Urban Gardening: What to plant in problem areas

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Ideally, every Alive reader would have a flat, spacious yard with six to eight hours of full sun and flowering shade trees in every corner. The soil would be dark and rich with nutrients.

Turns out, this is rarely the case.

Those Downtown and in urban villages are often forced into difficult situations - and working the soil becomes something better left to friends in the country. But with a little help, amateur green thumbs can transform an imperfect plot into a slice of paradise.

"The trick is to make the best of your situation and look for plants that are adaptive to the environment," said Bill Dawson, who heads the Growing to Green program at Franklin Park Conservatory.

Here's how to deal with five of the most common problems in urban spaces.

Problem: Rocky soil

Where you'll find it: Near sidewalks, driveways or older stone foundations

How to thrive: Very rocky soil provides little to grab onto and drains quickly, so you'll need plants that have shallow roots and are fairly drought-tolerant.

What to plant: Mediterranean herbs like thyme, lavender and oregano yield great kitchen crops even in these harsher conditions. For looks, consider rock-garden plants like hen and chicks or flowering yarrows, which are often planted to combat soil erosion.

Other advice: To help root development and water retention, you'll need to remove bigger rocks (golf-ball-size and up) and add some quality topsoil when breaking ground.

Problem: Full shade

Where you'll find it: Under trees, along north-facing walls, between houses

How to thrive: If you've got total shade - under thick, low branches, for example - you're probably out of luck. Most shade-loving plants need at least two hours of direct or indirect sunlight.

What to plant: Hosta is a solid bet and spreads quickly through a bed. Cinnamon and ostrich ferns also love the sheltered life. If you're looking for some color, try gardenias.

Other advice: Shade isn't the only problem when planting near trees. Established root systems often steal nutrients from young plants, so be wary where you put them.

Problem: Full sun

Where you'll find it: Center of the yard, when your neighbor cuts down trees

How to thrive: Having an area of full sun should be viewed as an opportunity - just one that requires a lot more maintenance during a hot Ohio summer.

What to plant: You'll need plants that can handle both lots of sunlight and drier conditions. If you can't water daily, try black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and other prairie specimens. Succulents like Autumn Joy Sedum work well, too.

Other advice: Adding organic matter helps retain water and increase percolation. If you're forgetful, put plants in a self-watering container, which will keep them wet for several days.

Problem: Poor drainage

Where you'll find it: Near downspouts, leaky gutters or low-lying areas

How to thrive: In extreme conditions, you'll need to fill in the area, remove clay or fix your downspouts. Otherwise, try planting greens used in rain gardens, which have fibrous roots built to soak up water.

What to plant: Native ornamental grasses and flowers such as blue-flag iris, golden Alexanders and marsh milkweed are good options.

Other advice: If you grab a handful of soil and it falls out in big clumps, wait until it dries more before working. Amend clay-heavy soil with compost rather than sand, which can combine to form cement.

Problem: Soil containing lead or toxins

Where you'll find it: Anywhere in urban areas, especially near factories or railroads

How to thrive: Raised beds or planters are your only option. Make beds from untreated, rot-resistant wood like hemlock or cedar and line the bottom with a plastic barrier. Your planting material should be a mix of topsoil and organic nutrients.

What to plant: Tomatoes, peppers, peas and other veggies do well in these environments. So do annual flowers like pansies, petunias and impatiens, depending on the sun level.

Other advice: Think vertically. Use stakes, trellises or fences to maximize space, but put them in before plants get too big.

Sources: Charlie Nardozzi, freelance garden consultant; Bill Dawson, Growing to Green coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory; Central Ohio Rain Garden Initiative; thegardenhelper.com; The Columbus Dispatch