A transplanted gardener uses her musical training to compose a garden that fills her small city lot in Atlanta with color and life. See how she made the most of a small space to create an urban garden.

By Danny C. Flanders
September 21, 2018

Urban gardeners know well the challenges of creating their own little slice of paradise in the concrete jungle. Tight spaces, close neighbors, noisy traffic—all of that comes with the territory of gardening in an urban space. Yet working with those obstacles helped Atlanta musician Anne Sheldon become a better gardener.

“I wanted it all when we bought the house—sun, shade, part shade. I wanted every room to look out into the garden,” Anne says. “But you always have to understand your site, and that can take years.” In Anne’s case, she first had to learn how to make an urban garden in a climate with high humidity and warm nights—a big change from her former garden in California.

Two things, Anne believes, were on her side: parents who instilled in her a passion for gardening, and her love of music, which she contends translates perfectly to gardening. “Rhythm, form, repetition, and texture in sound—it works the same way in visual composition,” she says.

Anne and her husband, Andy, bought the two-bedroom cottage in the 1980s. The yard contained only two water oaks, an elm, a pair of Burford hollies, and a small lawn. The couple hired prominent Atlanta landscape architect Edward Daugherty to design a plan. “He said, ‘You’ve got to have hedges out front,’” Anne says, “because I wouldn’t want to look at cars on the street.” So she planted Korean boxwoods to form a partially walled garden. The L-shape hedge extends across the front near the sidewalk, open on the end next to the driveway.

As she planted trees and shrubs and designed sweeping beds of perennials, neighbors and passersby became intrigued by what lay beyond the green curtain. “Some people questioned the front-yard hedge,” Anne says, “but most were just dying to see what was behind it.” So she had the idea to give them a little peek by incorporating a small wooden window in the corner of the hedge. Through the framed opening in the hedge, the curious can gaze at the successful urban gardening ideas as a result of many years of trial and error.

Anne replaced her front lawn with slate pavers to form a small terrace and pathway to the front stoop. The rest of the tiny space is devoted to beds of roses, hydrangeas, and a few evergreens for winter interest. With full sun in this area, she nurtures a bold color palette spilling with foxgloves, peonies, clematis, and poppies. Two blue obelisks add focal points and height, while the gentle gurgle of a blue birdbath fountain draws the eye to one corner of the garden.

The backyard presented its own set of challenges and opportunities. Mainly shaded, the terraced slope allowed Anne to compose scenes from several vantage points. An upper-level addition to the house also offers different perspectives, thanks to small balconies that now overlook the garden.

Related: Planting on a Slope

As neighbors also added on to their homes, Anne planted small trees that would make good screens to preserve the privacy of her tiny backyard. “We live in this garden and use every inch of space in it,” Anne says.

A cellist and former orchestra teacher, Anne sees many similarities between the composition of music and the creation of a garden. “I’ve learned that my understanding of music translates well to my garden design,” she says. The evidence: Both of her passions inspire applause for the results.

Urban Garden Plants

A brilliant pink rose in the front courtyard is tall enough to peek over the hedge. The tall boxwood hedge gives the Sheldons privacy and extra outdoor living space right outside their front door. Annual poppies repeat the pink and purple tones found in the garden.

Climbing Plant Support

To create height in her tiny garden, Anne doesn’t rely on just trees and shrubs. She incorporates structures and vines, such as this bright blue obelisk that forms the perfect foil for a purple clematis vine. While also adding height, the obelisks add drama.

Related: Perennial Vines for Your Garden

Front Door Plants

The front entrance is marked by complementary colors, especially chartreuse and turquoise. Sedums and other succulents thrive in the sunny garden where slate pavers and pea gravel form a casual hardscape. Ligustrum topiaries and ornamental grasses add height to the landscape.

Plant Selection Strategy

Anne loves to accent her beds with strong color and form, such as this blue obelisk. Identical obelisks are repeated throughout the garden for continuity. Sedums and other succulents spilling from stone troughs make low-maintenance accents for the full-sun front garden. Spiky plants such as these foxgloves, as well as snapdragons and delphiniums, are one of Anne’s secrets to getting the most flower power out of her compact garden space.

Related: Build a Wood Obelisk

Urban Container Gardening

One of the benefits of urban gardening? Getting creative with container gardens, vertical gardens, and garden planters. Containers—grouped in various sizes and heights—provide much sought-after planting space. A few arrangements act as secondary focal points and direct the eye to a primary focal point such as a doorway or seating area. A pink peony—an unidentified pass-along plant from a neighbor—finds a happy home in a sunny spot.

White Garden Flowers

The Sheldons enjoy every inch of their urban garden oasis, especially the tiny front garden—a favorite retreat for both morning coffee and evening wine. Anne brightens the hedge-enclosed space with many fragrant white-blooming plants, such as ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea and ‘Madonna’ lilies (Lilium candidum).

Urban Hardscape Ideas

When they built an upper-level addition, the Sheldons incorporated balconies from the bedrooms to lend a bird’s-eye view of the back garden. They also provide additional space for balcony planters and standing rooftop planters. Metal sculptures of animals instill the lush planting beds with a touch of whimsy.

Garden Seating

Anne and Andy love spending time in their garden, so plenty of seating is scattered about, such as this pair of old Adirondack chairs tucked in one corner. A tall bird feeder arch accents the terraced backyard, which descends to a brick patio. Shade-loving plants fill terra-cotta pots and narrow beds along the edges of the patio. A favorite retreat for taking in the garden is an arbored wooden swing. Above it, fragrant and nearly thornless ‘Veilchenblau’ rose basks happily in the sun.

Related: Build a Swing Chair

Small Garden Plan

The small, narrow lot has just enough space to tuck a potting shed into one corner. Although small trees and shrubs hide it from view of the patio, it is easily accessible by a curved path. Intimate dinners on the back patio give no hint of the urban locale. A small pond and vibrant Japanese maples entice visitors to explore what lies around the bend.

  1. Potting shed
  2. Adirondack seating area
  3. Pond
  4. Lawn area
  5. Birdbath fountain
  6. Arbor swing
  7. Bird feeder arch
  8. Patio dining area
  9. House
  10. Front garden and seating area
  11. Boxwood hedge with window
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