Gardening In Small Spaces

    Many people are put off from gardening because of a perceived lack of available space. Let me tell you that I live in a two storey town house. The entire property is 7 metres wide, and 30m long. Of those 210m2, the building covers most of it. As you might imagine with such a skinny block, what's left, is often wedged between 1.8m high fences and walls, sometimes with widths of only 80cm.

    Gardeners all around the world have far less space than I do, and do some amazing things. So instead of seeing limited space as an insurmountable problem, rather see it as an obstacle work around, and/or overcome creatively.

    What do plants need, really?

    Plants, like humans, have needs that are quite simple when you boil them down far enough. Obviously people and plants do better in supportive environments, and less well in harsh, or even hostile environments. However, just because something isn't an "ideal" situation or even "common practice" doesn't mean that you can't grow plants at all. Plants need only a handful of things really:

    • Adequate light - Generally, more light is better. Sunlight is best, but some plants can be grown under special lights. Typically, plants with bigger leaves do better in shady conditions, but may not actually ideally suited to shade, so do your research.
    • Appropriate climate - Plants can grow almost anywhere... if they're suited to the climate. Make sure your plant selections match your climate.
    • Decent soil - Plants vary in their preferred type of soil. However, a premium potting mix, with some slow-release fertilizer is a great start. If growing citrus or blueberries, then a citrus potting mix is highly recommended.
    • Water - Yes, plants like water. Not too much, and not too little. Again, check the requirements for your particular plant species.
    • Pest and disease management - Like everything in nature, everything eats something else, and plants have many predators and diseases to worry about too. Notice how I said management not extermination. You could think of a pest problem as more of a lack of pest-eating critters. The common solution is to spray toxins everywhere to poison the pests, but this gets rid of helpful critters too! So look for non-toxic solutions first!

    Starting small not only makes sense, but allows you build up in manageable stages.

    When I decided to "dip my toe" into gardening again, I started with just a few ceramic pots, all growing herbs for the kitchen. Coriander, Basil, Mint, and later, Oregano. They were all tasty, although the Coriander bolted (kinda skipped growing leaves, and went straight to seed, which is then less tasty or may even signal the end of the plant's life cycle). However, I really liked the idea of growing more varieties of herbs, vegetables, and fruit. So more pots were added, sometimes I'd plant seedlings in two different locations (or just moved the pots around just to see how they went). I watered, replenished nutrients and mulch, and re-potted as needed, and soon space was becoming an issue.

    When space becomes an issue:

    It may seem strange, but one of the first things to think about when space becomes a precious resource is not what and where to plant for the best growth, but it is how to maintain access to everything. Without access, you can't manage areas of your space, or water them regularly, harvest, prune or even keep an eye on things. So try not to over crowd your plants, or install garden "features" which restrict access to the point where it is almost a psychological barrier. It's hard to spend time in a garden that feels cramped, and often can make people feel overwhelmed. That's not what you want.

    Moral to the story: It's ok to have gaps in your garden. It's healthy, and provides room for growth, use, access, and movement. However, don't leave bare soil, so mulch these areas well.

    You might be wondering now: "Just how big do these gaps need to be?" That's a really good question. Funnily enough, plants keep wanting to grow bigger until they reach full maturity. That's great if you live on a farm with wide open paddocks, but for smaller spaces, those "large", "medium" or even "small" size guides on plant labels are worryingly vague. Remember, a small tree can grow up to 10m (30 ft) high. A medium tree is between 10-20m (30-60 ft) and a large tree is anything bigger. To avoid issues in the future, select and plant your garden according to the estimated size of your fully-grown species. These days, you can have a veritable orchard in a small space. You might need to pick a dwarf variety of your favourite trees and shrubs and put them in a pot, but it's certainly doable. As an added benefit, this way you can still move it (albeit with some difficulty if the pot is large) and avoid any existing issues with your local soil. Talk to your local nursery (better if it's actually a nursery, not a hardware store) for more details, and what might be good in your area and situation.

    Space may be limited, but there's ways to maximise your area.

    There are so many ways to grow more when you're looking around for a spot to plant something. If you must plant in a "gap", then perhaps a compromise solution is "companion planting", or "guild planting" (which is where plants work symbiotically to provide benefits to one another).

    Another idea is to take your typical ground-based garden, and start going up or down in the third dimension. To do this, some ideas may include:

    • Hanging gardens: Most people are familiar with the hanging pots, maybe lined with coconut fibres (I think it's called "coir"). If you have a pergola, porch, verandah, or even a convenient tree branch to hang a basket with, it's a great way to add some more plants. However, there are other varieties of hanging pots out there. Some hang off guttering down pipes and divert water from the pipe, others use pulleys for easy raising/lowering.
    • Vertical gardens: The ones which are most common include trellising and espalier planting. Some involve vines simply growing up a convenient tree. Newer alternatives for vertical gardens include pots mounted on walls somehow, or sheets of fabric pockets acting like pots, dangling from the vertical surface of choice. Curiously, most people only think of "going up" when it comes to vertical gardens, and never consider going down. It might be as simple as plants spilling downwards over and through retaining walls (like pumpkin or melon vines)
    • Terracing, for steep gradients. Technically this isn't vertical, as you're creating numerous horizontal beds, but why not take advantage of the vertical walls too?
    • Shelving! Sometimes simply lining a wall with shelves, and having many planted pots on them might be an option.
    • Green roof options. I met a guy who has an extensive, strawberry-covered green roof.
    • Multi-level hydroponic systems where the lower levels are grown under artificial/reflected/refracted light.
    • Using lit, under-utilized spaces... such as window sills, balconies, porches, on top of the garden shed. Please note that this may not be great in extreme conditions.

    Get the most from each and every plant:

    Some plants need to be pruned in order to encourage better growth. Too many gardeners are timid in harvesting. Basil is a key example. If you look at a basil plant, the stem grows leaves in pairs. If you leave the plant to grow along the existing single stalk repeating the two leaves at a time process, you get these tall, lanky plants without many leaves. However, by plucking the entire stem down to a pair of leaves that has shoots between the leaf stalk and the stem, those two shoots grow into branches, each with their pairs of leaves. Let those two branches to grow up until the branches have their own shoots on the leaves, and cut off the stem on those, and then you have four branches. This means you get a lot more to harvest, your plants are bushier so they don't stretch out as much, (more leaves in a small space) and you're discouraging the continued growth of older, stringier leaves.

    Thrill, fill, and spill your pots/beds:

    In each pot, don't limit yourself to one plant. Many gardeners arrange their pots like they would a bunch of flowers. So have your main plant (thrill), then arrange and plant smaller upright plants to cover the soil (fill) and then have something flowing over the edge (spill). Just make sure the pot is large enough, each species is compatible with the others, and likes a similar environment (soil and climate) to grow in. Not only will you get more diversity in a small space, but you can also get a more natural garden look when you arrange pots close together.

    When you finally run out of space...

    While using your own private space is convenient and unlikely to offend anyone, that isn't the only option. You can always seek more space further afield using one or more of the suggestions below:

    • Try asking your family/friends/neighbours to use their space to grow vegetables (you'd obviously need to share the produce with them/offer to look after the house when they're away)
    • You could ask to use communal spaces like roof tops, unused corners of the garden.
    • Join a community garden, they're more common than you might think.
    • Guerilla garden. Pick a quiet spot somewhere, and secretly garden there. You never know, others might help you to fix up and improve the place. They're popping up in weird and wacky places around Canberra, some are very impressive, feed the homeless, and have created situations where long-term neighbours have finally met one another. Of course, nothing is stopping anyone from stealing your crops either.
    • Offer to look after school vegetable patches over holidays, in exchange for a sneaky plot in the "Agriculture" section. You will only be able to drop by at certain times during the school semester, but I've had friends who have done this.
    • Know anyone who just wants some help in their garden, put in an ad saying "I will help with some gardening, if there's a spot I can grow some extra herbs, fruit and vegetables".
    • Go indoors with "grow lights". Ok, so this is probably expensive to start up, and you'll look like you're growing certain illegal-yet-potentially-profitable crops if you aren't careful. But you could try your hand at hydroponics, aquaponics, completely assured that the weather outside isn't going to make much difference to your crops.



    I hope this gives you some ideas, and perhaps, even inspiration. Remember, to stay safe and have fun!


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