If you want to grow a garden but think you can’t because of limited space, think again. Gardening in a small space has its challenges, of course, but small-space gardening is totally doable.
In fact, space limitations can lead to some of the most beautiful, productive, and impactful gardens.
In this article, I’ll give you my top twelve tips for growing beautiful gardens in small spaces. Whether your gardening area is in a tiny yard, on a patio, or even on a balcony, I think you’ll find some helpful ideas to grow and nurture your very own garden.
Why is Small Space Gardening so Important?
Over half of the world’s population is living in urban areas (56% as of 2021) and in the US, over four-fifths of us live in urban areas (82% as of 2021).
With so many of us living in urban areas, having the skills to grow in small spaces can benefit many people in many ways. Of course, not all city dwellers are interested in gardening, but many are, and many more would be if they knew how accessible and beneficial small-space gardening can be.
The act of growing some of our own food, even if it’s just a token amount, brings awareness to the processes, land, water, and other resources required to grow the rest of our food. And that awareness is profoundly important in our changing world.
Benefits of Small Space Gardening
Before we get into the tips for gardening in small spaces, here are a few benefits of small-space gardening, and gardening in general.
Gardening Connects Us to Our Food Sources
Even in small spaces, we can grow a portion of our own food. This practice fosters a deep connection between us and our food, a connection impossible to achieve with supermarket-sourced food. Even if it’s just one meal or one garden salad, the impact on our psychology is enormous.
Gardening Improves Mental Health
The health benefits of gardening apply no matter the size of the garden. The act of tending plants is mood-boosting and stress-relieving.
Gardening is therapy. It allows us a chance to downshift, observe, nurture, and be with a piece of nature.
And there is a special kind of satisfaction that comes when those carefully tended plants grow up and produce a yield for you to harvest and enjoy.
Garden Harvests Offer Excellent Nutrition
The nutrition of homegrown food is superior to grocery store foods, even organic foods. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is its freshness. The second is the organic gardening methods used in home gardens versus industrial agriculture methods (including organic methods) that deplete the soil of nutrients.
Other Health Benefits of Gardening
Gardening, and just the presence of plants in our environment, provides many other health benefits. Plants improve air quality. They add visual aesthetics to a space, inside or out. And plants can create microclimates (or just ambiance) that make our spaces feel better to live in.
Social Benefits of Gardening
Gardening invites human connection, even if it’s just a few plants in containers on your front porch or balcony. Plants in urban spaces like this create a sense of community.
Another option for gardening, when you don’t have much space at home, is to join a community garden, which has clear the benefit of making social connections and building relationships with fellow gardeners.
Gardens Can Provide Privacy
Urban gardens foster social connections, but at the same time, they can create privacy by screening off views and sounds between the street and the home. The aesthetics of small gardens tucked into the nooks and crannies of an urban landscape are gifts to the community.
Twelve Tips For Small Space Gardening
1. Go Intensive
When your space is limited, it doesn’t always make sense to use the standard row and plant spacing guidelines found on most seed packets and in gardening resources.
Plants do need adequate space to grow, but there are a few methods to increase planting density with minimal drawbacks. Some intensive gardening methods include Square Foot Gardening, Vertical Gardening, and polyculture gardening.
2. Grow in Layers
This is a great strategy in any garden, but it is particularly helpful in small spaces because it allows you to pack in a lot of plants in one area. By layers, I mean the layers of a forest: canopy, sub-canopy, shrub, herbaceous, ground cover, root, and vine layers.
Growing in Layers in a Container
Even in a small container, you might be able to fit in two or three layers. A central plant, an outer plant, and a vine that trails over the sides of the container. In a small garden bed, patio planter, or collection of containers you might be able to grow four, five, or even six of these layers.
Layers Below the Soil Surface
Similarly, consider root space in terms of layers.
Different plants occupy different areas below ground. Because of this, you can get away with planting more plants in one pot than you might expect.
Shallow roots, tap roots, and deep fibrous roots all occupy different parts of the soil, so combining one of each of these root types will introduce less competition than attempting to grow two plants with the same root type in one container.
Grow in Layers for Aesthetics
A diversity of plant sizes from low to taller also adds to the aesthetic appeal of any garden.
On a patio, put taller plants at the edges and lower plants nearer the walkway. In a large planter bed, fill in spaces between larger plants with small herbaceous plants and ground covers. In a single container, make use of space above and outside it by adding a trellis for vines to climb up, and allowing trailing vines to hang over the edge of the pot.
3. Guild You Garden
A guild, in gardening terms, is a community of plants, grown together to mutually benefit each other. A plant guild makes use of multiple layers in space (as in the tip above) and also provides multiple ecosystem functions so that the plants all support each other.
You can think of a guild as a cultivated ecosystem. It is more self-sustaining than any plant growing in isolation.
And remember, the more support plants receive from their environment, the less support they need from the gardener, in the forms of feeding, sheltering, and pest and disease control.
4. Select Plants Mindfully
With limited space, choosing the right plants to grow is important. You want to make the most of the little growing space you have and not waste it on plants that don’t end up benefiting you. So before you select your plants, think about what your goals and limitations are.
Choose plants that you like to eat (or find beautiful) and that also do well in your climate and growing conditions.
Want to grow food in containers on your balcony? Pick plants that check all of these boxes.
Choose plants that:
- You or your family like to eat
- Grow well in containers
- Are appropriately sized for your space
Also, choose plants that have a big bang for their buck, such as herbs.
Herbs are expensive to buy at the grocery store or farmers’ market. And, they are frequently used in cooking yet don’t keep fresh for long after harvesting.
Most herbs do well in containers, even small containers on a sunny window sill.
5. Grow in Containers
One of the greatest advantages of growing in containers is the degree of control you have over the growing conditions. This means you can grow a lot of plants in containers that wouldn’t fare as well if planted in the ground.
You can adjust the potting mix to customize it for each plant’s specific needs. And you can move containers around to adjust light and temperature conditions throughout the year.
- Growing blueberries? Use potting mix and fertilizer customized for acid-loving plants.
- Growing succulents? Add sand or perlite to your mix for excellent drainage.
- Want to grow tropical plants in a temperate climate? Pot them up and bring them inside for the winter.
When buying plants at a nursery, here are a few keywords to look for that may appear on plant tags. These words signal that a plant will do well in a small space or container.
Words indicating a plant is suited to container life:
- Short stature
6. Carefully Consider Location
Start your small space garden in the best location you have available. Consider sunlight, soil quality (if planting in native soil), and access to water.
For most gardens, choose the sunniest location because shade can always be added, though it’s difficult to impossible to add sunlight.
Consider your irrigation source, and choose a location that has easy water access.
You might not know what condition your soil is in, but some locations are clearly better than others. A grassy (or weedy) patch is better than an old compacted driveway. Although poor soil can usually be fixed.
That said, if there are any structures older than 1978 nearby, be wary of planting an in-ground garden next to them, due to the possibility of lead from lead paint in the soil. For these locations, a raised bed or container garden is a good idea.
7. Group Plants with Similar Needs
Whether you’re planting in a garden bed or container, it’s helpful to group plants with similar needs. This makes watering and other care easier. For example, put water-loving plants in one area and xeric plants in another. And group acid-loving plants on one bed, where you can more easily amend the soil as needed.
When planting multiple plants in one pot, make sure each plant has similar or compatible sunlight, moisture, and drainage needs. Keep in mind that taller plants might shade other plants in the same container. This can be a benefit or a problem, depending on the specific plants and whether they prefer full sun or a little shelter.
8. Understand Winter Care for Perennials in Containers
One great advantage of growing in containers is the ability to bring plants inside for the winter. This opens up a whole other range of perennial growing options available to you, particularly if you live in a cooler climate.
If you want to try growing plants outside your climate zone, they’ll need winter protection. For some plants that are just pushing your climate zone, this might mean heavy mulching in place. Other plants will need to be brought inside for the winter, and stored in a cool but protected location such as an unheated garage.
When to Bring Plants Inside for the Winter?
Don’t bring them inside too soon. Protect plants in containers after a hard frost. Exposure to a light frost or two signals the plant to go to sleep. Once dormant for the season, a plant needs less water and no light.
How to Care for Dormant Plants Indoors?
To keep the plant in a dormant state, store it in a cool (but not freezing) and dark location. Garages are a common choice. Continue to water your dormant container plants as needed throughout the winter. Checking their moisture level once or twice a month should be sufficient.
Also, understand that this winter care for dormant plants applies to non-evergreen plants only.
9. Build, Mix, or Buy Quality Soil
In small-space gardening, it is particularly important to have good soil. Intensive, high-density planting means more competition for nutrients.
If you’re planting in the ground, add plenty of compost and other soil amendments. Which amendments depend on what your specific soil needs. A simple soil test will provide you with the information you need to confidently amend your soil appropriately. Besides compost, common soil amendments include rock dust, lime, and fine pine bark mulch.
When growing in containers, use a potting mix, never native soil. Potting mix provides good drainage and won’t compact. As I already mentioned, it can easily be customized to suit the needs of different plants. Use a premade mix or mix your own.
For indoor gardening use a soilless growing medium or potting mix intended for indoor use. I’ve even seen kits for growing herbs in glass bottles with a soilless growing medium inside.
10. Fertilize Plants in Containers
Plants growing in containers are effectively cut off from the soil ecosystem. Their roots cannot extend down in search of nutrients. Plus, watering plants in containers flushes out nutrients. For these reasons, it’s important to fertilize most potted plants every couple of weeks.
Fertilizing is less necessary for xeric plants because less watering means less flushing of nutrients. Also, some herbs such as rosemary thyme and sage don’t need much fertilizer because they tend to do well in poor soils.
Baby greens are usually picked before their soil becomes depleted. But if you reuse soil, mix nutrients back in between plantings.
Most other potted plants, however, will benefit from regular fertilization. Organic options for liquid fertilizer include fish emulsion, compost tea, and worm-casting leachate. An alternative to liquid fertilizer is simply spreading a layer of compost or worm castings on top of the soil. When you water, the nutrients will travel into the soil.
For liquid fertilizer, my go-to choice is fish emulsion but be warned that it does have an odor so you may want to use it outdoors only.
11. Water Wisely
Keep a close eye on the water needs of your small space garden. Containers and raised beds dry out more quickly than in-ground gardens. But don’t be too heavy-handed with the hose either, because it’s also easy to overwater potted plants, which can lead to root rot and plant death.
Even small gardens can use a large amount of water, particularly if they are intensively planted.
Setting up an irrigation system for your garden can reduce water waste and make it easier to keep your garden properly watered at all times. The most water-efficient irrigation method is a drip system, but overhead sprinklers can work well too.
The best time to water is in the early morning, before the heat of the day.
12. Build a Wicking Bed (or Several)
As mentioned above, soil in containers dries out much faster than soil in the ground. Because of this, it can be challenging to keep up with watering container plants, particularly in the heat of summer or when traveling away from home for more than a day or two at a time.
One solution is to set up a drip system on a timer to water your containers. But this can be unsightly and awkward with irrigation lines running above the containers.
Another solution is to plant in wicking beds.
Wicking beds solve the watering problem by lengthening the time between waterings. Water is added to the wicking bed through a tube at the top or side. A reservoir of water at the bottom of the container is separated from the soil by a permeable membrane. Capillary action wicks water into the soil as it’s needed.
There are also self-watering planters that work on the same principle, but these don’t work as well as actual wicking beds
Small Space Gardening Conclusion
Remember that you don’t need a large backyard or even a yard at all to grow a beautiful garden. It just means you have a few extra constraints to work with. But often constraints generate the most innovative and appealing projects.
Don’t get discouraged by limited space. Instead, use your limitations as an invitation to grow your best garden. Make it bold and beautiful and be an inspiration to others. We need more growers in our urban environments.
So make a plan and get planting. And until next time, happy growing.