Developers have long understood the importance of green space, incorporating it into balconies, terraces and rooftop patios. But landscaping in urban spaces comes with its share of challenges, from four-season weather extremes to limited space and condo board regulations.
City dwellers typically don’t have a lot of space to work with, particularly in condos or townhouses. But for Eileen Kwan, founder and creative director of Garden Exuberance, it’s about making the most of what you’ve got.
Kwan designs urban and exterior living spaces, including penthouse gardens.
“The thing about being in the city is that we choose to be here, but we’re still starved to see something green,” she says. “One of the things I try to instill in my own practice is having something green to look at all year round, something with personality.”
“Every tree has a personality, like every fashion designer has a certain thing that works for them.”
But urban landscaping does require some planning and consideration. Even with plants, people are prone to impulse shopping as nurseries open their doors, offering up colourful blooms after the long, bleak days of winter.
Kwan recommends being intentional and planning a green space for all four seasons. Evergreens, for example, stay green year-round, but they’re a “one-trick pony.”
“If you want a garden to show you successive blooms, you want to see the winter open into spring and unfold into summer and move into fall,” she says. “If you think of a palette that will give you those colours, often it’s the foliage.”
Rather than looking at the colour of the bloom, consider the foliage, because that’s what you’ll see 80 per cent of the year, Kwan says.
In a small space, she recommends interesting combinations of foliage and texture and movement. Scale is important, particularly in a small space; even a balcony wall can be used as part of the landscaping, featuring foliage at varying heights. “There’s really so much available on the market now for small spaces,” she says. “Think vertically, [think] 360 degrees.”
Space is always top of mind when dealing with urban real estate, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. “Downtown homes tend to be smaller inside and out, and the square footage they do have comes at a premium,” says Lydia McNutt, communications manager with RE/MAX INTEGRA.
That means leaving no corner wasted. McNutt recommends choosing native landscaping and incorporating hardscape elements into the design, such as a patio, paths, rock gardens or a gazebo.
It’s also about choosing the right plants for the environment. Consider the purpose of the green space, whether it’s ornamental, a retreat or a place to entertain. Perhaps it serves to provide shade or create privacy from neighbours. Perhaps the homeowners enjoy gardening and want to get their hands dirty.
Kwan also recommends considering both the site and light conditions — whether it’s dry, damp or windy, and whether it gets partial or full sun. For condo, penthouse or rooftop gardens, homeowners should consider how exposure to full sunlight or windy conditions will affect their green space.
“The weight [of plants] and the wind and the sun are considerations,” Kwan says.
She recommends working with such conditions, such as a windy rooftop terrace, rather than against them.
“What if there’s a wind-tolerant shrub, so that it makes a rustling sound?” she says.
For hot, sunny patios, plants such as sedums, astilbes and ornamental grasses are heat tolerant and can work well in those conditions.
There’s a plant for almost every environment: Some plants thrive in dry, windy conditions; some are happy on wet, windy coasts.
“Let it be a feature in that outdoor space if it’s naturally occurring,” Kwan says. By choosing the right foliage for an outdoor space, it can also make that space much easier to maintain.
A popular decor trend right now is extending a home’s living area into the outdoors in the form of furnished decks, patios, balconies and gardens. But maintenance costs and time are considerations to keep in mind when landscaping in an urban setting.
“Unfortunately, many of us — particularly urbanites — aren’t graced with a green thumb, and a beautiful garden can quickly go downhill,” McNutt says. “While it’s lovely to look at, elaborate landscaping can actually be a detractor for some home buyers who may not have the time, money or inclination for upkeep. The best advice is to keep the yard low-maintenance.”
For example, if a homeowner wants to landscape around their pool or a water feature, but doesn’t want to constantly scoop petals and leaves out of the water, there are options such as the low-maintenance day lily and ornamental miscanthus grass, which add colour and texture without the mess or maintenance.
While landscaping is a personal choice, it should also match the style of the building.
“I’ve always said the most successful gardens are respectful of the architecture,” Kwan says. “If you have a Victorian building, you don’t want sparse grasses just because it’s the style of right now.”
Randall Residences by Rosehaven Homes, for example, has extended its Beaux-Arts architecture reminiscent of the Old World into the landscaping.
“We went with that green, crisp look that will match the Beaux-Arts architecture,” says Marco Guglietti, president of Rosehaven Homes.
With occupancy slated for this fall, these luxury residences in downtown Oakville, Ont, will feature outdoor spaces with flamed black granite pavers from Nero Assoluto (designed to withstand harsh Canadian winters), lined with live boxwoods in black planter boxes.
Ten of the 12 penthouses will also have exterior rooftop terraces with grey granite pavers and black planter boxes. But on these rooftop terraces, Rosehaven Homes took a slightly different approach.
“Because it’s the rooftop and we were worried about homeowner maintenance, we’re going to be providing boxwoods artificially,” Guglietti says.
Artificial plants have come a long way, he adds, and “they look so real.”
However, homeowners with a green thumb will have the option of planting their own gardens.
There’s also a 4,000-square-foot common rooftop terrace for all 36 suites with a water feature, shaded pavilion, seated area with furniture, sun umbrellas, as well as artificial boxwoods in planter boxes. They’re weighted to deal with wind, don’t require homeowner maintenance and will provide greenery year-round.
Much like a real estate purchase or sale, landscaping is one of those tasks that people think they can handle on their own, McNutt says — until they’ve invested too much time and money for a result that is not what they expected or hoped for. Then they pay a second time to do it properly.
“A little professional help goes a long way,” McNutt says.
“If you don’t want to hire a landscaper to do the heavy lifting for you, visit your local garden centre, where the staff is knowledgeable and usually more than happy to offer advice on what will work, what won’t, how to do it, and what’s involved in making your great outdoors truly great.”
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.