North London's Cultural Guide

Creating an urban oasis, Kentish Town style

With spring just around the corner now is the best time to get planning. Debbie Bourne, aka, The High-Heeled Gardener, is on hand to suggest just how to go about it

Debbie Bourne aka The High-Heeled Gardener
Debbie Bourne aka The High-Heeled Gardener

W the talk of climate change and the increase in urbanisation, our outdoor spaces and the crucial role they play have never been more widely valued. If every person in every house or flat made a tiny effort, the effect would be amazing: we could create one big pollination pathway. After all, plants are the lungs of a city.

However, ecological stuff aside, the best thing about creating a mini urban oasis is the riot of colour, scent and general delight you’ll enjoy from it. Converted now?

Vivid Colours

A riot of colour in Debbie's KT garden
A riot of colour in Debbie’s KT garden

With the lengthening of the days, consider early bloomers like the Primula veris, our native cowslip with its pretty yellow flowers. Wallflowers provide early and long lasting colour too, and grow as well in window boxes as in the garden, where they flower for months (I particularly love the Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’).

The way to start planning your design is to think about what colour combos you like. For a real fiery look, mix reds, oranges and yellows. I love Salvia ‘Hot lips’ for its eye-catching colour and the fact it flowers for months on end.


How about mixing this with Lupin ‘Tequilla flame’, or Bergamot’s startling red ‘Duke of Cambridge’? Add late season yellows with Rudbeckia fulgida or Aster novae-engliae ‘Harington’s Pink.’ Complete the look with thestrongly contrasting acid lime greens of a Euphorbia.

Peaceful vibes?

Think soft pinks and purples. Mix the pretty cone head flowers of Echinacea purpurea with the purples of bee magnet Agastache. Complete the look with dusty pink of the bottle brush bistort, or contrast with a pomegranate Yarrow. Add a backbone of perennial grasses like Stipa tenuissima or pennisetums. Finally, consider dainty, low growing wildflowers like bladder campion.

Shapes, scents and textures

These are important to consider in a small, urban garden. Echinops is a globe thistle with spherical blue flower heads, and sea holly is great for its striking purple blue foliage and architectural shape.

Herbs can bring wonderful colour, scent and edibleness to an urban oasis. Go to the Parliament Hill farmers’ market on a Saturday and stock up on a variety of different scented thymes, or an upright rosemary. Our fave is chive, with its purple pom flowers.

Remember to consider the aspect of your urban oasis: the growing conditions, and sun versus shade are important when choosing your plants.

Bee-friendly Bergamot (Monarda)
Bee-friendly Bergamot (Monarda)

Be creative

With small front gardens try thinking vertically too. Walls can be filled with fragrant climbers such as purples hues of May-flowering Clematis armandii. Or how about the vivid scarlets of Rosa Rugosa, which grows in semi-shade and also provides big colourful autumn hips?

Storage sheds and recycling bins can be an eyesore. So why not cover with a living roof? Green roofs and living walls also provide insulation, air filtration, and food and shelter for wildlife. Choose either a sedum or wildflower mat. Alternatively, grow climbers along the outside of your shed; native honeysuckles are fragrant.

And finally, Only got a ledge?

If you don’t have a garden or balcony, but do have a window ledge or step outside your front door, consider growing a couple of plants in pots: fiery coloured chillies or peppers, even strawberries. Last year I grew an amazing runner bean plant in a pot on the front door step. It climbed all the way around the front door, provided pretty red flowers and a ton of runner beans. Yes, it was that easy.

Urban oasis2
Debbie Bourne co-runs, a garden design company. She is also author of The High-Heeled Gardener, a “growmance” which follows the exploits of a novice Camden gardener. Buy it locally.

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