My Rented Garden: Nil to Abundance in 2 Seasons

img_8144WELL, THAT WASN’T SO BAD, WAS IT? Unless we get some late snowstorms (which have been known to happen), spring is just weeks away. My thoughts are turning to my backyard in Boerum Hill, going into its third season.

I’m a renter here, which means:

  • I don’t want to spend much money
  • I can’t do anything too invasive (my landlady doesn’t like it, and I’m scared of her)

But as my pictures show, you can do a lot with a little, and fast.



When I arrived in November 2006, I found a scraggly rectangle of lawn about 22’x40′. Along the back was a raised bed held back by a stacked stone wall. All totally devoid of plants, except for one glorious dogwood tree in a far corner. (The photo below shows the garden in April of ’07, by which time I had dug perimeter beds and stuck a few things in them.)


The grass was bordered on one side by some phenomenal hydrangea bushes that belong to my next-door neighbors but topple into my yard, and on the other side, by a hideous, depressing, 7-foot-tall chain-link fence.159_5904

My first thought was to disguise the prison fence by lashing rolled twig fencing (useful stuff; you can buy it online) to it with cable ties.  That didn’t fool anyone, plus it blocked light.

Then I asked my next-door neighbor on the chain-link side whether he’d ever thought of removing the fence. I went out for a few hours, and when I returned, the hideous, depressing fence was GONE! My dear neighbor (who also mows my lawn of his own volition) had done a masterful job of fence-removal in a single afternoon.

That first tentative, unimaginative step in the spring of ’07  — digging three-foot-wide planting beds around the perimeter of the rectangle — was followed by outreach to friends and neighbors. I filled the beds with with catch-as-catch-can plants from a variety of sources.

Found plant bonanza

These included buttercups, irises, lilies from garden-mad neighbors in Boerum Hill who were dividing their excess, as well as:

  • plants imported from my own country casa (including catmint and lady’s mantle, my favorite combination, and ferns transplanted from the woods)
  • Lowes and Home Depot specials: gallon pots of euonymous, juniper, and other small shrubs for a few bucks
  • annuals from the neighborhood plant sales – the Hoyt Street Association and Cobble Hill Tree Fund both have great ones in early May
  • birthday gifts (I had the nerve to send party invitations reading “No gifts – unless it’s a plant!”)
  • vegetable starters from the Borough Hall Greenmarket

The first season was good; by the second season, I had color that lasted from early spring through October (someone gave me asters!) You know what they say about perennials: “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.” These seemed to be leaping pretty good by Year 2.

Summer 08

Summer 08

The color show is aided by containers of coleus and other annuals, and I cheat by placing large containers of annuals right in the beds. By mid-summer you don’t even see the pots.


It’s a north-facing garden, so it has challenges, but the sky is open. This past summer, I decided to try tomatoes for the first time. I bought two simple 4’x8′ raised-bed kits from a company in Massachusetts that makes them Colonial-style (they’re planks of cedar attached at the corners with pegs).


Then I made the classic newbie error of planting too much — 16 tomato plants, when four would have been sufficient. By August, it was out of control and an eyesore. I kept trimming and staking, trimming and staking; more trouble than it was worth. This year I’ll leave one raised bed in the sunnier position with herbs, lettuce, and a few tomatoes, and probably dismantle the other.


I’m raring to go with spring garden-cleaning. The next warmish weekend, I’m on it!


11 thoughts on “My Rented Garden: Nil to Abundance in 2 Seasons

  1. Beautiful! Speaking as a tyro who is contemplating some modest windowsill and fire escape gardening — what is the Boerum Hill list serv address? (I live in BH, too).

    And what’s the name of the company that sells those nice cedar beds, in case I ever have a yard to put some down in? (In the meantime, I may get an Earthbox for indoors — I gather they are idiot-proof.)

  2. Thanks, Melissa and Carolyn! Re my landlady, she likes the perimeter plantings, but made me sign a rider to my lease that I will remove the raised beds before I move out (I didn’t ask her first, because I knew she would say no).

    Re the raised beds, I put a live link into the post. It’s The Farmstead in Leverett, Mass., and their phone # is 888 488 2880. Each 4’x8′ bed is $89.50 plus shipping.

    To join the infinitely useful Boerum Hill mailing list, go to, and search on “Boerum Hill.”

  3. Cara, You have inspired me. Your garden is beautiful and understated. I love that you were able to do so much while being resourceful. Well done.

  4. Thanks so much, Brooklyn. Perennial plants are the ultimate in resourcefulness – they just keep giving. Enjoy your own gardening this spring!

  5. Almost. I’ve got the contract sitting right here and I’m pulling together the down payment.
    I’ll blog about it soon!

  6. What a beautiful backyard! I’ve just secured a two-year lease on a place with a similar yard — in serious disrepair — in Fort Greene; you’ve inspired me to show your success to my landlord and garner his blessing for a little spring cleanup. Thanks!

  7. Beautiful! I have a roof garden so I am limited to potted plants, but I got a lot of inspiration from your lay-out. I may do some centered rectangular planters this year. Thanks for sharing!

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