Urban garden plants

With space often at a premium, plants in urban gardens have to perform. Choose wisely, and a classy, modern garden can be yours. Here are some to consider

Dryopteris wallichianaFerns

Ferns are great for shady corners. They make seas of textured underplanting with their soft, arching fronds. Taller selections and tree ferns make exceptional punctuation marks and striking focal-points.

  • Grow them: needs differ between species, but generally they prefer humus-rich, moist soil in deep or partial shade.
  • Combine with: use contrasting leaf shapes such as broad-leaved brunnera, heart-shaped epimedium or palmate hellebores.
  • Best for an urban garden: Dryopteris wallichiana AGM has tufts of lance-shaped fronds to around 1m (3½ft); Asplenium nidus AGM with strap-shaped, bright green fronds is slightly larger; Polystichum setiferum 'Divisilobum Iveryanum' AGM is robust and winter-green with lance-shaped fronds.

Heuchera 'Purple Petticoats'Heuchera

The foliage of these mound-forming, generally evergreen perennials, make them fine plants for containers or ground cover. They don't grow too tall or spread rapidly and are ideal for naturalistic or modern styles.

  • Grow them: heucheras prefer neutral, moist but well-drained soil. Light requirements vary depending on cultivar.
  • Combine with: modern breeding has extended the colour range of heuchera and its near relatives, Tiarella and x Heucherella allowing colour blocking combinations. Many hostas would also create a bold colour contrast.
  • Best for an urban garden: ‘Purple Petticoats' AGM has deep green-purple, ruffled leaves; ‘Sashay' AGM has ruffled leaves, mid-green and bronze underneath; ‘Magic Wand' AGM has glossy, light green leaves.

Acer palmatum (Dissectum Group) 'Garnet'Acer

With a graceful habit, beautiful foliage and slow growth rate, Japanese maples are great for smaller gardens. They also make good container plants that won’t need regular re-potting.

  • Grow them: acers do well in fertile, slightly acidic, moist but well-drained soil, in sun or partial shade. Protect A. palmatum cultivars from cold winds and late frost.
  • Combine with: try planting early spring bulbs like snowdrops or shade-tolerant perennials such as the grey-leaved Dicentra formosa 'Bacchanal' AGM
  • Best for an urban garden: these three are good starting points: Acer palmatum ‘Garnet' AGM grows to around 1.5m (5ft) tall, with deep brownish-red foliage that gets brighter in autumn; Acer palmatum ‘Shin-deshojo' AGM is slightly larger, up to 2.5m (8½ft) with bright red leaves turning reddish-orange in autumn; Acer palmatum ‘Katsura' AGM grows to 4m (14ft) and has delightful yellow-orange foliage, margined pink in spring.

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Variegatum'Trachelospermum

Maximising space in an urban garden goes beyond the horizontal - it can also mean the vertical plane. Trachelospermum (star jasmine) are evergreen, twining climbers with a heady scent. Their glossy foliage is retained through winter.

  • Grow them: preferably in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade but with protection from cold, dry winds. They do particularly well up a warm, sunny wall.
  • Best for an urban garden: Trachelospermum asiaticum AGM has glossy, dark green leaves and clusters of fragrant, creamy flowers; Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM also has dark green leaves but they turn deep red in winter. It too has clusters of fragrant white flowers; T. jasminoides ‘Variegatum' AGM has the same flowers and foliage but with margined leaves, blotched creamy-white.

Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Warnham Gold'Pittosporum

These evergreen shrubs have glossy leaves, often pleasingly crinkly. They can be used as specimens or as low hedges. Best for urban gardens, they are compact cultivars that grow to 1.5m (5ft).

  • Grow them: in fertile, moist but well-drained soils, in sun or partial shade. Variegated or purple selections colour best in sun.
  • Combine with: the foil of coloured grasses. Try Ophiopogon or Festuca. Or go for strappy leaves with an southern hemisphere feel like phormiums or Astelia.
  • Best for an urban garden: Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb' AGM is slow-growing, rounded with purple, undulating leaves; ‘Warnham Gold' AGM has golden leaves, to about 1.5m (5ft); 'Irene Paterson' AGM has foliage that breaks white but darkens to green, becoming speckled white and tinged pink in winter.

More from the RHS

Garden design resources
Urban garden design gallery
RHS Greening Grey Britain

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.