The Man's Guide to Growing an Urban Garden


It's summer—the perfect time to farm your own bit of land (even if it's a planter on a fire escape or an herb garden on the roof). But where to start? For tips and tools, we turned to a green-thumbed master of the urban garden and proprietor of New York landscaping firm Modern Urban Design (or M.U.D.), Jonathan Yevin. Known for creating minimal, thoughtfully designed spaces, Yevin specializes in overcoming the challenges of city living. So, whether faced with an empty backyard plot or just an unadorned windowsill, here are some ways you can go green. What are the necessary tools to maintain a small urban garden or a larger suburban yard?

Everyone needs gloves and a decent pair of shears. City gardeners need muralists to paint all the tropical landscapes that can't be sustained in our deciduous climate zone. Suburbanites need a ride-on lawnmower and a sign that reads, "Keep off the grass." What are the challenges of urban landscaping?

The main challenge is how to deliver the materials through the buildings. In New York City, there are no alleys to the backyard. Elevators only take you to the top floor. Sometimes lumber beams can't fit around hairpin hallways or into tight freight elevators. Trees get exponentially heavier as they grow in height, too. One time I had to deliver a magnolia that came off the truck that weighed a half-ton. It was getting late, and I didn't have the manpower to hoist that bad boy, so I talked to the boss at a local bakery and borrowed his dollie and most of the kitchen staff for 45 minutes. That was a nail biter. What are your thoughts on the recent terrarium craze?

I have a friend who sells giant blown-glass terrariums through an art dealer. They go for $10,000 and up. She makes her buyers sign a legal contract that the terrarium is a collaborative work of art, and she must have regular access to it. She plants them sprout-by-sprout with what must be the longest tweezers in existence. It's amusing and decadent. But terrariums are not Christmas trees or Chia pets. They're a commitment, a labor of love. What's the best type of low-maintenance garden?

Largely, sun exposure determines your garden type. But by "maintenance," we usually mean watering demands. Succulents of the stonecrop and sedum family are very attractive and require little water. There are many perennials that thrive in dry, yet well-drained, soil. But with all plants purchased directly from the nursery, drought tolerance should be built up. How do you create a a fire-escape or rooftop garden?

First, check your local fire codes. I had a gorgeous fire-escape garden until last year, when my diabolical landlord claimed he was being fined and had me dismantle it. If you're in the clear, just make sure your rooftop can handle the heavy load. How you'll deliver water up there is an important consideration. Watering by hand is a pain in the tuchas no matter how stylish your Swedish watering can is. What are your go-to gardening tools?

I've used the same 5 to 10 tools every day for 10 years: pickaxe, shovel, trowel, claw, shears, loppers, sledgehammer, and, of course, my saws.
  • gardening_062211_table.jpg

    Recycled aluminium Green Pads plant stand by Luca Nichetto for Offecct, price on request at

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    Polyethylene Vaso Rettangolare illuminated planters, $525 at

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    Powder-coated steel Off the Wall pots by Thelermont Hupton, $26 each at

What is your gardening philosophy?

Traditionally a garden is defined as an enclosure—a place to create a personalized fantasy landscape. My approach is to incorporate functional spaces like patios and decks and raised planting beds terraced by natural stone retaining walls. I prefer to mix introduced species with the wild, as opposed to the purist staying totally true to endemic nature, because it gives me more flexibility. Whatever approach you choose, look to natural habitats for your inspiration and use your own intuition. You know the nuances of your home better than any outside professional. Also, when anyone says they have a "black thumb," that just means they're lazy.

By Andi Teran

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