.
And though there are a lot of things sprouting, Settles says that, after her initial planting, “I probably don’t spend more than an hour taking care of the garden a week.
“I don’t have to pull weeds, either. We just love to sit out there. It’s so peaceful.”
THE PATIO FAIRY GARDEN
Stone pots filled with ferns and boxwoods line the front stoop of Anna Fuhrman and Joe Kerr’s Georgetown home, offering a verdant hint of what lies beyond the door. Step inside the renovated 1830s wooden townhouse, and it’s apparent that inveterate propagators live here. There are air plants stashed under glass cloches, wee succulents crowding the pot rack in the kitchen and, beyond expansive French doors, a narrow backyard oasis of hydrangeas, grasses and Japanese maples.
“I wanted it to look like a fairy garden, a place where my daughter, Lucy, and I can play make-believe,” says Fuhrman. Though Wisconsin Avenue bustles nearby, you’d never know it standing on the family’s bucolic Pennsylvania bluestone patio. The patio adjoins a skinny flagstone path flanked by long, rectangular beds, one bordered with 18th-century Carderock (taken from the house foundation during a 2011 renovation).
The plants and flowers thriving in the beds and mismatched pots come across like an English garden on steroids. Tall, spiky red pincushion flowers keep company with chartreuse creeping Jenny and butterfly bushes, their purple flowers swarming with bees.
“I make sure there’s color happening all the time,” says Fuhrman, who, with Kerr, owns the Dupont Circle hat and gift boutique Proper Topper. “That often means annuals, and sometimes I just stick a pot of something into the beds — it’s an easy way to fill in space.”
At the far end of the angled path is a tin shack as old as the house that Kerr restored with long beams and sliding barn doors. “It’s both a potting shed and an entertaining space,” he says. The small structure holds extendable tables Kerr crafted from wood and plumbing parts; in warm months, the family sets them up on the path and hosts Midsummer Night’s Dreamy dinner parties.
Kerr, Fuhrman and 10-year-old Lucy often grill on weeknights, lounging in the shade of the shed’s trellis, which crawls with honeysuckle, Virginia creeper and clematis. “And sometimes, I just like to drink whiskey in the garden,” says Kerr. “But Anna, she’s all about getting her toes in the dirt out here.”
THE NEW ORLEANS-STYLE BALCONY GARDEN
From the balcony of their fourth-floor Adams Morgan apartment, Brad Schou and Barron Womble enjoy picture-perfect views of Meridian Hill Park, with its towering trees and high Italianate walls. But the couple’s own garden — a New Orleans-style fantasia planted on (and cascading from) their terrace — also invites people to stop and stare. “Pedestrians give a thumbs up, and people in their cars sometimes yell up, ‘We love your balcony,’ ” says Womble.
Thanks to a complex plan of topiaries and plant “walls” facing the street, the couple put on a brilliant show from May through frost. Each spring, they plan out a curtain of ivy, sweet potato vines, wave petunias and other plants that grow to cover their balcony railing. “We use bright, vibrant colors so people can see it from a distance,” says Schou, a commercial property manager.
The balcony display is powered by six plant walls — imagine a variation on shoe bags you hang over closet doors. Their pockets are stuffed with soil, then flowers or vines. “It’s like a grid, and it helps with the capacity to design,” says Womble, who uses Florafelt vertical garden planters made from recycled fibers that are nearly indestructible. Womble accents the design with ball topiaries that might be begonias, petunias or impatiens. “It’s about creating a green environment for us to relax in,” says Womble, who works at a law firm. “Passersby see the garden, and we get privacy.”
The pair waters via a barrel on the balcony that is filled from a hose connected to the kitchen sink. A pump pushes water to the wall and topiaries through irrigation tubes and emitters. Fertilizer goes through the same system; the couple brews a “worm tea” from a bug-powered compost system in the basement. “It’s basically worm poop, and it smells terrible, but the plants love it,” says Schou.
Things look leafy on the inside of the balcony, too. Ivy snakes up the walls on trellises, and a bust/planter receives a new leafy hairdo every year. Four water features, including two tiled mosaic wall fountains, gently burble, masking the noise of the traffic below. “We met in New Orleans, and there are so many great balconies there,” says Schou. “This is all inspired by spaces in the French Quarter.”
Their balcony even convinced a neighbor that she should move in beneath them. “And now we plan and take care of her balcony, too,” says Womble. “It’s a new experiment every year.”
Jennifer Barger is a freelance writer living in Washington. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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