Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

urban flowers

Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

urban flowers

There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

urban flowers
Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

Read more book reviews here.

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Container gardening

Container gardening is one of the best ways to expand both what you grow and the space available. Pots, windowboxes and wall-mounted containers mean you can provide just the right growing conditions be they soil type or position, brighten up the dullest of patios and grow in even limited space.

It’s also a great way of keeping an ever-changing display as flowering plants that are past their best can be replaced with others that are just coming into bloom. And you don’t need dozens of expensive pots to achieve this: keep your plants in ordinary plastic and slip them inside something fancier. This is particularly good for bulbs, which can be hidden out of sight to die back.

container gardening
Pots are a good way of brightening up a path

I use pots a lot. Hostas, which would not survive the attentions of slugs and snails in my crammed borders, are grouped in a shady corner where I can keep a closer eye on them. Acid-lovers, such as camellias, would hate my Cotswold ground and putting them in a pot of ericaceous compost is far easier than making an acid bed and far better than going without their spring blooms. In the summer, containers of cheerful pelargoniums give the air of a Mediterranean holiday even if the weather doesn’t match.

A few simple rules apply to growing in containers. Make sure there is adequate drainage; few plants like waterlogged soil. I like to cover the drainage holes with pieces of broken terracotta pots to stop soil blocking them.

container gardening
Hostas are well suited to growing in containers

Match the pot size to the plant: a small shrub may eventually grow to be big but will look wrong starting off adrift in a large pot. It is far better to repot as it grows – beware though pots that narrow from the bottom as it can be difficult to get plants out.

Above all, remember to feed and water; use irrigation systems and slow-release fertiliser, if time is short or your memory poor.

When it comes to choosing the right container the range is vast and much is down to personal taste. Here is a sample of some of the things available.

Terracotta

Think of plant pots and chances it will be terracotta that comes to mind. From old-fashioned clay pots that are still my favourites for herbs and pelargoniums to those with fancy patterns, terracotta has long been a popular choice.

container gardening
Whichford produce a range of pots

In the Cotswolds, we are lucky enough to have Whichford Pottery on our doorstep. The family firm, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, sends its pots to gardens across the country, including National Trust properties, and they are sold in the Highgrove shop, suitably embellished with the Prince of Wales feathers.

Handmade, they come with a 10-year frostproof guarantee and range from traditional long toms to huge urns. Details: http://www.whichfordpottery.com/

Metal

From traditional galvanised steel and burnished copper to shiny contemporary pots, metal is another widely used material for containers.

New this year are a range of windowboxes by garden planter firm Arthur Jack & Co, whose water butt was shortlisted for the RHS Chelsea garden product of the year 2015.

 

windowbox
Arthur Jack’s new windowboxes

Made of galvanised steel, they come in two sizes and have adjustable legs to allow for slanted sills, a fitted bottom tray to stop dirty water damaging paintwork and bolt fixings to allow them to be hung from railings. They can also be used as edging on terraces or decking. Prices start at £170. Details: http://arthurjack.co.uk/

copper planter
Copper planters from Architectural Heritage

If you need something bigger, Cotswold-based Architectural Heritage has copper and lead planters. The pieces, reproduced from traditional planters, include large circular copper urns and a rectangular lead planter patterned with squares. Prices start at £800. Details: http://www.architectural-heritage.co.uk/

At the other end of the price range, Crocus have some clever ideas to maximise your space. Galvanised wall planters can be used to liven up a dull boundary or house wall and are ideal for small plants that would be lost in a border. A set of three costs £18.99.

plant stand
A corner plant stand makes the most of awkward spaces

The same style of galvanised steel with a clear lacquer finish is used in the firm’s corner stand of three pots (£44.99), a great way of filling those awkward corners. Details: http://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/

Wooden

container gardening
Suttons’ painted crate makes an eye-catching container

Reusing old crates has become very fashionable but they don’t have to be plain. Suttons have produced a range in green, pink, blue and whitewash as well as natural that can also have a personal message added. Prices start at £20. Details: http://www.suttons.co.uk/

Plastic

If you think plastic containers are a bit naff, think again. New colours and sleek lines can be the perfect foil to plants and they have the advantage of being lightweight.

container planting
Elho pots offer modern container planting

Dutch company Elho has been producing synthetic pottery for more than 50 years and uses around 45 per cent recycled material. The pots are UV resistant, have a useful water reservoir and come in a range of colours from clean white and soft blue to lime green and cherry. They are stocked at many garden centres (http://www.elho.com/ for details of stockists) and online at Amazon and Crocus. Prices start at £4.09 for a GrowPot.

plant pots
Colourful pots from Hum

For a touch of fun in the garden, Hum Flowerpots have contemporary designs and sparkling colours. Made in the UK, they are frost and fade-resistant and come in a range of styles. The company, set up two years ago, makes just one 22cm-tall pot but further sizes are planned. They are priced at £10 and available at http://www.hum-partnership.com/

Something different

Anything can be used as a planter, providing there’s adequate drainage. The only limit is your imagination.

Container gardening
An old kettle makes an unusual planter
Container gardening
An old wheelbarrow planted with snowdrops and muscari