Small space gardens

Updated April 05, 2018

If you're stuck with a tiny front garden, or you live in a flat, you may think picking your own freshly grown produce and flowers is just a dream.

Think again.

You don't need a sprawling back garden to have your very own at-home garden filled with the veggies and blooms you love. A small-space garden only requires some planning and effort.

“Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a lot of space," said Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor for the South Burlington, National Gardening Association. "You can still harvest, even if it’s a few herb plants on a windowsill. You can still get that connection to the natural world.”

You can plant pole beans that grow vertically to get a bigger harvest in the same acreage. Cucumbers and melons can also grow against a trellis.

Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor, National Gardening Association

Getting started

Not having the luxury of a huge garden with uninterrupted sunlight and perfect irrigation means you have to do more thinking before purchasing potting soil and seedlings.

First, evaluate the sun exposure on your patio, windowsill, a section of dirt near your front door or any area you are considering for the garden. The amount of sunlight will determine what kinds of plants you will be able to grow says Mary Estes, a landscape architect.

“Does the space have morning sun, afternoon sun, sun all day or is it shady? Food plants generally need around six hours of sunlight per day and ornamental plants vary from little to all-day sun tolerances,” she said.

You also have to consider the mature size of the plant. If you think it may become an obstacle or require a lot of pruning to fit in the available space, ponder something smaller. If you envision your high-rise balcony lushly lined with decorative and food plants, find out about soil requirements before purchasing a palm or apple tree, since containers offer less soil depth, Estes said.

Speaking of containers, upper-floor apartment dwellers should seek out lightweight versions in fiberglass or resin for their balconies. The pots must have holes to encourage drainage, and saucers to minimise water and soil stains, Estes said.

She said narrow rectilinear containers that follow the perimeter of your patio or balcony are good alternatives to the space-eating round containers. You can vary the container heights for visual interest, and play with the plant forms within for additional layering.

Maximising and finding space

Thinking outside of the plant box is another way to procure garden space. Littlefield likes to take advantage of vertical spaces.

She says there are nice options — honeysuckle or bougainvillea — when it comes to decorative vines that extend vertically and produce colourful blooms. But, if creating a sustainable source that will put food on your table is a goal, you are a trellis or two away from several additional options.

“You can plant pole beans that grow vertically to get a bigger harvest in the same acreage," Littlefield said. "Cucumbers and melons can also grow against a trellis.”

A sunny but bland front porch can be a perfect home for a fresh herb box. The box can be moved inside for the winter or to another spot when needed.

“Herbs don’t take much space and it’s nice to snip some fresh parsley or basil for your salad,” Littlefield said.

And, if you are embarrassed by barren or less attractive spots around your house, a series of container plants can also resolve those issues.

“Think of non-traditional gardening spaces like your driveway or balcony,” Littlefield said. “If you have a shady garden but a driveway in full sun, you can line one edge of the driveway with containers of tomatoes and peppers.”

Making your landscape do double duty is another way to maximise your gardening options. Consider replacing the ornamental crabapple tree in the front yard with a fruiting apple tree or citrus varietals, depending on your climate. Swap out the boring shrub with an edible berry-bearing bush.

Littlefield said it's just a matter of being creative about "where you grow stuff."

"You can combine vegetables with flowers so you have an attractive landscape as well as a productive one,” she said. “You can do parsley and nasturtiums in a box so it doesn’t have to look like just a vegetable container. You’re getting the best of both worlds.”

What to plant

Maximising your little garden’s potential means maximising the production of everything you plant.

For a flower garden you may select perennials, annuals or a combination of perennials and annuals. Among perennials are flowers with short blooming seasons, including peonies. Shasta daisies, by contrast, have long blooming seasons. If you don’t mind seasonal digging and planting, Littlefield said, annuals might be your best bet as they tend to enjoy a long bloom season.

Ideally, you want a variety that can fit in with all four seasons.

“Get something that could have flowers in spring, berries in summer and nice fall colors so you’re getting more visual interest for that plant," Littlefield said. "If you want to get the most bang for your buck, you may not want something that has flowers in the spring but is a boring shrub the rest of the year.”

For an edible garden, grow produce that most members of your household will actually eat. You may love beets, but if everyone else can’t stand them, using precious space to grow them may not be worth it. Littlefield suggests you think about the most expensive or difficult-to-find produce and make that part of your at-home farm.

“If you like kale or chard, or unusual greens or herbs used in Thai cooking, most are easy to grow," she said. "Depending on what you’re growing, you can save a lot of money.”

Avoid plants such as sweet corn, squash and peas, which monopolize space but yield little when it comes to harvest time. Stay away from aggressive spreaders — such as mint — that can take over the garden. If you do crave such things, keep them in their own containers above ground, or bury the container below ground to keep the roots constrained.

Soil FYI

All soil is not created equal. A good organic potting soil is suitable for most annuals and flowers, while a blend of topsoil and mulch works with small patio trees and shrubs, according to Mary Estes, landscape architect and president of Phoenix-based Indigenous Minds.

For productive gardens, Estes suggests seeking out one of the many varieties of container garden — or box garden — mixes. They consist of soil, nutrients and organic fertilizers that will help make the most of your garden.

For container planting, Estes places a layer of gravel in the bottom of the container and covers it with filter fabric before adding the soil. The fabric keeps the soil out of the gravel, helping to ensure proper drainage.

“Filter fabric isn’t a common item around the house, so as a replacement I’ve successfully used coffee filters for the same application,” she said.

For container plant soil, use one that has a light texture and retains moisture while offering good drainage, recommends Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor for the National Gardening Association.

“If the bag feels like you’re picking up a bag of wet sand, leave it," she said. "You want something that drains and gives adequate air.”

Adding compost helps any growing condition in any region, Littlefield says.

“If your soil is heavy, it will help open up the soil. If it’s dry, it’s going to keep moisture in. If you have a small space and are gardening intensively, compost becomes more important.”

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About the Author

Georgann Yara has been writing professionally since 1995. She has been published in the "Arizona Republic," "Arizona Business Gazette," "Phoenix Magazine," "Latino Perspectives Magazine," "Spokesman-Review," "West Valley View" and "Ahwatukee Foothills News." Yara holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Eastern Washington University.