Urban areas such as the District are crowded with town houses, most of them with small yards. Some are so tiny that residents — especially those who have traded a half-acre yard in the suburbs for 200 square feet in Capitol Hill — may feel it’s impossible to create a green space for entertaining or quiet time. There is hardly enough room to turn, right?
Wrong, gardening specialists say. You just have to make every inch count, says Sherry Mitchell, a sometime gardening instructor and author of “The Townhouse Gardener.”
“No space is too small. I have seen people creating gardens in soup cans. And look at the Japanese — with bonsai, you can have a whole forest in a pot,” says Mrs. Mitchell, of Centreville. “Gardeners are very determined people.”
They are numerous, too.
About 52 million American households — half of the total — engage in flower or vegetable gardening or both, according to the National Gardening Association, based in South Burlington, Vt.
“Gardening is one of the top three most popular outdoor leisure activities,” says Bruce Butterfield, research director at the association. The other two are swimming and walking for exercise.
In Capitol Hill, Frager’s Hardware, which has a gardening department, has profited from the increasingly popular pastime.
“Our gardening department used to be minuscule, and now it’s our largest department,” says Ed Copenhaver, co-owner of Frager’s for the past 25 years.
“People are getting more and more sophisticated in their gardening wants but a majority of the people we get are still beginners,” Mr. Copenhaver says.
Before shopping for soil and plants, digging holes and planting, it’s important for any amateur gardener, whether the keeper of a 25,000-square-foot yard or a 250-square-foot spot, to decide exactly what purpose the garden should serve.
“Some people want an outdoor space for entertaining; others want a place for their children to play,” says Laura Canfield, a landscape architect who has designed a half-dozen gardens in the District. “Some people just want a place to get away a sort of quiet place, a sanctuary.”
One of Mrs. Canfield’s clients, Muriel Martin-Wein, lives in a blue house in the heart of Capitol Hill, close to Eastern Market. Her back yard is about 600 square feet. It was overgrown about a year ago, when Mrs. Canfield was asked to help create a space that would be as suitable for dinner guests as for quiet reflection.
“I wanted a little country refuge in the middle of the city,” Mrs. Martin-Wein says. “I wanted a place where we could entertain and where my husband could come to study.”
Mrs. Canfield went to work. She placed a yew, a type of evergreen, in front of the loud air-conditioning unit, and a small water fountain is planned to go next to the tree to further filter the noise.
Water fountains are great additions to city gardens, Mrs. Canfield says. They filter traffic noise and air-conditioner rumblings, and the trickling sound of water is calming.
The back fence traded its natural wood color for blue, making it look like a continuation of the house instead of a barrier between properties. The top of it holds an arbor that allows light to stream in and provides a window to the neighbor’s trees.
Ivy has started climbing the fence and the neighbor’s exterior wall, which is painted an unfortunate black, facing Mrs. Martin-Wein’s property. She hopes the wall will be covered completely in a few years.
The L-shaped garden was bordered narrowly by flower beds with blue geraniums, yellow-leafed hosta and purplish catmint. To color-coordinate with the house, Mrs. Canfield chose plants in blues, yellows and some pinks and purples but stayed away from orange and red.
Thyme and basil stand in large pots. Placing herbs in pots is advisable, Mrs. Canfield says, because sometimes they take over a flower bed, crowding whatever else is there. The small yard also has a few trees, including a sweet bay magnolia and a couple of yews.
Ornamental items, such as wind chimes in the shape of suns, stars and moons and an iron birdbath in the shape of a giant leaf, also adorn the garden. A few pieces of furniture in yellow-painted metal and glass sit on the red-brick patio.
Creating depth in yards, filtering noise with water fountains and color-coordinating fences and plants to match the house are part of a gardener’s bag of tricks and illusions.
“It’s just like the someone wearing black pants to slim down wide hips,” Mrs. Mitchell says.
While encouraging gardeners with small gardens to plan and plant, Mrs. Canfield mentions some things she advises not to plant in a small garden.
“A big canopy tree is a spoiler. It ruins everyone’s party because your neighbors have to live with it, too,” she says.
With row houses, most things a neighbor does, whether it’s painting a trellis or planting vines, will be seen by residents around it. She recommends that anyone buying trees to plant in a small yard makes sure he or she pays close attention to the mature size of the plant. If the tree’s mature size is 30 or 50 feet, it may overflow the space like overstocked books on the shelves of a used-book store.
Lawns also are questionable in small spaces, Mrs. Canfield says. There is little room for swing sets or a game of boccie, so why bother with it? A paved surface is easier to maintain and offers more options for furniture. It’s also less messy. Why deal with storing a lawn mower when you already have a very limited space, she adds.
In her book, Mrs. Mitchell suggests using low, creeping plants such as thyme, moss or clover to cover parts of the ground where people will not tread.
A common mistake, she says, is laying out everything on the same level instead of building terraces, adding boxes, pots, shelves and trees that lift a viewer’s eyes toward the sky.
“When you plant everything on the same level, there is no reason to bring your eyes off the ground,” Mrs. Mitchell says.
Vegetable gardens often take up a lot of room, but Mrs. Canfield suggests putting certain edible plants, such as peppers and tomatoes, in pots.
Gardening can be costly, but it doesn’t have to be. Doing it the way Mrs. Martin-Wein did, with a landscape designer and contractors to lay the brick and build the fence, is at the expensive end of the gardening spectrum.
“I usually say, prepare to spend about 10 percent of the purchase price of your house on your landscaping. That means if you buy a house for $100,000, you would spend $10,000 on the landscaping,” Mrs. Mitchell says.
She acknowledges, though, that it can be done much more cheaply.
“If you have imagination, you can do just about anything,” Mrs. Mitchell says. “You could spend a couple of hundred dollars on some nice pots, or containers, and plants maybe a tree.”
One sure way to spend too much money is to go to a nursery without a clear idea of what you are going to get.
“Don’t be swept away by the beautiful nurseries. It’s arranged so that you’ll want everything,” she says. “Make a shopping list, just like you would at the grocery store.”
To learn about gardening and how to do it yourself, Mrs. Mitchell suggests finding out about classes at local nurseries, such as Merrifield Garden Center in Fairfax. Libraries, bookstores and the Internet are other sources of information.
Though professional guidelines are helpful, she adds, personal taste and eccentricities are what make a garden different and special. And don’t forget that the process of gardening is rewarding in itself, Mrs. Mitchell says.
“Gardening is a great way to detox after a week in the urban jungle. You’re going into your own jungle,” she says. “It’s certainly cheaper than therapy and it’s low-impact aerobic.”