Gardening for Renters

By: Earl Nickel
http://www.normsnursery.blogspot.com

EARL NICKEL is an Oakland-based horticulturist, writer, and photographer. He writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle profiling…

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March 2022

As a professional nurseryman, I am asked every imaginable question about which ornamental plants to buy and how to care for them. But there is one question that is most intriguing and rarely ever discussed in the gardening community: “I’m a renter. What sorts of plants can I plant in my garden?”

The answer is multifaceted. No matter how long or strict the lease, gardeners have many options depending on which of the following common rental scenarios they encounter. I will focus on ornamental plants that can stay in your garden for years, rather than vegetables and other annuals.

Bush Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus ‘Ray’s Tangerine’) Photo: Earl Nickel

Inheriting a Garden

As a new tenant, or a renter just now deciding to do a garden, you may inherit garden space on the property, particularly if you rent a house. This can be a very complete and well-tended garden or it could conceivably be an ‘abandoned’ yard. Most likely, if your rental comes with a green space, the gardening space will be something in between these opposing scenarios.

If your landlord permits permanent changes to the yard, your first decision will be where to start. I always advise gardeners facing this decision to begin small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged before you even get started. This modest beginning can be designing a few decorative pots, adding some common colorful perennials to existing beds, or perhaps choosing one bare spot and adding an ornamental or fruiting tree. Alternatively, you can jump right in and design a plan for the entire space.

Making the Garden Yours

Whether you start small or dive right in, at some point you will want the garden to reflect your own needs and aesthetics. This is the point that you will draw up a plan for your own space. That plan will by necessity involve any trees, shrubs, and perennials already there, so one of your first choices will be what to leave and what to remove. In a basic sense, you are choosing what to add and what to subtract from the new garden you are creating.

Jelly Bean Fiesta Marigold (Mimulus ‘Fiesta Marigold’) Photo: Earl Nickel

If you are considering removing a tree or shrub, your first step is to check with your landlord. They may have preferences as to what they wish to keep in the current garden. This could also apply to major tree pruning or if there is any question whether your digging might disturb a water, gas, or sewer line. I am a renter myself and I have learned to foster a positive relationship with my landlord when it comes to my garden.

Planting for the Here and Now … And for the Future

Nowhere does the matter of you being a renter figure into your plans for a re-imagined garden more than when it comes to the choices of what to plant. Most renters aren’t certain how long they will be staying in their current place. So, plants you add to your garden may be “yours” for a year, two years, or maybe more. But at some point, you will move, and then you face the matter of which of your new plants to take with you.

Sometimes this scenario discourages gardeners from doing much of anything in their new rental space. I usually encourage customers voicing this concern to go ahead anyway. You will have the pleasure of making a new garden, the joy of enjoying it for your duration there, and the satisfaction of paying it forward to the next person moving into that space. I can’t tell you how many customers I’ve helped who have told me, “I just moved and have inherited this fabulous garden. I wish I could thank the people who left it for me.”

Chalk Dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) Photo: WikiMedia Commons

There are also advantages to being a renter. Gardeners often tell me, “I want to plant a vine but where I want it, it will need to stay in a container.” Now normally I would answer, “That might not work. Over time, the vine will fill up the pot with roots and then it will suffer.” When I learn that the person is a renter—sometimes I’ll even ask them this first—my answer changes: “Oh, yes, if it’s just for a few years, then that will work fine.” I call this facet of gardening “living in present time.”

The possible short term of your stay also frees you up to add plants that may not be long lived. There are many wonderful perennials that have a relatively short life span and while even a homeowner will likely want some of these in their garden, a renter has a freer mind about adding these. When planning to leave a plant behind, you may need to consider the varieties of trees and shrubs you can afford as a sunk cost rather than an investment. For particularly precious or expensive plants, you may want to research how they fare in container gardens.

Small is Beautiful

Although a new renter may inherit a large property, it is more likely that they will move into a smaller house that has a modest-sized garden. Perhaps much of the gardening space is occupied with unremovable trees or shrubs. In either case, often house renters are working with smaller plots. This need not be a liability; in fact, working with smaller beds can bring out the artist in you.

When there is a defining characteristic for a smaller garden plot, these beds are sometimes known as “theme” gardens. For example, herb gardens can be beautiful as well as practical, whereas pollinator gardens are filled with native plants that attract bees and butterflies.

You can constrain yourself to one color in a monochromatic garden, or limit your selection to only certain types of plants. In Northern California, a natives-only garden might include California lilac (Ceanothus), blue bush lupine (Lupinus propinquus), monkeyflower (Mimulus) and California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). The same region can support a semi-tropical garden that includes glory bower (Clerodendrum fragrans), heart-leaf flame pea (Chorizema cordatum), and Mexican plume (Justicia fulvicoma). Alternatively, a “dry” garden could be filled with xeriscape natives such as sages (Salvia), chalk liveforevers (Dudleya pulverulenta) and California fuchsias (Epilobium canum).

Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ (hybrid of Ceanothus arboreus and Ceanothus griseus) Photo: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and Canejo buckwheat (Eriogonum crocatum) Photo: WikiMedia Commons

Even if you don’t plant a theme garden, you can make maximum use of smaller spaces. For example, layered planting might involve arranging bulbs in the soil, a low, loose plant above them, and finally a taller plant in the same small space. You can even plant two different bulbs if one blooms in spring (daffodils or tulips) and the other in summer (lilies or gladiolas). Also, it is becoming more common for nurseries to offer dwarf or compact varieties of larger shrubs. So for example, if you really like the look of an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), but don’t have room for its six-by-eight-foot size, there are several compact varieties that top out at three feet by three feet.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Photos: WikiMedia Commons

The Glass More than Half Full

I hope I have addressed many of the questions that a renter might have when considering to revamp an existing garden. Equally, I hope you will be encouraged to go ahead and make the most beautiful and rewarding garden in your rented space. May you make the most of living in present time!

Arrowleaf Buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) Photo: WikiMedia Commons