small space gardening

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from little things, big things grow: small space gardening

container gardeningWant to grow some of your own produce but don’t have a backyard? What if your only outdoor space is a small balcony four stories high, or a courtyard that never gets any sun?

A small space or tight budget doesn’t have to limit you when it comes to growing some of your own produce. In fact, because gardening in a small space requires a little creativity and ingenuity, it’s like exercise for the brain as well as the body.

Here’s a few tips on creating a small space garden.

What you will need

You don’t need to go to a huge expense to grow a few vegetables or fruit, in fact, most of what you will need is free: sun, water, seeds or seedlings, nutrient rich soil, time and a place to plant.

Most plants like six hours of direct sunlight, but if you don’t have that, there are plenty of vegetables (lettuce, for instance) that will tolerate shade.

You will need to water your plants often Collecting grey water is a great way to recycle water for the garden. The simplest way to collect water for the garden is to hold a watering can under the shower or kitchen tap while you are waiting for the water to get hot. Tip: check this page out for ideas on creating a drip irrigation system.

Nutrient rich soil is a combination of organic material (mulch and poo) and minerals (dirt). You don’t need expensive topsoil to start a garden, in fact it is better to use the soil that you have on site and ‘improve’ it gradually with organic matter. For more tips on soil, getting organic matter for free and how to make your own potting mix, see the link in the resources section below.

You can buy your plants as seeds or seedlings or you can collect seeds and cuttings yourself for free (or both).

A place to plant

If you don’t have a large yard, you will need to be a little creative with finding a place to plant. All you need is a small patch of yard, a balcony, a doorstep, a windowsill, a driveway, a median strip, something you can hang baskets from, a wall, a fence or even a roof.

If you have the space, a patch of ground in the sun, even a tiny one, is perfect for starting a vegetable plot. I’m a huge fan of the no-dig method of gardening because it’s less work (always a good thing) and better for the soil structure. A great Australian resource for no-dig gardening is Jackie French’s gardening books, particularly The Wilderness Garden and Backyard Self-Sufficiency, both of which you should be able to find at your local library. There is also a very useful factsheet from the Community Garden Organisation on no dig gardening, which you can find here.

Taking this one step further, if you have the space, you could install a raised garden bed. Again, I recommend the no-dig method. You can find instructions on building a simple and inexpensive raised garden here – this is the garden my husband built and in a yard full of weeds, the no-dig method (ie using lots of mulch below the soil as well as on top) kept the weeds out for months.

(If you have a small patch or dirt of a raised garden bed, you might like to check out the square foot gardening concept to maximise yield – you can find some great info here and here).

When it comes to container gardening, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on pots. Recycled materials from around the home work just as well as store-bought pots. Yoghurt tubs, toilet rolls (good for raising seedlings), old shoes, ice cream tubs – all of these are free and all ‘plantable’. Just remember to punch drainage holes in the bottom.

Other ideas include hanging baskets, pot stands, step gardens, vertical gardens, gutter gardens, and window boxes. For more great ideas on recycled containers, check out the Urban Organic Gardener website.

Choosing the right plants

There are two important considerations to keep in mind when choosing what to grow:

  1. the mature size of the plant; and
  2. what grows well in your own micro ecosystem

If you only have a small space, large spreading vegetables like pumpkins and zucchinis aren’t ideal (although it is possible). Small, compact bushes like a capsicum bush, are perfect for container gardens. Also consider dwarf varieties of plants and native and less common varieties of vegetables.

When choosing what to grow, gardening guides can be a great resource but trial and error will be the best way to discover what grows well in your own micro ecosystem. Think of it like this: if your balcony gets full, direct sunlight all day, and your neighbour’s balcony is shaded by a tree, even though there may only be metres separating you, your growing conditions will be very different.

Experimentation is the key.

Having a small space doesn’t mean you can’t grow any produce at all. Even a few herbs on a windowsill will save you money and bring a little of the outdoors in.


  • For tips on gardening for free (or almost free) check out the Frugal and Thriving series: Part One, Two and Three.
  • One of the best resources on the web for small space gardening is the Urban Organic Gardener. Mark Lieberman’s website is based on his experience growing vegetables on a fire escape in New York City and a balcony in LA. He has some great articles and video demonstrations on creating gardens out of cheap and recycled containers. This article for instance is a garden created by hanging modified soft-drink bottles from a balcony railing.
Image by Thomaspix, used under the creative commons licence.


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