Suburban is not Urban

My Garden

I have a bit of a bug-bear on the way suburban gardens are represented in garden media. If you pick up any selection of gardening magazines you will find the usual selection of large country gardens and small chic city gardens, often courtyards, or community gardens, or people growing vegetables in small spaces – which are loosely termed urban gardens.  These are not suburban gardens.  I live in suburbia and I do not recognise them as gardens I am likely to encounter in this environment.  This month’s RHS The Garden magazine has the theme of urban gardens. I muttered on Twitter about suburban gardens never being featured in magazines and I was told by the editor of the magazine that the rules are the same for urban and suburban – really?


I suppose you could argue that suburban gardens are small and therefore the same rules apply but this does not take into account that suburban gardens do not generally benefit from the micro-climates you get in cities; they don’t have the same levels of noise and other pollution; they are often more open gardens which means they can suffer from wind damage and other extremes of weather; they often have large front gardens which they might not be allowed to have fences or hedges around; they can be all manner of strange shapes due to the idiosyncrasies of the housing development planners.  They have their own set of issues and their own benefits.  So No the same rules do not apply.

A large part of suburbia is made up of housing estates, such as the one I live in.  They do not feel the same as walking down any road in a city even in the residential areas on the outskirts.  Houses on older estates often have good size front gardens with the driveway to one side – when do you ever see an article in a magazine looking at these.  These front gardens, like mine, are like the front room my grandparents had, areas which are kept nice but never used.  Gardens can be a myriad of shapes – yes many are long and thin like urban gardens, but you have wide and short gardens (like mine), or triangular plots or even strange irregular pentagon shaped gardens and there are never articles on how to address such shapes.  Or maybe the garden wraps around the house if you have a nice generous corner plot, again nothing.  And then there is the sloping garden which hasn’t been ironed out by the town and city planners and when do you ever see any sensible practical advice on dealing with a slope without spending vast sums on hard landscape, contractors and designers – if we had that sort of money we would probably be living in the countryside and be interested in different articles!

Hester Forde's garden outside Corke

Hester Forde’s garden outside Corke

And that brings me to another difference between suburban and the urban and country gardens that are featured in the garden media – funds.  Time and again you read an article about a country garden and you read about the acreage, a small garden is an acre, and how the owner works with the gardener to create this or that, and how they removed the woodland or extended into the neighbouring fields etc etc etc. Or how this urban garden was created with the help of this designer or that designer or the other extreme how this community or gardener created everything out of nothing – there is apparently no middle ground in the urban garden.

What about the suburban garden?  How many of them have been designed by a designer or are maintained by a regular gardener pretty few I suspect.  They are the expression of many people who are passionate about plants, or love their gardens, who draw inspiration from the urban gardens and country acres  they see featured and maybe visit and then create their very own special mix and match style of garden but do they ever see anything they can relate directly to in the media – rarely.

Garden outside Dublin

Garden outside Dublin

I  wondered if it is because suburban gardens aren’t visited much and therefore the great ones aren’t known about.  I sense that they are under-represented in schemes such as the NGS as the owners may think that they cannot meet the 45 minutes of interest criteria. I notice that many garden magazines seem to rely on the NGS guide for gardens to feature which is a pity as it means the diversity and excitement that is out there in the whole gardening world is missed.

And that is what the garden media world hasn’t noticed, suburban garden are equally as interesting and fascinating as their  alternatives.  We might not be creating wacky  gardens on  rooftops or growing vegetables in strange pots down an alleyway or lounging of an evening around a fire pit in our designed outside room.  We might not be creating a border for a specific season, or a wildflower meadow where the tennis court was, or planting an orchard.  We are however, taking the best of all of these, distilling them into key elements and we are quietly working away creating beautiful spaces and growing amazing plants.

Surely it is about time that the suburban garden was given as much print and air time as other gardens instead of this passionate suburban gardener flicking through a magazine and not finding anything to relate to.


23 Comments on “Suburban is not Urban

  1. Just googled suburban – very likely you’re protesting against a concept loaded with socio-cultural baggage…perhaps ripe for change?

    adjective: suburban
    of or characteristic of a suburb.
    “suburban life”

    synonyms: residential, commuter, dormitory;
    “a suburban area”
    •contemptibly dull and ordinary.

    “Elizabeth despised Ann’s house-proudness as deeply suburban”

    synonyms: dull, boring, uninteresting, conventional, ordinary, commonplace, average, unremarkable, undistinguished, unexceptional, pedestrian; provincial, unsophisticated, small-town, parochial, parish-pump, insular, inward-looking, limited, blinkered, bourgeois, middle-class, conservative; informalbog-standard, nothing to write home about, no great shakes, not up to much; informalcommon or garden
    “he brought some much-needed glamour to Karen’s drab suburban existence”

    • Hi Donna
      Quite possibly, but urban is just as loaded with such baggage. My point I suppose is that the gardens that many of us garden in aren’t reflected In garden media

  2. Hi Helen – Maybe big gardens are featured also in our “NZ Gardener” but they also do have small suburban gardens. Thinking of past issues there have been a lot of small gardens that are ‘gardeners gardens’. See if you can get a copy or copies of our magazine and you will I am sure love it. Talking about big gardens our Whangaparoa Garden Group visited ‘Omaio” a garden of National Significance at Matakana the other day. 18 acres in totoal. – A must see if you come to NZ! A long log cabin type home set in 1000 year old trees with lovely sea views! Liz has under planted with a lot of shade loving plants, clivia, hostas, bergenia, lugulia etc. Mass Planted to give impact. she does all the planting and only occasional help! she also has a B&B attached to her home. Sublime peace, native birds and beautiful gardens. We also visited a very flowery garden. Again quite large with bush and paddock below. They had made this lovely semicircular bank of flowers with iris’s over metre tall!! The garden was only 3 years old but the work the mainly woman had done was amazing! We have a lot of garden visits which feature a lot of surburban gardens so we don’t only have the big amazing gardens featured in walks etc. Good money raising for charities. It is always amazing that most of the big gardens don’t have extra help.

    • Hi Yvonne
      I think I might have a look and see if I can find a copy, it would certainly be interesting to see a different perspective

  3. I was reading your blog Helen, when I thought I recognise that garden!
    I agree with you it annoys me when reading in a garden magazine about a small garden of only one acre! and then the only other garden represented is some small ‘Chic” town garden about the size of our patio created by some garden designer at god knows what cost!

    • Hi Brian
      Glad you didn’t mind me using a photo of your garden. Interestingly I didn’t have for many of ‘suburban’ gardens but I think that’s because not many are available to visit

  4. i never thought about how gardens could be so different based on their location, even in the same geographic area. Maybe the people at the magazine picture the suburbs as just being small cities.

  5. As I read your post I found myself nodding in agreement. On the odd occasion that suburban gardens are featured in Australian magazines they describe how the landscaper integrated the pool and tennis court with the outdoor entertaining area in an exclusive hopelessly aspirational area. Where are the common everyday suburban backyards? Guess that’s why blogs exist…

    • Hi Sue
      You are right blogs have filled the gaps and that’s why they are so popular I think as we can relate to them.

  6. I really enjoyed your article. Well written. I had never thought of myself as having a suburban garden, but that is what it is and yes, I would struggle to provide more than 20 minutes of interest for a garden visit. I don’t tend to read garden magazines unless on a long flight, but I can recognise what you were talking about. Maybe more of us need to create sufficient interest to get into the NGS before things will change – either that or all start writing in to the editors.

    • The answer Annette, to the NGS time requirement is to do what we do at Hanley Swan and have a group opening. (5 Gardens for next year.)

    • Ideally within walking distance, but in my experience there have been gardens up to a couple of miles apart. Given that gardens are usually open for three hours, they need to be close enough that you could reasonably see all of them in that time.

    • We have one large garden 1.5acres, which is a car ride to the opposite side of the village the others are within walking distance.

  7. I agree with you Helen. It seems to me that suburban gardens aren’t ‘aspirational’ enough to feature in gardening magazines and you are right it is almost impossible to find any advice about designing for sloping gardens like yours or weirdly-shaped gardens like mine. I had never thought about the front garden being like the front parlour that is never used, but you are right it is exactly that if you live, like I do, on a small (less than 30 houses) modern housing estate. Mine is in the conservation area of the village with most of the houses set around a central green with every front garden open so no gates or hedges. I’m round the corner looking out onto fields and light woodland and because the outlook is so pretty I did design a small seating area. I carried this design into my back garden, constructed a square deck in the south west sunniest corner of my garden, erected a pergola and wisteria to screen next door’s leylandii hedge and made my borders as deep and flowing as possible. I also had a pond dug because in a small garden (mine is 10m deep by 15m wide less the detached double garage which protrudes into the garden) I think water gives movement and life and makes the garden seem bigger by reflecting the sky. Like you I adore being in my garden and I’m in it every day even if it’s just a walk round to the compost bin. I know we need more and better advice, but it just isn’t out there. Thank goodness for blogs, especially honest ones like yours!

  8. Hear hear, from my 1/5th of a slightly sloping garden on the outskirts of a small market town with views of my neighbours gardens and a hill with sheep! Maybe social media and gardeners doing it for themselves is the answer, and an alternative open gardens scheme!

  9. Write some articles and persuade the magazines to take them. Maybe it’s just that the journalist/gardeners who write what you currently read are all either inner-city or big country garden people! Judging by the response to your post there should be considerable interest for such articles!

  10. I agree with Brian that often groups of suburbans gardens open together for the NGS (we have been doing this in Bracknell for over ten years), But interestingly, visitors are fewer in number than for the big ones. Are we ‘boring’, or is just an opportunity to see “how the other have lives?” Yes, we need more publicity and that means more TV and other media coverage. Chicken and egg perhaps?

  11. Well said that woman. I guess the magazine writers and editors are on the look out for garden porn: aspirational spaces with fashionable planting (the garden equivalent of body images and fashion). A campaign is needed.

  12. Everything you say about suburban gardens is absolutely spot-on! I agree that suburban gardens are under-served and under-shown in garden media. My own is suburban, with a bit more room (2/3-acre) than most urban gardens, including the large front garden that you mention. Like you said, I’m often inspired to try and distill down some of the fancy stuff I see in large open country gardens.

  13. Absolutely! My small, sloping suburban garden stretches all round my house. I rarely see any spaces featured in mainstream garden media that look anything like mine.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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