WRITTEN BY NATASHA BOURLIN
7 tips for turning an urban area into a garden oasis.
Spring has sprung, and you’re itching to get your green thumb into some dirt, but perhaps your spatial situation isn’t conducive to your gardening goals.
Fear not: If you have a wall or eave, or just a minimal amount of space, outdoors or in, you too can plant things this spring. Small spaces actually can be great for growing a multitude of vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even fruits, as they’re generally easy to maintain. Imagine getting all of your weeding and watering done simply by standing and spinning in a slow circle.
With Sacramento’s average annual growing season lasting 298 days, according to the National Gardening Association, even an urban abode with limited outdoor space can become a foliage-laden oasis. Here are some suggestions for tapping into your inner gardening pro, many of which also are eco-conscious.
1. Get gardening.
First, decide where you’d like to set up your garden. Head out to the patio or any space where you desire to grow things, and analyze where the sun comes from.
Which direction does your space face?
- East-facing spaces are optimal, as they tend to get less intense heat during the Sacramento Valley’s scorching hot summers.
- North-facing spaces receive little exposure to the sun, so it’s best to focus on non-flowering plants and produce there.
- West- and south-facing areas are the hottest, which is great for flowering but can be too much for more sensitive plants.
Next, gauge how much sun the area gets each day. Most plants that will flower or bear fruit need at least six hours of sunlight daily, so if that’s not possible for your space, plant leafier greens such as kales, chards, lettuces, and spinach.
“No sun in your backyard? Plant a fruit tree or mini vegetable garden in the front yard,” says Angela Pratt, owner of The Plant Foundry Nursery & Store in Sacramento.
Once you’ve determined the environment your plants will be exposed to, decide if you’d like to go vertical with your garden or if you have enough square footage for containers, or even raised beds.
2. Contain your creativity.
Container gardening is optimal for small areas. You can grow plants in almost anything that can hold six inches of soil, so let your creativity run wild. This also is where the earth may thank you for your upcycling ingenuity.
Nurseries and other retail shops have abundant, aesthetically appealing container options for purchase, but you need not spend a fortune to garden in your limited space. Bountiful vessels can be found in and around the house and in the recycling bin.
The Plant Foundry in Sacramento offers an abundant selection of containers for gardening.
Mason jars, plastic containers and bottles, small troughs, even old pipes or tin cans can be upcycled into eye-catching garden accessories. Discard anything that your plants may leech toxins from, of course, such as vessels that held toxic substances in their former lives, or anything painted, just to be safe, as the paints could contain lead. Just make sure that whatever you use allows for water drainage, or create your own drainage holes.
If portability is a concern, look for lightweight cloth grow bags at your local nursery. Or consider wheeled options, including wagons and wheelbarrows. Plastic containers also are lighter to move around than most others.
When ground area is negligible, consider hanging plants.
“Having plants off the ground also helps to deter certain pests like slugs and snails,” Pratt says.
Do consider the environment you’re placing them in, however. Does it get very windy there? Weigh your options. In this case, you might consider sticking to the ground rather than having a plant’s weight fall on anything important.
Growing herbs is easy in an over-the-door shoe rack. Find a space to hang it, outside or in, and fill each pocket with potting soil, then plant your seeds or seedlings. Fabric ones also help retain moisture.
For small spaces, Dr. Michelle Stevens, associate professor of restoration ecology in the California State University, Sacramento, environmental studies department, uses “a raised bed garden with automatic gardening and mulch on top to prevent moisture loss and compost in the soil.”
Square-foot gardening also is great, space permitting. Build a minimum 6-inch-deep box that allows one square foot per vegetable, such as a 2-foot-by-2-foot, or 4-foot-by-4-foot square. The creator of this gardening technique, Mel Bartholomew, wrote an excellent book with helpful tips on going this route entitled Square Foot Gardening.
3. Go vertical.
Experts explain going vertical is ideal for those with limited ground area.
“We love Woolly Pockets wall planters for edibles and ornamentals. These indoor/outdoor fabric wall planters have anywhere from one to five pockets and are easily mounted on fences or walls,” Pratt says. “We’ve also seen some really cool rain gutter wall planters planted with lettuces, strawberries, succulents, and other small and trailing plants.”
Pallets found at many local warehouse, home improvement, and big box stores provide another resource for planting. Vertical or horizontal, pallets lined properly with landscape fabric then filled with soil make impeccable planters. Online tutorials like this one from Better Homes and Gardens can provide specifics. Get crafty and paint the pallet front with chalkboard paint, then write down what you planted.
You also can line a wall with containers or a long planter, add a trellis, and train your plants to head upward. Anything that grows on vines can grow on a trellis, such as cucumbers, gourds, or even pumpkins. Just keep in mind that the bigger the fruit a plant produces, the more space it will need.
4. Garden through a straw.
Another creative option is using straw bales. While they look similar to hay bales, make sure you get the straw variety. These can be easily and affordably acquired at area feed stores and garden centers and are surprisingly conducive to growing almost anything. Not only are they self-contained planters ready to be burrowed into by roots, only requiring a little potting soil to cover seeds, but they eventually compost after some conditioning and help the following season’s garden.
Straw bales allow multiple plants to grow out the sides or from the top, so you can grow things anywhere, including on hillsides and flood plains. You also can stack them on top of pallets to make them easier to tend to, with less bending over.
For more helpful details on straw bale gardening, the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Sacramento County suggests checking out books by expert Joel Karsten.
5. Soil smartly.
Reading the ingredients in your fertilizer and soil is as important as reading food labels anymore. Some contain biosolids, or the “nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a wastewater treatment facility (i.e., treated sewage sludge),” according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Our plants love it, but when we’re handling it, gardening experts strongly recommend using gloves.
Bring in pictures of your space and talk to your trusted nursery team about your plans and their suggestions for soil and fertilizer. They do research, get customer feedback, and know what they carry and why they carry it. Many natural fertilizing options exist, such as worm castings and bone or blood meal, but experts warn that if you have dogs, they may love to dig in them.
6. Grow small varieties.
“Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants all do really well in our summer temperatures and can be grown in a pot or small space,” Stevens says. “In the winter, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, lettuce, and strawberries are good plants to start with. The easiest beginner plants are radishes or peas.”
A delicious conversation starter for the spatially challenged is dwarf species of fruit trees and vegetables.
“Look for varieties such as Tom Thumb or Sugar Bon pea, Tom Thumb lettuce, and Minibel or Dwarf Shadow Boxing tomato,” Pratt suggests. “These plants also come with a high adorability quotient. You may find your friends ooh-ing and ah-ing over your adorably tiny veggies.”
Peaches, pears, apples, cherries, berries, and many other fruit trees come in dwarf varieties now and can be grown in small spaces.
“Always check the mature size of a plant that catches your eye at the nursery,” Pratt elaborates. “There’s nearly always a compact or dwarf version that is well-suited to small-space gardening. Most plant tags list the size at maturity; pay close attention to that before buying.”
Have a little more space? Stevens shares that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District offers free deciduous trees to shade and cool area in the summer and provide light in the winter.
Have just enough space for a few items? Grow a salsa garden. Plant cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, and onions, for instance, and have a homegrown supply of the delicious condiment well into autumn.
7. Exercise proper care.
When do you plant?
“In small spaces, you still need evergreen foundation plants that look good year round, but it’s exciting to be able to switch color seasonally,” Pratt says. “In fall, we can plant cool-season veggies, herbs, and annual color. When temperatures start climbing in spring, swap those cold-loving, edible violas and cilantro with warm-season color like petunias, impatiens, million bells, and herbs like basil and sage.”
Companion planting also is beneficial in the region. Pratt recommends planting taller plants in small spaces to help create shelter for smaller plants that require more shade. For instance, shelter cooler season vegetables such as lettuce with a warm-season tomato plant, which also can extend the shorter veggie’s growing season. She suggests reading about the subject in Carrots Love Tomatoes, and Roses Love Garlic.
Other consideration include the use of pesticides in your garden.
“I think not using pesticides is important. I plant things that attract beneficial insects that feed on aphids and other garden pests, such as Alyssum,” Stevens states. “I also plant sunflowers next to tomatoes so when birds come to eat sunflower seeds they eat hornworms on tomatoes. I also use beneficial insects such as ladybugs, or soapy water … If it ain’t good for a bug, it ain’t good for a mammal, and that means you!”
Most importantly, keep your plants well hydrated. Staying on top of watering during hot weather is vital for your greenery.
Having only a small space in which to garden is no obstacle to growing your own food. Use these tips and your garden will be glorious in no time, no matter the size.
Natasha Bourlin is an avid gardener and looks forward to planting season annually, as well as reaping the rewards throughout summer and fall.