The best plants for tough urban sites


Gardening in the city has advantages. Smaller lot sizes can keep the amount of work in check–we usually don’t have to contend with deer and their tendency to eat many plants and trees, and it’s a great way to meet neighbors.

On the other hand urban gardening also presents challenges. Rabbits and squirrels have few predators, we don’t have a lot of room to work with, and our soil is often compacted.

On Saturday, April 1 the Victory Neighborhood Environmental Committee is hosting a garden workshop, “The Best Plants for 15 Tough Urban Sites.” At this event I will discuss the issues listed above and 12 others.

As a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener, I answer garden-related questions at local events and have 18-years of experience gardening on my city lot. Over the years people tend to come to me and ask for advice concerning the same problems. And they are issues I have struggled with in my garden as well.

The presentation is based on a bulletin published by the University of Minnesota Extension titled, The Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites, but is geared toward our urban situation.

In my experience many of us share a common challenge with gardening in the shade and/or under a tree. There is competition for water, light and nutrients. One also needs to take care to not disturb existing roots as doing so can compromise the tree’s health.

Groundcovers that work well include ajuga (Ajuga reptans), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) a plant with finely-textured foliage, and periwinkle or vinca (Vinca minor) which has leathery, evergreen leaves.

When attempting to garden under mature evergreen trees, I had many plants that died until I planted cranesbill (Geranium spp.). It is one plant that survives dry shade. Planted en masse it makes a bigger statement vs. planting lots of other plants – and many times cranesbill spreads on its own.

And if you have a deciduous tree, consider planting spring-blooming bulbs because by the time the tree is shading the ground, the bulbs will be done blooming. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) often bloom while the snow is on the ground. And I recommend daffodils (Narcissus spp.) more often than tulips as rabbits tend to leave daffodils alone but love to munch on tulips.

On the topic of rabbits, they are one of the most commonly seen mammals in the city. They eat grasses and herbs but also chew the bark of trees and shrubs and eat the buds of shrubs in the winter and spring. Vegetable garden plants are another favorite.

When gardening with rabbits in mind, consider they will ‘tend’ to prefer certain plants over others. They will gnaw on arborvitae trees but ‘tend’ to leave junipers alone. They also prefer trees with a thin bark (fruit trees and maples) but will eat anything in a severe winter.

Unfortunately, plant selection doesn’t provide much of a solution to prevent rabbit damage. Management methods include careful landscaping (reduce hiding spaces), taste deterrents and exclusion fencing.

And lastly my favorite topic to discuss with others is trees. There are many benefits to having trees in our gardens. If there is an existing large tree on your property or space is otherwise limited but you wish to have trees, a tree with small stature is ideal, as are shrubs. There are also many dwarf tree varieties. When researching trees, look at the mature height and width of the tree. Then consider the space where it will go and pay attention to other trees, structures and power lines in that area – and allow room.

In the space between my home and my neighbor’s to the north there are five ironwood trees (Carpinus caroliniana) and even in shade the trees grow straight. The leaves are smaller and make a rustling sound in the breeze and project a nice pattern into the house when the sunlight catches them.

Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) are Minnesota native trees that attract birds and pollinators and do well in our urban gardens.

There are many plants that thrive in our urban neighborhoods. Consider attending the April 1 workshop and learn more about what plants and methods work to create beautiful gardens: Webber Park Community Center, 4400 Dupont. Doors open at 9:30 a.m. and the presentation runs from 10-11 a.m. There are garden-related exhibit tables to visit before and after the presentation, plus refreshments and door prizes. It is free and all are welcome.

Submitted by By Amy Chapman