Ask a Master Gardener: Gardening in Small Spaces
By Dr. Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
Q We have recently moved to a small, two-story garden home with limited yard space and an overlooking balcony. How can we continue our interests in gardening though constrained by space?
A There are a number of options that can provide the pleasure of gardening and yield attractive outdoor décor. You can grow edibles, vines, foliage, and floral displays or combine some of each. However, attention must be paid to details and you have to stay on top of maintenance for best appearance. You will have to make choices to fit each space and planting approach. Plan each arrangement as a whole composition.
In your yard and on your balcony, porch, and walks, consider a variety of containers of assorted designs and sizes. Containers allow for relocating as needed and, in clusters, are easier to cover and protect from cold weather. Consider unique containers such as urns, old wheelbarrows, pitchers, wine barrels, and wooden boxes. Window boxes, hanging baskets, and rail-mounted containers allow for more creative space utilization. Each should have good drainage. Porous tera cotta pots and baskets evaporate quicker and need more frequent watering. If containers are on pavement or wood, elevate about one inch to allow water to dry instead of staining the surface. Full sun is best. Be sure to monitor moisture levels and water frequently, especially smaller and porous containers.
To reduce weight of large containers, place a layer of lightweight filler like Styrofoam peanuts or small pine cones in the bottom before adding planting medium. Fiber glass and Styrofoam containers make larger plantings easier to rearrange or move seasonally. However, make sure containers are heavy enough so that they cannot be easily overturned.
Go up! Consider vertical gardens, which add more space and increase air flow. Mount plants on walls, trees, old hollow stumps, or fences. Add vertical structures, trellises, stakes, cages, or arbors. A variety of attractive trellises of varied materials can be purchased. They can also be homemade from bamboo, wooden lattice, cattle fence panels, wood and cord, and other creative designs. Garden centers and catalogs offer upright arrangements of containers already mounted on poles.
Install structures before planting. Structures are best placed on the north side of plants to avoid shading. Of course, you may also add a small bed of shade-loving plants on the shaded side to economize on space. For dense, heavy climbers install structures on the downwind side to provide additional support.
Vertical gardening can be included in containers, raised beds, and mixed designs. This requires little surface area but can double growing space and productivity. Select climbing, vining varieties of vegetables including pole beans, peas, cucumbers, and some squashes.
All kinds of raised beds have been popular for years. These gardens assist with plant control, minimize maintenance, concentrate plants for watering and fertilization, provide easier access, and lend themselves to creative plant combinations and schedules of seasonal partial replanting. Bed edges can be constructed of many materials consistent with budget and the nature of your overall garden design. Consider concrete blocks, landscape timbers, upright bricks, driftwood, two-inch lumber, recycled “lumber,” etc.
Readymade frames may be firepits, watering troughs with bottom holes added for drainage and commercially available kits. Different shapes and box arrangements add interest and may reduce space demands. Look for tiered boxes and pyramids. Depth will depend on the plants you intend to include. For vegetables, allow for at least ten to twelve inches of good potting soil. An underlayer of landscape cloth or flattened cardboard will deter weeds.
Large quantities of soil, often with fertilizer included, can be acquired from horticulture supply companies or building materials suppliers. Do not use material advertised as “topsoil” or yard soils. Make sure there is good drainage. Fertilize regularly with a balanced, complete fertilizer (containing trace elements) such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. For vegetables, research the best rates and frequency for each variety. Water regularly to maintain moisture throughout the depth of the bed.
Other space-saving suggestions include mixing dwarf and miniature plant varieties with taller plants in the rear or center of plantings. Plant as densely as recommended spacing allows. Mix annuals and perennials following recommendations from a seasonal replacement calendar. Plant flowering plants, herbs, and edibles together to attract pollinators, deter insects, and create diversity in color and texture. For edibles include small plants like lettuce and carrots below taller maturing plants such as broccoli and tomatoes. Plant successions of quick maturing crops to get a continuous supply in a small space. Remove spent plants and replace them promptly.
Check out our Saturday. April 1 Master Gardener Urban Nano Farming event. This is a great opportunity to shop for dwarf plants for small spaces and see demonstrations.