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
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
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
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
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
Plum Yew - Cephalotaxus
Dwarf Juniper - Juniperus
procumbens and Juniperus horizontalis;
Robin Hill Azaleas - Rhododendron
Gumpo Azaleas - Rhododendron
Hydrangeas - many varieties, especially Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
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
Virginia Willow - Itea virginica (good fall color and does
well with poor drainage)
What vegetable plants would you recommend for a small container garden? I'd love to start one in my next apartment on the patio.
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.
Director of Horticulture
Memphis Botanic Garden
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