Small-Scale Gardening

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child girl watering flowers with her dog in summer garden, little helpers, outdoor activities on vacation child girl watering flowers with her dog in summer garden, little helpers, outdoor activities on vacation

By Marilyn Pribus –

“There are challenges in having a small garden space,” declares Stanardsville Horticulturist Karyn Smith, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow flowers, veggies, and herbs.” She points out that even a small balcony can offer enough room to play gardener.

“Be sure to choose plants that won’t outgrow your space,” she cautions. “This can end up costing time and money, either in the extra work it takes to keep things pruned to a smaller size or in replacing things.” Instead, she suggests, start small. Growers are aware of the trend towards downsizing of garden areas and are developing dwarf varieties of many plants.

A nice trick is to avoid sharp-angled areas in your yard. A curving path of brick, stone, or gravel can add charm and definition and a larger feel to the area. Raised beds with easy lines and good soil for flowers, vegetables and herbs are another option.

Container Gardening
Planters can be an excellent solution, but remember that containers are always second best because plants didn’t evolve with a reduced root area. The bigger the container, the better. When choosing pots or window boxes for growing plants, almost anything works as long as there is good drainage.

You can find a wide range of containers at garden shops, warehouse stores, thrift shops, and yard sales.  Many materials are well-suited to growing things.

*Wood is relatively durable and redwood and cedar are naturally rot resistant. You can build or purchase wooden window boxes in many sizes and wooden wine half-barrels are hard to beat for both form and function.

*Plastic makes up in practicality what it lacks in charm. It’s durable, inexpensive and lightweight, so it’s no surprise that most plants are in plastic when you bring them home from the store or farmers’ market. Often you can simply tuck the plastic holder inside a more attractive container without repotting.

*Stone or molded concrete containers are heavy, but durable and dramatic, weathering quickly to take on a mellow, long-established look.

*Fiberglass is increasingly popular. It effectively mimics expensive materials such as lead or bronze and is durable, although somewhat brittle as it ages.

How to Plant
“You definitely want to choose a good potting soil for your containers,” Smith says. “Topsoil and garden soil are not designed for containers. Instead opt for potting soil specifically formulated for container gardening.”

If the containers will be in the sun for a good portion of the day, add some water-saving polymers that are available at garden stores. These bead-like polymers (which are used in disposable diapers) swell when exposed to water and then release moisture slowly.

“Even if you use potting soil that contains fertilizer, you will eventually have to add some,” she continues, “because every time a container plant is watered, nutrients are washed away and run out the bottom.”

There are a number of types of fertilizers available, including organic and slow-release, so you should talk with the folks at your local nursery to choose the best fertilizer for your plants.

Container plants should be checked daily to see if they need to be watered. If they are protected from rain or the temperature soars, you may need to water at least once (and sometimes twice) a day. The best way to check if your container needs water, Smith notes, is to press a finger into the soil to about the second joint. If the soil at that level feels dry, it needs water. 

What to Plant
Some plants lend themselves well to being grown in containers, such as most herbs and lettuce. Actually, nearly every type of garden plant you can think of has a hybrid available, developed specifically for containers or small space gardening. Some have even been developed for hanging baskets. Look for terms like “dwarf” or “patio” in the plant’s name or description.

“The success of any garden is influenced by exposure—sun, shade or a combination of the two,” says Smith.  She explains that shady spots are best suited to plants such as ferns, coleus and impatiens. If you have ample sun, choose hardy annuals such as geraniums, petunias or chrysanthemums. With a changing exposure, she recommends flowers such as begonias, scarlet sage, and dianthus that come in a wide variety of colors.

If your yard or containers receive six to eight hours of sun daily, you can create your own little kitchen garden with herbs and vegetables. For example, there are special hybrid tomatoes such as Patio or Sweet 100s that do well in containers. Consider some jalapeño or banana peppers as well. And nothing beats fresh herbs such as mint, basil, sage, chives, parsley and rosemary, which are attractive as well as tasty. Leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach will do fine in partial to full shade.

It’s the right time of year to head for your local nursery to perk up your small garden. Farmers markets are another excellent source of all sorts of seedlings from flowers to veggies to herbs.  


Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. Since they share garden space with local critters from raccoons to bears, their entire garden is in two wine half-barrels on a deck.  They are happy to report that these occasional visitors aren’t partial to marigolds, zinnias, or basil.

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