Gardening in Small Spaces

Even a small space can offer excellent gardening opportunities, you just need to be creative. This is a guide about gardening in small spaces.

Small Walled Garden
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Urban gardeningSpace is at a premium for most gardeners, but especially for people living in large urban areas. A few may have limited access to a small backyard plot, but most consider themselves lucky if they have a small balcony or rooftop terrace on which to grow plants. If you live in a large city, you can still grow own edibles and flowers, you just have to get a little creative. Here are some tips for making the most of the little space you have.

Rule #1: Ask For Permission

If you live in a condominium or a town home, be sure you receive approval from your co-op board or HOA, (or if you rent, your landlord) before planting or modifying your balcony or patio space in any way. Most have very specific rules in place regarding gardening and landscaping - for example weight loads for balconies, and what type of alterations, if any, can be made to exterior walls.

Build Beds Out of Boxes

A small corner on a balcony can usually accommodate several 2 x 2 foot wooden boxes (6-inches deep) for growing vegetables and flowers. Fill them with a light weight potting soil and make an attractive display by stacking them at different heights using concrete blocks. For climbing plants, attach a vertical frame to the side of the boxes and tack on some netting.

Capitalize On the Sun

Vegetables require plenty of sunlight - at least 6 hours or more a day. What you can grow depends on how your outdoor space is orientated to the sun. Crops like tomatoes, peppers, and beans will be happiest in a warm, light-filled exposure to the south or west. Lettuce and root vegetables need less sun and can be grown in northern and eastern exposures, where sunlight is more limited. To maximize the amount of sun your plants receive, try using mirrors, light colored paint, and shiny accessories in the space to help capture and reflect the light.

Compost in Your Kitchen

Kitchen compost pails are the perfect way to recycle food scraps in apartments, small homes, and condominiums, because they allow you to produce compost directly in an airtight pail, which eliminates the odors. Larger systems could be placed on a rooftop, or - if the law allows - on a fire escape for shared use by several neighbors. For the more adventurous types, a shallow 2 x 2 foot box located in a broom closet is adequate space for vermicomposting (composting with worms). Worm boxes placed outdoors in colder climates need to be well insulated.

Consider Your Neighbors

Be sure to consider your neighbors (and their pets) when planning your garden space. More than likely your garden will be considered a welcome addition, providing that your plants don't block any scenic views and your container garden doesn't "rain" down on your neighbor's balcony every time you water your plants.

Get Creative with Containers

The latest trend in gardening is to mix flowers and vegetable crops within the same container. This is great news for gardeners with limited space, and easy to do as long as you choose plants that have similar overall growing requirements (e.g. both need full sun). When designing containers, the traditional concept of thriller (a "look-at-me" plant), fillers (middle level plants that fill in the gaps), and spillers (the trailing elements) still applies. Look for dwarf varieties of vegetables that are specially bred to grow in containers. Raised bed.

Plant for Pollution Tolerance

Trees and plants growing near busy city streets need to be able to endure constant exposure to soot, salt, car exhaust, and other toxins. They must also be able to withstand heat from the pavement, drought-like conditions, and tolerate growing in acidic soils. Tree species like oak, ash, elm, ginkgo, linden, and gray birch, are considered more "pollution-tolerant". For flowers, native species are usually more adaptable to sparse conditions. If you want to plant roses, choose some of the heartier Rugosa varieties. Keep the foliage of your trees and plants clean and healthy by occasionally spraying them with water or wiping their leaves clean with a damp sponge.

Plant Fruit Trees in Pots

A few well-placed dwarf varieties of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees can make an attractive backdrop while giving you a delicious harvest. These small, attractive trees reach a height of 5 to 7 feet and bear fruit quickly. Figs, citrus, and soft fruits like strawberries and blueberries also do well in containers. Check the pollination requirements of each fruit. You may need more than one variety unless the tree is self-fertilizing. Make sure you use planters with wheels to make moving and rotating heavy pots easier.

Utilize Railings and Window Boxes

If your railings wide and flat, simply set a railing box on top of it and bolt it securely into place. Holders are also available for hanging standard size boxes on metal railings. Hang them on the outside of your railings to save balcony space. Hang them on the inside if you're worried about things falling to the ground. Use window boxes to grow dwarf vegetables like tomatoes or peppers and your favorite herbs. Some easy-care choices are sage, chives, thyme, oregano, and basil. If you're above the first floor, be sure to put a drip tray or saucer underneath your pots and planters to prevent any excess water from dripping down below.

Join a Community Garden

Few things are more rewarding than access to a steady supply of delicious fresh vegetables that you have grown yourself. No space of your own? Then consider joining a community garden. It's not as hard as you think and offers you opportunities to meet like-minded people that share similar interests. To find a community garden near you, or to find out how to start a community garden in your community, visit the American Community Garden Association

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How to Bring Light Into Shady Garden Spaces Some corners of the garden seem to be in a state of perpetual darkness. Cast into shade by a nearby building, shed, or even the shadow of your own house, these areas present a unique and difficult gardening challenge. If you're looking to lighten up a deeply shaded corner of your garden, here are some creative ways to use color and light that will make the whole area seem brighter.

Whiten to Brighten

Whether it's walls, arbors, trellises, or patio furniture, using dark colors in a shady space will only add more doom and gloom to the area. If you are surrounded by surfaces that you have permission to alter (walls, fences, etc.), use a white or bright color of exterior paint to lighten up the area. Not only will this make a dramatic impact on the amount of light the space receives, but it will also provide a great backdrop to showcase the color and texture of your plants. If you don't have the option to paint, you can still instantly transform the area just by adding some white or neon colored chairs, light colored containers, or even by using a removable white canvas curtain as a backdrop.

Reflect the Light

Mirrors are wonderful design tools. By bouncing light around a space, they open them up visually and make them feel larger. Mirrors reflect light, but they also reflect views (good or bad), so when hanging them, think about what you'll be reflecting. Small mirrors are great for dark spaces, and nearby plants will appreciate the extra light. Use a light-colored picture frame to hide a mirror's edges and bring even more light into the space.

Add Light-Colored Rocks

Light-colored rocks are another way of adding color to dark spaces and a nice way to add detail to garden borders. To mulch around plants in containers, use white gravel, glass marbles, or an assortment of light-colored shells.

Plant in Pale Colors

Choosing plants with pale foliage and light-colored flowers will make a deeply shaded area seem much brighter. Examples of perennials well suited to heavily shaded areas:

  • Elephant-ears (good border plant; red or rose-pink flowers; blooms in spring)

  • Goatsbeard (tall; creamy-white feathery flowers; blooms in early summer)

  • Goutweed (variegated foliage; grows anywhere; fast-growing ground cover)*

  • Hosta (good foliage plants; use for accent plants, groundcovers, rock gardens)

  • Lamium, also called 'deadnettle' (versatile groundcover; striking silver foliage; white or pink flowers)

  • Lily-of-the-valley (sweet smelling spring flower; good ground cover; delicate white flowers)*

  • Masterwort (tall background plant; clusters of star-like red or white flowers; blooms early to late summer)

  • Primrose (available in multiple bright colors; great in rock and woodland gardens, mixed flower gardens and front borders)

  • Pulminaria (great ground cover; striking silver spotted leaves with delicate pink flowers that turn blue as they age)

  • Snakeroot (tall, dramatic background plant; dark leaves and spires of tiny, creamy-white flowers; blooms from summer until late fall)

  • Solomon's Seal (slow growing; graceful stems with creamy-white bell flowers followed by shiny, blue-black berries)

*Can become invasive if not controlled.

Use climbers that thrive in shade to brighten up a dark wall or fence. Again, choosing plants with pale-colored flowers or variegated foliage will help make the area seem brighter.

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Parking Lot Garden (St Johns, OR)

Photo Description
I created a garden out of a parking lot using coffee grounds from Starbucks and coffee chaff from Coffee Bean International. This is my window view as I work from home.

Photo Location
St Johns neighborhood, Portland OR.

Parking Lot Garden (St Johns, OR)Parking Lot Garden (St Johns, OR)

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Vertical Planting Pouches

Vertical Planting Pouches

Have you seen the pouches at the gardening centers that have small opening in them and appear to be made from heavy plastic? You plant flowers in the openings and when it gets filled out you have a virtual waterfall of plants.

I made some of these that look exactly like them. They are made from tarps. I sewed them on my sewing machine. I used the grommet to attach my handle, but you could sew it on as well. They are approximately 17 inches high and 7 inches across. You can square off the bottom if you wish (like it is on a brown paper bag). By making your own, you can make it the size you want and put in as many plants as you wish. These are shown with no cuts because I am trying to decide what plants to put in. But to make the openings, just take a utility knife and make an X for the openings.

By Elaine from IA

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I grew up on a small farm where we raised practically everything we ate. I've always liked to have some fresh produce growing somewhere. We have downsized to our retirement home and try as I might, I haven't been able to find a suitable place to plant very much of a "Victory Garden."

Yesterday as I was cleaning up around outside, I saw my window boxes which I had taken down for the winter. My frugal, farm girl mind kicked in with this idea. Instead of spending money on the annuals I usually fill them with, I'm going to plant vegetable seeds for plants which will thrive in that kind of container. I've already bought radish, lettuce, and chive seeds (three packs for $1.00!). Since I'll be able to bring them inside at night if the temperature drops, I'm going to get those started right away.

I'm also planning to plant some cucumbers in them because they will be pretty, trailing over the sides. Tomato and pepper plants can be tucked into spots between shrubbery in the back yard. I will again plant potatoes in my very large round pots. Last year I cut the eyes off some potatoes that had sprouted in my vegetable bin, planted them in a big pot and had a nice crop from something I would have just put into the garbage disposer. My grandchildren had a virtual treasure hunt digging them out.

I'm so excited about this project and can't wait to get started. I was going to wait to submit this idea after I had the boxes full and growing and could submit a photo, but I wanted it to be published in time for others to do the same if they like the idea. Why pay for and plant those annual ornamental vines when you can plant something fresh and edible?

By Sandy from Elon, NC

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In my backyard we have a concrete slab that is about a 1/2 inch thick, that was used for a basketball area. Now, I would like to grow a garden on top.

Does anyone know if this is possible? Not sure if it is possible to drill holes for drainage. Could there be layer system like in living roofs that could work? Please help!

Hardiness Zone: 7a

By cacunnin from Washington DC

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Thank you so much for all of your help!

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I'm starting a gardening project with grades Pre-K to 4. We have a very small section of land. I would like ideas. Thank you.

Hardiness Zone: 6a

By easylikesunday from Philadelphia, PA

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If you are doing flowers, I'd go with marigolds. They grow well in very sunny locations. When they are finished, take the heads off the stems, let them dry for a week or so then pull them apart to "salvage" the seds for next Spring. In the Spring, et your soil ready, broad cast the seeds over the area, gently tamp the seeds into the soil and water well. When they are about 3 inches high you can thin them out. You will have a ton of seeds, so the kids can take some home with them also.

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Short on space? Want to grow herbs or salad foods? Then grow food upwards! Yep, this season I have done this using recycled materials and here's how. I used parts of a pallet (wooden slated base which building products are delivered on in the UK) to make a rectangular frame, secured in the corners with screws to provide some strength.


  • numerous 4 pint plastic milk bottles ($0.00)
  • wood to make a rectangular frame ($0.00)
  • strong bamboo sticks ($0.00)
  • compost and plants
  • cup hooks to hold the bamboo sticks ($£2.00)


  1. Screw in cup hooks so that I can suspend strong bamboo sticks from one side to another. I made a total of 4 rows.
  2. Collect 4 pint plastic milk bottles and cut them down so that the handle can be threaded on to the bamboo stick. Remove the top from behind the screw cap and about 3 inches down the front. Don't forget to put some holes in the base for drainage. I managed to get 6 across on my frame.
  3. I then used a Sharpie to write the name of the plants on the front after potting them up. So far I have chives, coriander, chard, mint, parsley, mixed lettuce, marjoram, sage, cress, curry plant, strawberries, etc.

So far, so good, the food is growing and I am thinking about what else I can grow and have come up with trailing tomatoes! Hmmm, wonder what I can grow for winter?

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No matter how small your garden plot is, intensive gardening will maximize the productivity of your available space. Intensive gardening does this by utilizing season-extending tools and specific planting techniques.

plant rows

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This is our front door moveable garden, in my garden.

By Mary from Lewiston, NY

Moveable Garden by Front Door Birdbath and Trellis in Moveable Garden

Moveable Garden by Front Door

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Has anyone ever tried "vertical gardening"? I am very excited to try this. I have a small balcony and love gardening and this sounds like the answer to my problem.

By Sweet_tammy from Parry Sound, ON

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Vertical gardening is exactly what it sounds like: gardening vertically rather than horizontally, as we normally do.

It's ideal for those with limited space who garden in a small yard or on a terrace, deck or patio, but it also can be used effectively by any gardener who is interested in experiencing different types of gardening.

You can use fences, walls, trellises, arbors, pergolas and many different types of containers to garden vertically. As you add lush, draping plants, you can't help but appreciate the sense of artistry that vertical gardening can bring to the landscape.

A vertical garden creates privacy and helps hide unattractive views. It also can cool off your landscape and help shade your property. It allows you to grow more plants with less space while offering excellent air circulation for those plants. You'll be able to enjoy your tomatoes and cantaloupes ripening at eye level.

And plants suited for vertical gardening tend to have less disease because some pests don't climb vertically. Another bonus: You won't have to weed vertical gardens as frequently because you'll be using less soil.

Vertical gardening also allows people with disabilities or those who can't bend or kneel to continue gardening.


Ready to get started? Here are several structures that are ideal for vertical gardening:

Fences. These are a great way to make use of upward-growing plants, especially climbers and those that have tendrils. And if your fence is unsightly, vertical gardening is a great way to hide it.

Trellises. These structures stand alone and can be made of wood, metal, stone, bricks, plastic or even PVC.

Arbors or pergolas. There are many styles and materials from which to choose, and these structures can either stand alone or be attached to your house. My rule of thumb is that all outside gardening structures should complement the style of your home.

Miscellaneous. Poles, cages, string or large stakes all can work to support your vertical plantings. Also, containers are the foundation for several combinations of vertical gardening. Some unusual objects upon which plants can drape or be trained to grow upward are barrels, old window frames and bed frames or even old kitchen stools.

Lots of plants work well in a vertical garden, including the following:

Vegetables. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, winter squash and gourds are perfect choices. Some of these plants will entwine themselves around your structure of choice, while others will need to be tied to it for support. Another ideal vegetable is corn because it needs a lot of vertical space to flourish. One of the benefits of growing corn is that you can plant other veggies along with it, such as beans and zucchini, and use the corn stalks as a supporting structure. You'll get double the harvest, and it will look beautiful.

Vines. A vertical flowering vine can add beauty to your landscape. Plus, it will attract birds and butterflies to your garden for you to enjoy. Morning glory, clematis, climbing rose, honeysuckle vine, sweet potato vine and cardinal climber are good choices.

Fruits. The larger fruits -- melons and pumpkins -- can be trained to grow vertically and can be supported with old pantyhose, strips of cloth or, depending on the size of the fruit, heavy rope. Tie them loosely to avoid damaging the vines. Grapes and kiwi fruit also grow well vertically. Good luck.

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If you are looking for high-producing crops to use in a small yard, here are some suggestions:

Elderberries make an attractive border. They grow about 10 feet tall and give you lots of berries. We juice them. My husband makes wine from some, and I make jelly from the rest. It is also a tasty breakfast juice if you sweeten it. You may want to dilute it with water or lemon-lime soda to your taste. This year I will be selling jelly at a local Scandinavian festival.

Don't have a yard, but you do have a sunny window? Bring in a 30 gallon trash can that has holes in the bottom for drainage. Invert the lid and put it under the trash can. Put a few layers of newspaper in the bottom and then fill with soil. At least the top foot should be good potting soil. I have had good success with chard and green onions this way in a window that is not very sunny. Lots of sun means you can raise tomatoes, peppers, and onions to make your own salsa. You will get more than you need for fresh eating, so find a good recipe for salsa and can it in pint jars. Great stuff!

By Coreen from Rupert, ID

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When I put my plants in the ground I lay them on their sides and put the dirt all the way up and over the roots and bottom leaves. Pat the dirt down good. It grows more roots and builds up the plant.

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Home and Garden Gardening AdviceMarch 28, 2012
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