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Creative Ideas for Building Thriving Small Gardens

Victory gardens are experiencing a resurgence. People are turning to gardening to help ease the stress associated with the coronavirus and safe-at-home restrictions while enjoying getting their hands dirty — literally. Join people all across the country who have taken up gardening, be it on windowsills or raised beds, even while following re-opening guidelines. Whether you are new to the craft or already have a certified “green thumb,” read on for inspiring small garden ideas that you can try no matter where your state is in the re-opening process.

Consider Your Space and Climate

If you have a small, empty greenhouse, your gardening options will be significantly different than if you are clearing off a few window sills. Balconies and patios can comfortably support raised beds and container gardens, while a kitchen wall that enjoys plentiful sunlight could make a vertical pocket garden your best bet. And, of course, nothing is stopping you from taking advantage of multiple locations around your property or apartment, as different herbs, vegetables, fruits, and plants will require slightly (or dramatically) different conditions.

It is a wise idea to assess your climate if you have plans for starting an outdoor garden. As Real Simple points out: “not everything grows everywhere.” If you live in a hot, dry climate with little seasonal change, you will want plantings that require little water. If you live in a Southern state that has a long growing season, options like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and even rhubarb should be up for consideration. Whereas areas like the Pacific Northwest that experience significant rainfall and cooler temps are the perfect areas for small outdoor gardens filled with vegetables like spinach, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, and beets, to name just a few.  

Balcony Herb Gardens

Herb gardens are one of the most flexible small garden options. Do you have a short, open shelving unit that you no longer need? Repurpose it by placing it on your balcony. This will allow you to stack a variety of containers and give you easy access to each for consistent watering. If your sunniest balcony is a cozy space, consider creating a hanging system, either by repurposing mesh fruit containers or buying hanging pots for seedling transfer. If your state allows for curbside ordering at nurseries or garden stores, you can order window box systems that can also be used with balcony frames. Martha Stewart Living suggests using organic potting soil and planting “herbs like sage, basil, and mint.” Try to avoid planting the same type of herbs in the same window boxes or pots. The magazine warns that “they will eat up the same nutrients.” Keep them separated for better results.  

Porch Gardens

Porch gardens have become increasingly popular during the coronavirus pandemic. They give you the space to grow bright blooms, hearty culinary herbs, and fresh vegetables while adding instant curb appeal. Done well, your porch will become an inviting retreat that will almost feel like a getaway, without the travel. Among Martha Stewart Living’s favorite edible plant options for small spaces are peas and onions, not only because each is delicious but because their flowers are eye-catchingly beautiful. 

The experts at Southern Living love the idea of bringing herb trays and pots to porches. What is their favorite combination? The Magazine raves about creating a container filled with “fragrant rosemary, basil, and [lemongrass],” as well as flowering blue plumbago. Southern Living recommends planting lemongrass in the middle of a round container and then surrounding it with the soft plumbago. The edges of the container are enhanced with basil and rosemary. Not only does this combination bring a delightful scent, but “it could also help keep pests at arm’s length.”  

Think it is impossible to have fruit trees without a yard? Not so! If you have access to a nursery, you can find fruit trees, such as Meyer lemon trees, that are compact enough to thrive in containers. They bear fruit twice a year, are surprisingly cold tolerant and can grow in cans as small as five gallons. Porches, back patios, terraces, and even sunrooms are perfectly hospitable. Dwarf avocado, kumquat, and Satsuma mandarin trees are also unusual, yet delightful ideas for bringing fruit to your porch or patio.  

If your nurseries or garden supply centers are not yet open, take a look at social media pages or postings from local gardening groups. You’ll be amazed at how many of your neighbors are hoping to enjoy contact-less trades of cuttings, seeds, or seedlings, making starting your garden both safe and inexpensive.

Border Planters

Are you looking for an interesting idea for defining a backyard space while still giving it a sense of serenity? Consider creating a border out of brightly colored planters. The planters can be ceramic, rustic metal, clay, or a variety of other options. This is a terrific time to repaint and reuse older containers that would otherwise just take up space in your garage, shed, or patio. Plus, painting each of the planters with a unique design is a fun, at-home activity for the whole family. Southern Living recommends planting variegated silver grass in brilliantly colored pots to form a border around your patio or other garden beds. Visually, this technique is favored because the grass brings a verticality to an area filled with low plant beds or raised pallets. The Magazine applauds this approach as “grasses in containers can also add soft texture and billowing form when placed directly into a border.”  

Hanging Gardens

Do you have a pergola that creates a small yet inviting space on your patio or in the backyard? This can be the perfect place to introduce a variety of hanging vegetable plants. In fact, as Southern Living reveals, “there are … many plants that grow better in a [hanging] container than they do on the ground.” Succulents, ferns, begonias, and periwinkles, as well as dozens of other flowers and plants, would thrive in a hanging basket. If your state allows for visiting the garden center, the options are plentiful. Just remember to get a selection of ropes or chains and S-hooks to hang the containers securely. If your state has not yet reached that phase of coronavirus re-opening, take a look around your apartment or home for easily repurposed items like empty paint cans, unused wicker baskets, metal buckets, or even plastic containers that can be redecorated.

Flowers and hearty, decorative plants are not the only things that will dazzle in your pergola’s hanging garden. If you live in a warm, sunny climate, you’ll love growing upside-down tomato plants, which are more resistant to disease and pests. Small peppers, eggplants, chives, and mustard greens are all ideas that will yield not only lush visuals but also delicious results.

Raised Bed Gardens

Raised bed gardens have significant visual appeal. They offer neat separations between crops and relieve you from digging into hard or depleted soil. They also allow you to start growing vegetables, herbs, grasses, and decorative plants organically, using nutrient-rich dirt, because the raised bed won’t expose your new crops to soil previously treated with chemical fertilizers. But those aren’t the only advantages. As expert Annie Novak reveals to Martha Stewart Living: “‘[Raised bed gardens] also improve drainage and decrease your chance of pesky weeds and pests.’” These small gardens are also a popular idea for those living in more urban areas with patios or terraces, rather than yards.   

Novak warns that gardeners should choose untreated wood if they are growing edible crops and use a blend of organic soil and compost whenever possible. Onions and legumes should not be next to one another because “‘onions and their kin exudate chemicals which limit the growth of beans,’” as Novak explains to Martha Stewart Living. Thyme will thrive near rosemary or sage, as well as oregano and other culinary herbs that like drier, sandy soil. Potatoes should not be planted near asparagus, turnips or squash, but should do well near garlic, beans, and peas. And always plant those with a longer growth cycle toward the middle of the raised bed, while keeping the faster growers closer to the edges (making them more accessible).

Vertical Gardens

What is vertical gardeningMartha Stewart Living explains: “Vertical gardening is the art of using vertical space to grow and display plants, whether that’s finding the right mix of containers, shelves, and hooks to hold your collection, or installing a full-scale living wall.” Vertical gardens are ideal for small areas, whether inside or outside because they bring lush greenery and vivid blooms without sacrificing valuable floor space. Outdoor vertical gardens need consistent access to sunlight, as well as protection against the elements. Otherwise, you will have to plant and harvest based on the weather and typical growing seasons.

Does your kitchen wall revel in dazzling natural light each day? Does your bedroom window shower the room with full sun? Edible plants generally require six to eight hours of light, while purely decorative options can thrive with as little as four hours. Indoor vertical gardens have the benefit of climate control. Because you are less dependent on the weather, you may find a surprising variety of options available, despite your region.

If you have decided to create a small, indoor vertical garden, decide which design makes the most sense for your chosen room or rooms. For instance, if you have a mostly empty bookshelf that is warmed by abundant natural light in your den, it is a terrific option for small decorative and edible plants. Just be sure that you have access to each shelf for easy watering. 

Recycled wood pallets with mesh stabilizers can be placed upright against a wall, with the slats open for small plantings. Pallets can be ordered from big box stores, as well as smaller nurseries. Naturally, they will need to be lined, but woven landscaping fabric will do the trick.

Another popular idea, particularly in areas that are still under more restrictive coronavirus orders, is a pocket garden. As Real Simple reveals: “[A] pocket garden [features] plants tucked into pockets made from felt or canvas.” You’ll be amazed at how effortlessly items around the house can be transformed for this use. For instance, you can quickly repurpose a canvas hanging shoe divider as a small pocket garden. If light allows, keep the original hooks and hang it over the back of a door. Pocket gardens are also quickly made (and personalized) if you have access to a sewing machine and canvas or felt fabric. They can then be attached to the ceiling using S-hooks or to walls using a variety of picture-hanging accessories, many of which you may already have in your home. Most states are currently allowing for curbside pick-up for environmentally-friendly, organic potting soil, should you otherwise not have access to compost or enriched soil.

When plotting the crops that you want to grow in your small vertical garden, look for herbs, vegetables, and decorative plants that do not need deep root systems. They won’t develop in the relatively shallow pockets or containers of a vertical system. What are some of the best planting ideas? The experts tell Martha Stewart Living: “Crops that do well are leafy greens like lettuce or spinach, herbs and small fruits like cherry tomatoes and strawberries.” 

Kitchen Scrap Gardens

If you aren’t comfortable or able to explore your local nurseries or garden centers, but want to begin your small garden adventures, there is one idea taking hold with sustainability advocates: re-growing kitchen scraps. Do you already have produce such as lettuce or celery in your refrigerator? You are in luck! As Real Simple explains: “The bottom cores of celery, bok choy, cabbage, and lettuces can be placed in shallow dishes of water in a sunny window until they take root, and you start to see growth in the leaves.” For potatoes, cut larger samples into smaller chunks and bury them in a container of potting soil. Smaller potatoes need not be cut. Are you a fan of root vegetables like turnips or beets? Real Simple advises: “Simply lop off the top off beets, turnips, or fennel and place it in a shallow dish in the sun until root growth develops, then plant.” Don’t forget to harvest seeds from produce like tomatoes or winter squash. Once dried, you can start them in soil – often in containers as small as a three-ounce paper cup. By the time you see seedlings, your state’s conditions are likely to have eased, allowing you to replant into larger containers.