Get the gardening know-how for small spaces

written by Kelly Surtees

Summer work in the garden Credit: Getty Images

A productive garden is not all about floor — or ground — space. If you have a patio, a sunny entrance or balcony, you can create a lush multi-tiered pot-plant garden by mixing pots of different sizes with plants of varying heights. If you have a sunny wall, either indoors or outside, you can create a trendy green wall or vertical garden. If you have a tiny patch of lawn, consider converting it into a freeform green space by including plants of varying heights. By thinking up and out, you can co-opt vertical real estate for growing.

Green spaces are considered positive improvements to any home. Esoteric practices like feng shui encourage lush landscaping, especially around the entryway and front of your home, to invite positive “dragon” energy into your space. This applies even if you’re in an apartment or townhouse. Mixed planters, wall gardens, hanging baskets or a selection of indoor plants can add a green welcome to your home. For the more practically minded, property experts also praise the value of a well maintained green space. Whatever your mindset, plants bring life and colour — plus an uplifting quality — to your home.

The growing basics

Want to exercise that green thumb? Consider the amount of sun your small-space garden or vertical wall will get during the day. Sunlight is one of the most important criteria when it comes to selecting plants for your garden. You can control water levels through watering, especially in pots, and you can manage soil quality and content through appropriate fertilisation, but you won’t be able to do much about a lack or excess of sunlight.

By thinking up and out, you can co-opt vertical real estate for growing.

Plants are commonly divided into one of three sun ratings. A full-sun plant needs at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. A partial sun or part-shade plant needs between three and six hours of direct sunlight a day. A full-shade plants needs less than three hours direct sunlight a day. Also note whether your space gets morning or afternoon sun. Some plants, like roses, which need full sun, prefer it to be morning sun rather than afternoon. This is so the heat of the morning sun can quickly dry off overnight dew which, if left, can increase concerns like rot, mould or bugs.

Another consideration is water. How will you water the garden once established? Do you have access to a hose? If you’re establishing a vertical garden, will you build irrigation into it or can it be watered with a hose or watering can? While most small-scale gardens are easily watered with a hose or watering can, it pays to consider how far you might need to carry the watering can from tap to garden. All plants need a drink regularly, particularly in the height of summer. Plants in pots need more frequent watering as they tend to dry out faster.

Time commitment

Consider how much time you want to spend caring for your garden. Small gardens are typically lower maintenance but, depending on how many plants or pots you use, watering may take some time each week or every few days in summer.

Will you opt for perennial plants you can plant once and nurture, or do you prefer annuals that you’ll change seasonally, or each year, for constant colour? If you love flowers, you might see your green space as a step up from regularly buying cut flowers. In this case, blooming seasonal plants may be your preference. If so, be sure to compost your waste and, where possible, buy plants from an organic or local source.

Greening the outdoors

A vertical garden is perfect if you have a small courtyard, limited outdoor space or a small but sunny area you want to take advantage of. All you need is a bare wall, fence or space to establish a post for an upright living sculpture.

Edibles like strawberries and tomatoes, with their lush green leaves and bright red fruit, or a variety of herbs make a fun wall garden, especially in full sun. A mix of lettuces and salad greens is also easy to grow in a wall garden.

Tomatoes, eggplant, blackberries, raspberries, garlic, onions, zucchini, peas, capsicum, chillies and even certain varieties of citrus plants can be easily grown in pots.

If you prefer a simple, all-in-one approach to a vertical garden, many hardware stores now carry vertical garden starter kits. These come in a variety of sizes so you can customise them to suit the size of your wall. Otherwise, you can try out the following alternatives.

DIY simple post garden

A sturdy, well-anchored post can provide a basic vertical garden. Anchor the post securely in the ground or a heavy pot. Attach hooks or small shelves around the post on three or four sides, depending on sun access. Attach pots to the hooks or shelves. Consider a mix of vines for a cascading look or opt for a variety of plants in a similar colour for a vibrant feature.

Hanging gardens

Gardens attached to a wall are like a modern spin on the traditional hanging basket but, in your enthusiasm for something new, don’t overlook the old. If ground space is at a premium, well-placed hooks can create the feeling of a lush garden, especially if you choose plants that drape, hang or grow downwards.

Hanging baskets are ideal in tight spaces or where you only have room for a few well-placed hooks. Try staggering hooks at different heights to create a thick, cascading vision of green. The classic trellis is also worth revisiting, especially if you have a sunny outdoor spot and love the fragrance of climbing flowers like jasmine or rose, or you want to grow vine-style vegies like peas and beans.

DIY winter hanging basket

Select an annual, a few bulbs and a plant that drapes plus an attractive hanging planter. Start with premium potting mix and plant the bulbs in the middle of the basket. Immediately surrounding the bulbs, including over the top of them, plant the vibrant annuals. Around the outer edge of the pot add in the hanging or ground cover. Water well, hang and enjoy. It’ll look great now — and even better come spring, when the bulbs flower.

Repurposed planters

If recycling is important, pallet gardens or vertical stacks of repurposed plastic bottles, where the pallets or bottles are arranged against and attached to an outdoor wall, are another option.

For a truly green approach, many existing items can be repurposed into growing spaces — you’re only limited by your imagination. An old ladder can be painted and then filled with pots or hanging planters. This creates an interesting feature on a balcony or patio or in a sunny corner of the garden. A shoe organiser, old bookshelf or even a chest of drawers can be turned into a unique vertical growing space. Anything you can set pots on, or attach hooks to for hanging baskets, will work.

The green indoors

In a small home or a colder climate, you might consider creating an indoor garden by devoting a sunny internal wall — or at least part of one — to your plants. Green spaces help improve air quality, especially indoors, and can act as a sound barrier.

This could involve staggering ledges or small shelves across the sunniest section of an internal wall and artfully arranging your favourite indoor potted plants. Gathering plants together adds visual interest and a sense of scale. It can also be more eye-catching than having single plants scattered throughout your home.

If you love flowers, you might see your green space as a step up from regularly buying cut flowers. In this case, blooming seasonal plants may be your preference.

Your indoor green space could involve green art, where a picture frame is filled with plants, or you might devote an entire wall to a green space as many companies and eco-friendly property developers are now doing, especially in entryways or under skylights.

For small spaces or slim ledges, consider aloe (great on sunny window sills) or bamboo. A sun-drenched window sill is also ideal for small-scale edibles like micro greens.

Lush leafy plants can make a big impact indoors, especially when grouped together in a sunny corner. Consider English ivy, rubber tree, peace lily, anthurium, snake plant, philodendron, golden pothos (great in a hanging basket or on an indoor wall as the vines trail downwards), snake plant, fig or ficus and dracaena. For indoor flowers, try gerbera, chrysanthemum and azalea.

Creative pots

One plus of being indoors is you can be more creative and artistic about the type of vessel you use for the pot. Gorgeous vases, wicker baskets or even stylish storage can be repurposed with a few quick adjustments for soil and water.

Plants need drainage, so if your outer container will be a stunning vase or pottery piece, insert a plastic container like a Tupperware-style storage jar first, or find a plastic pot that will fit inside your vase or pottery piece. It’s important that the inner container has water holes for drainage, which you can drill into the bottom of a storage container, and that the outer container, the vase or basket, be waterproof or lined.

Once you’ve taken care of the containers, simply add potting mix, your selected plants and water and you’re done. For your indoor pots, consider herbs (in full sun), African violets, orchids (especially if you only have indirect light) or small ferns.

Pot-plant gardens: balcony, entryway, pathway

Pot plants need a little extra care, including repotting every few years and frequent fertiliser and watering, but with a little effort you can ensure your plants thrive year around.

A good-quality potting mix is essential for potted plants. Look for a premium-grade mix or one designed specifically for the kind of plants you intend to grow. In pots, plants are solely dependent on what you put into the pots for nutrients, so a regular schedule for fertilising and watering is essential.

Consider edging your balcony or entrance walkway with raised planter boxes. In full sun positions, these can be great for easy-to-pick edibles like strawberries, passionfruit or tomatoes. Or opt for a fragrant selection of lavender, sweet pea, gardenia or rose.

Even in pots, keep height in mind. Consider stacking smaller pots inside larger ones to create a tiered look, like for a strawberry tower or a layered planter. For stacking displays, opt for plastic or thinner pots. This allows plenty of room for potting mix, which the roots need, and helps reduce the weight of the finished planter.

You can also add variety in one larger pot by including a selection of groundcovers with low- and medium-height plants. Creating your own seasonal planter is fun, easy and saves money.

DIY mixed planter: fragrance

If you plan to grow gardenia, rose, jasmine, sweet pea or mandevilla in a pot, consider companion planting with lavender to enhance the fragrance. Select a large, wide pot and plant your primary plant in the centre. Around the outside edge, include dwarf or low-height lavender to create a green edge. If planting jasmine, mandevilla or sweet pea, remember to include stakes for the vines to climb up. For an even simpler fragrant pot, plant roses alongside chives. This is a form of companion planting, as the onion scent of the chives acts as a bug deterrent for the rose.

Food pots

If you have the environment in mind, consider growing some of your food in a vegie or kitchen pot-plant garden. Herbs, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, onions, peas, capsicum, chillies, zucchinis bred specifically for pots and even certain varieties of citrus plants can be grown in pots. You might consider growing food or flowers from heirloom seeds to maximise biodiversity, which the bees and butterflies will love.

Plants or vegies in smaller pots can easily be moved to catch as much sun as possible as the sun’s path changes over the course of a day or season. Set pots on rolling bases to make this easy.

DIY mixed planter: food

Winter-hardy greens like kale, Swiss chard, endive or cabbage provide interest in the garden during winter. Consider planting them in a pot with broccoli, chard or cauliflower for contrast. Stagger the height of the plants, from shortest at the front to tallest at the back.

There is a lot of freedom to experiment in the garden, especially in small spaces. The small scale means that if your first idea doesn’t work out you can easily start over. Your home is unique and the right mix for your growing space may reveal itself through the cycle of the seasons. Enhance your space with lots of green — and watch as your gardening skills grow.


For more great garden ideas, why not check out our Wellbeing Directory

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Kelly Surtees

With more than 14 years in private practice, Kelly Surtees is experienced, warm and insightful. She loves exploring astrology’s history as well as escaping into the ocean. Kelly’s passion for astrology is infectious, and her specialty areas include career and life direction, health and fertility, love, health and happiness. Kelly is an expat Aussie who lives in Canada most of the year.