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Small Garden Spaces in Big City Places - What Makes City Botanics Unique?

Designing and installing small gardens in high-density environments doesn’t come without its challenges! Three years into the business, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on why do we do what we do, and what we’ve learnt along the way!

Our innate connection with nature - or lack of it.

“Biophilia is humankind’s innate biological connection with nature. It helps explain why crackling fires and crashing waves captivate us; why a garden view can enhance our creativity; why shadows and heights instil fascination and fear; and why animal companionship and strolling through a park have restorative, healing effects.” 14 Patterns in Biophilic Design

With increasing urbanisation and high-density housing developments in our cities, we are living in much smaller spaces and becoming increasingly disconnected from this innate connection that we have with nature and its restorative powers.

‘This is what I prayed for,’ wrote the Roman poet Horace in around 30 BC. ‘A piece of land – not so very big, with a garden and, near the house, a spring that never fails, and a bit of wood to round it off.’ Although the traditional quarter-acre section might be a thing of the past, more than 2000 years later, we still want what Horace wanted! To have a garden and be connected with nature.

At City Botanics, we specialise in creating functional, beautiful green spaces for residents in high-density living, whether it be an apartment, a terraced house, or a townhouse. We are passionate about giving our clients the “Horace Dream”, no matter how small their space might be!

We are privileged to live where we work and bring the joy of nature to our client's daily routines.

We not only work in these spaces but we live in them too! So we understand the many challenges that come with living in a high-density community, like having to adhere to strict planting guidelines, or not wanting to own a lawnmower for 3 square metres of grass!

Right - Martin understands the unique challenges of gardening in small spaces, having designed and installed his own garden in his Hobsonville Point home.

So many people get stuck on creativity with their outdoor spaces, especially when it comes to small ones. For Martin, owner and chief designer, a key driving factor is to take a space and to turn it into something our clients can not only be proud of but one that exceeds their expectations in terms of what they thought was possible!

“Gardens have the power to heal and bring solace to our lives, so I am always focused on how to achieve each individual client’s version of this. When a job is complete and we receive feedback such as “This is better than I expected” or “It brings me so much joy to my day” or “I just love spending time pottering in the garden now”– then I know I’ve done my job”.

Left - "A spring that never fails". Like Horace, we recognise the calming, restorative effects of a water source in the garden. We often install water features like this one recently completed in Hobsonville Point, Auckland. They are also great for attracting birds like the Silver Eye.

What makes designing for apartments, townhouses and terraced dwellings different from traditional landscaping?

Definitely access and logistical challenges are top of the list here. Some of our clients don’t even have rear or side access to their back yard so we find ourselves carting everything through the house! Quite often, if they do have a side gate, it’s a standard size of 900mm, which doesn’t allow for a lot of machinery in for site prep, so most of our labour is done by hand – e.g. digging up existing garden beds/demo etc.

Above - This Swanson backyard didn't have rear or side access so we had to transfer all the materials and equipment through the house. Respecting our client's space and privacy is a top priority in these situations.

Then we have the challenge of coordinating the installation. Due to the smaller space to work in, we need to start and finish things in a sequential order rather than having too many tasks on the go. For example, when we are cutting concrete/tiles/pavers, it creates a lot of dust and mess, so we need to do this before undertaking any planting. It needs to be a well-oiled machine to maximise efficiency!

Finally, our clients often have a big wish list of functional elements that we need to achieve in a small space. Therefore creativity is key to maximising this. We also need to have an understanding of how much space is really needed for certain elements (e.g. whats the minimum width of a pathway in a small space) to ensure the end design is practical and functional.

What are the most common problems that terraced and townhouses present that might not crop up in a more standard landscape design?

Privacy is probably number one in higher density living and it's generally a top priority for our clients!

Water tanks (either above ground or below) are also a big feature we need to workaround. Quite often, the access lids for underground tanks are placed above soil level and rising from the ground, and are always placed in the worst spot. So we need to get creative about how we can work the design around this while still allowing for access if required.

Above - A large concrete slab and a drainage manhole in the middle of the garden presented a good challenge in this Glendowie courtyard. A hardwood deck was built over the concrete slab and extended outwards to cover over the drainage system, bringing a contemporary feel to the space.

Left - Above ground water tanks are a common occurrence. Laser-cut metal screens are a great option to hide these.

Our clients always see space as their problem – i.e. it's not big enough to do this or that, but for us, space isn’t the problem – it's creativity. Sure, you may have to prioritise your wish list in small spaces and make some sacrifices, but space is a challenge we love!

What about apartments, what are the most common problems balconies present?

On-looking neighbours such as in apartment complexes is often a problem, just like it is for houses.

However, the bigger problem on these sites though is the aspect – wind (the higher you go, the bigger the problem!) and sun (either too harsh, too shady). Having a good knowledge of which plants will work is key. Then, finding the plants that will meet clients expectations (for example, “I want lots of flowers”) while still respecting the aspect is where our design creativity comes in.

Below - This top floor Princess Wharf balcony was exposed to high winds and full sun. Having had issues on this site in the past with furniture blowing in the wind, we decided to create two custom stools that were made from exceptionally heavyweight wood. Hardy coastal and tolerant plants were selected for their ability to withstand both wind and full sun. They also provide great textural interest to contrast with the square tiles.

How do you ensure that every customer has a great experience with your company?

We set expectations from the start!

We show up when we say we will!

We communicate at every step and take our clients on a visual design journey!

Below - Taking clients on a visual design journey is really important to us. With the help of mood boards, 2D planting plans and 3D rendering we can take our clients on a visual design journey, helping them to visualise what the final output will look like. It's especially important for clients to see what the plants will look like in the longer term as it takes a few years for the plants to really get established. They can also imagine themselves in the space, helping us to ensure that we have the functionality boxes ticked.

Good listening is also really important. We ask lots of questions during our initial consultation to understand their lifestyle and how they want their garden to be used. This ensures that the end design reflects their needs both functionally and aesthetically, and makes the most of their space.

We provide quotes rather than estimates. This means there are no surprise costs along the way. If there are any elements of the installation which we are unknown or we are unable to identify beforehand (for example digging up the ground and not knowing the exact depth we can reach) then we highlight these at the time of quoting and so our clients know that that particular element might change. If we experience an issue during an installation, we talk it through and provide suitable solutions to our clients

Finally, we back our work up with two complementary follow-up visits, at 4 weeks and 8 after installation, so we can answer any plant questions and address any issues that they may have.

Our designers specialise in small urban gardens, terraced housing, balconies, and decks. If you are thinking about transforming your small outdoor space, don't hesitate to get in touch for a free, no-obligation consultation.

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