Perfect four-season garden for the urban jungle

Worry-free city garden

For city dwellers, gardening in close quarters presents unique challenges. Surrounded by tall buildings and often shaded with arching trees, plants need to thrive in little sunlight. Air quality can be poor. Compact spaces require careful planning and thoughtful composition.

At the same time, a smart savvy garden ought to look great, with an ever-changing palette of blooms and colors and textures across all four seasons -- even wintertime. It also should require little maintenance and few additives. Finally, it ought to play nice with the world around it, attracting butterflies and sustaining bees and birds.

We spent years tending our own plot, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn't. Rather than focusing on blooms, a smart savvy garden employs texture and contrasting foliage and relies on an evergreen backbone that gives it shape and interest, even in desolate winter.

It isn't easy to earn a place on our short list

Our recommendations are all US-native and work in any climate except those that are sub-tropical or desert. The garden is virtually maintenance-free. Being native it tolerates droughts, and being all-perennial, the only potential task every few years would be to divide plants, which has the fringe benefit of producing free extras to plant more gardens.

To earn a spot on our list, the plant had to provide interest for at least two seasons. Many do for three or four. We indicate smart savvy cultivars so it's easy to navigate the ever-growing roster of selections at the nursery.

Year round

Start designing the garden with year-round structure. Offering diverse shades, from chartreuse to blue-gray, these evergreens are the "bones" that the rotating seasonal plants fill up against.


Cluster Dwarf Alberta spruces in threes or as individual specimens near the back of the border. Add golden mop threadleaf cypresses for contrasting color and texture. For other dwarf conifers, Monrovia provides some great ideas.

Golden mop thread leaf cypress

Golden mop thread leaf cypress



Palace purple heucheras (aka coral bells), winners of perennial plant of the year in 1991, send up tiny blooms in summer and the rest of the year their leaves retain color, providing year-round versatility.

Palace purple heucheras

Palace purple heucheras




In the fall plant classic yellow King Alfred daffodils in drifts of five to seven and they'll return and multiply for decades. Many of the daffodils springing up today, especially on older properties, were planted in the 1950s and 1960s. 

They need sun, which shouldn't be a problem because they're done by the time the trees have leafed out. Just leave their foliage until it withers and browns (in Chicago that's not until August) so they can store energy for next year's blooms. 

King Alfred daffodils

King Alfred daffodils



Nothing foretells warmer days to come than crocuses poking out of snow drifts. Having them around greatly lengthens the growing season both psychologically and practically. In Chicago first frost doesn't come until early November, and with crocuses coming up in mild winters by February, you're only looking at three or four months when nothing's growing. Use our favorite plugging device to naturalize them in the lawn so critters can't dig up their corms. Get tommasinianus varieties that are more animal-resistant than others. Beware, as in our area if squirrels are abundant, they'll still eat the blooms and foliage, tempting the purchase of a BB gun.

Crocuses naturalized in the lawn

Crocuses naturalized in the lawn



Get reliable drought-resistant perennials that bloom over a long time in the summer. Echinacea 'magnus' attract butterflies and bees and grow three feet tall, perfect for the back of the border. In front of them, put rudbeckia 'Early Bird Gold', a special freak of nature cultivar that isn't sensitive to day length and blooms even longer than standard cultivars.



Garden centers only stock plants in bloom so if you go on Mother's Day with a grand plan to plant your entire four-season garden, you'll be out of luck with fall perennials. Leave a generous space or put annuals there until August rolls around and suddenly there are asters and mums and toad lilies and other fall perennials all over the place. 


Get New York asters that stand tall and bloom prolifically in purple that really stands out among the yellows and oranges and reds of fall. 

Purple asters growing in a prairie restoration area

Purple asters growing in a prairie restoration area



Truly a year-round perennial, autumn joy sedum, a succulent that's impossible to kill, really shines in fall when the plateaus of flowers it's been rearing all year turn to burgundy.  

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