The Buzz

Gardening in Small Spaces

As time goes by, it seems like all of us have less time for almost everything that is a part of our lives.  Gardening is certainly not an exception.  The trend seems to be larger homes on smaller lots or apartments or zero lots without a really defined garden where often times most gardening is done in pots or other containers.  

I prefer using the English term “garden” rather than the American “yard” when referring to an outdoor planting.  A garden could then be a grouping of potted plants on a patio, deck or balcony as well as an actual planting in the ground surrounding a structure.  So—really you are a gardener even if the only place where you grow plants is on a window sill.  

Some things to keep in mind when gardening in small spaces are much the same as gardening in a larger scale except you can have much better control.  

First of all is soil.  When you garden in containers, control is complete because you supply the growing media instead of Mother Nature.  The best part of this is you could grow a plant that likes alkaline soil in a pot right next to one that prefers acid soil and both could have their needs catered to equally well.  Certainly not an option when you are gardening in the ground.  

For the majority of container plants, a commercial mix that you can purchase at most garden centers is an excellent start.  You can then add pine bark, lime, fertilizer, sand or whatever is necessary to make the media appropriate for the particular plant you want to grow.  

When gardening in the ground, particularly when adjacent to new construction, the soil is usually compacted, poorly drained clay.  The most helpful thing you can do is incorporate organic matter as deeply and thoroughly as possible.  This can include soil conditioner (available at any garden center), compost or partly decomposed leaves.  The last two items are by-products of most established gardens.  

One of the advantages of adding organic matter is you raise the level of the bed above the surrounding grade which greatly improves drainage.  In some cases, where sub-soil drainage is impossible, it might be necessary to install drain tile to run the water to a lower spot on the property.  

Sunlight or lack of it will govern what you plant.  Thankfully Mother Nature has provided a great diversity of plant material that will grow in various intensities of light, but that means you need to do your homework so you select appropriate plants for the site.  

The other consideration besides appropriate soil conditions and light is the mature size of the plants you intend to grow.  Many gardeners cause themselves huge amounts of work simply because they choose plants that grow much too large for the space they are to occupy.  

I don’t believe that God intended for our homes to be surrounded by little cones, drums and boxes of green foliage that have to be endlessly clipped and yet that is what you see every neighborhood in any city in America.  

If you make wise plant selection you will actually have to do very little pruning.  

A good example is crape myrtle.  There are varieties that grow 18” tall, some that reach 3-4’, others that grow 8-10’ tall and still others that are multi-trunk trees that can reach 30’ or more.  Why do people invariably select the larges varieties and then try to maintain them as five foot chopped off sticks!  

The same is true of hollies, junipers and almost any other group of landscape plants that you can name.  Part of the problem is a lot of people want instant results and plant the largest size of the least expensive plants they can find.  The reason they cost less is because they grow fast.  You can then spend the rest of your life cutting them back so you can see out of your windows.

The alternative is to seek out dwarf varieties that will not outgrow their allotted space.  You can then enjoy them instead of spending all your time trying to control them.  

Some good smaller trees—   Kousa Dogwood -Cornus kousa; Chinese Parasol - Firmiana simplex;  American Fringe Tree - Chionanthus virginicus;  Chinese Fringe Tree -  Chionanthus retusus; Crape Myrtles -  Lagerstroemia indica and Lagerstroemia fauriei; Deciduous Hollies -  Ilex decidua; Japanese Maples -  Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum;  Japanese Cedar -  Cryptomeria japonica; Oriental Magnolias -  Magnolia soulangiana and Magnolia stellata; Serviceberry - Amelanchier arborea  

Some good dwarf shrubs—   Yaupon Holly - Ilex vomitoria ‘Stoke’s Dwarf’ and ‘Bordeaux’;  Soft Touch Holly -  Ilex crenata;  Plum Yew - Cephalotaxus harringtonia;  Dwarf Juniper - Juniperus procumbens and Juniperus horizontalis; Robin Hill Azaleas - Rhododendron ‘Robin Hill;' Gumpo Azaleas - Rhododendron ‘Gumpo;’ Hydrangeas -  many varieties, especially Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and newer selections of Hydrangea macrophylla  

Not dwarf, but easy to maintain—   Camellias - Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua (Ackerman Hybrid series are especially good winter bloomers); Boxwoods - Buxus microphylla and Buxus sempervirens (slow-growing); Virginia Willow - Itea virginica (good fall color and does well with poor drainage)

Posted by Rick Pudwell at 8:00 PM


10/15/2012 at 08:22 PM by Mary

What vegetable plants would you recommend for a small container garden? I'd love to start one in my next apartment on the patio.

10/16/2012 at 02:17 PM by Rick Pudwell

At this time of year, If you can find plants at the garden centers, such as Kale, Broccoli, Parsley or leaf lettuce plant them in large containers in a sunny location out of the prevailing wind, you could still harvest some salad crops this fall. Depending on the winter, some might make it through to spring. Early next spring you can do salad crops again. Try sowing seeds directly in the containers at that time. After the last frost in spring try peppers, bush-type tomatoes, eggplant and bush beans. If you have really large containers (25 gallon volume or more of soil) you could do regular tomatoes, okra and even vines such as squash and cucumbers if you provide a trellis or have room for them to spread out. Remember, in the heat of summer most containers will need to be watered daily and need frequent fertilization. Rick Pudwell Director of Horticulture Memphis Botanic Garden

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