Tips for Starting an Apartment GardenFebruary 6th, 2006 by aptsherpa
Whether you’ve got a certified green thumb and are lamenting your move to a yard-less apartment or you’re a longtime apartment dweller looking for a nature-friendly hobby, apartment gardening can be a rewarding way to spend some time, decorate your home, and maybe even grow something edible. This article shares a few tips for getting an apartment garden started.
Location is a primary concern for an apartment garden. Perhaps you have a small—or, if you’re lucky, medium-sized—patio or balcony. If so, that’s a great place to put some pots. Getting down and dirty won’t be as much of a problem outside, and the plants will also be able to absorb more sunlight. If you don’t have any outdoor space to speak of, putting some plants by your windows or growing highly shade-tolerant varieties are also good options.
Just because you don’t have a garden plot to plant in doesn’t mean you can’t grow something beautiful or beneficial. Container gardening presents many options for growing a variety of plants, from asparagus to zinnias. It’s also a great opportunity to be creative. Almost anything can serve as a receptacle for soil with a modification or two. From overturned football helmets to watering cans to old boots, you can create a patio- or window-full of eclectic containers holding exciting plants. Even if you’re just using plain ol’ terra cotta pots, consider painting them in interesting ways to help liven up your balcony. Drainage holes are the main necessity for any container being used for plants. If you can’t or don’t want to put holes in a particular pot, think about how to fit a smaller container already equipped with drainage holes inside the pot in question. This can be a good way to hide the not-so-pretty plastic containers you might buy your plants in. You may have to empty the larger containers of water and clean them every so often, but it’s a small price to pay for having better-looking pots.
And much as you planned a decorating scheme for your apartment itself, you’ll want to plan a decorating scheme for your garden. Should it be country? Cutesy? Modern and austere? Make sure your containers match each other, as well as your balcony’s general construction and the atmosphere of the rest of your house. If you have a colorful house with eclectic decoration, a dull garden with terra cotta pots will seem out of place. Likewise, if your house overflows with Victorian decor, a set of bright, funky flowerpots painted like cartoon characters might seem a bit out of place next to your Chippendale cabinet.
The multitude of exciting plant container possibilities might send you overboard, prompting a shopping spree at the nursery and quickly cluttering up your balcony. Before getting too involved, think realistically about what you can handle, both in terms of time and money. At the same time, you’ll want to remain conscious of any clutter that might develop in your small garden scheme. You may get very gung-ho about the container gardening thing, but that doesn’t mean your patio will look attractive or organized with 1000 tiny plants on it. Consider having a few larger “core” plants around which you can arrange some smaller ones. Larger plants are trickier to grow in smaller pots, but some, like the ever-popular Japanese maple, come in smaller or dwarf varieties and can be very happy in container situations.
In addition to being practical for small spaces, container gardening is also convenient and beneficial in other ways. It allows for a lot of experimentation without a lot of investment. Instead of trying to purchase and cultivate enough of an interesting ornamental grass to cover a quarter of your backyard, you can just fill a medium-size container. You can also easily move your plants around to see what looks best, or which plants can provide shade (or thrive in it), all without the mess and uncertainty of constant transplanting. Come winter, you probably won’t need to cover, trim or transplant your entire garden—instead, you’ll just be able to lug some containers inside to brighten up your home.
Keep in mind that, depending on their size, your containers by no means need to hold only one type of plant. Many plants thrive in symbiotic relationships with one another in nature, and you can replicate these beneficial pairings in containers. Furthermore, you can create beautiful arrays of color by joining different types of flowers in the same pot or window box. Your neighbors will gasp in envy over the rainbow of hues on your porch!
The size of your containers is important. Unless you’re growing seedlings or very small single plants, you don’t want to use containers that are particularly small. This will restrict the root system and negatively impact the plant’s growth. Remember, smaller containers retain less water than larger spreads of soil, so your container garden will require more frequent watering. You may want to look into layering some pebbles, mulch, or shavings over the soil to help keep in moisture.
Most types of plants can be grown in containers, but some varieties will thrive better than others. Annuals can be a good choice, as there’s less need to be preoccupied with the plants’ winter needs, and you can change things up with more frequency. Depending on your climate and commitment, plants designed for arid conditions like cacti and succulents can lend great variety and color to your container garden without requiring much watering or other care. You might want to grow herbs—small and very suitable for containers, they’re also practical and can be used (or even kept) in the kitchen.
Let’s stay together
Because container planting can bring plants together in close proximity, it’s a good opportunity to practice companion planting, which pairs plants that have beneficial biological relationships with one another. Most plants, especially those of a similar type (all herbs, or all flowers) and size, can get along reasonably well in the same pot. Companion planting is most beneficial for agricultural crops and food items, but can be done with flowers as well. One of the best known beneficial pairings is roses with garlic; do some research and see what plants go well with your favorite flowers, herbs, or small trees. Some plants (marigolds, for example) are also well-known as pest deterrents and can help protect all the other members of your small garden.
A trellis or hanging pole is a great way to add more plants and additional depth to your small garden without taking up lots of space. If you don’t want to spend money on a shiny new trellis, consider making your own out of miscellaneous items. Many vines, like clematis, honeysuckle, or morning glory, can be trained to grow on a trellis. Some food plants, like beans, peas, and tomatoes, can also be staked to grow vertically.
If you’re not into growing vegetables for yourself, perhaps you’d like to grow a vertical plant like those described above, or maybe a small pot of strawberries, and donate the edibles produced to those in need. The Garden Writers Association of America has a program called Plant a Row for the Hungry that could help motivate you to really equip your garden to do something useful. Even if you don’t need the food, someone else might.
Windowboxes, the quintessential feature of any perfectly manicured home, are also effective on balconies. They may be more accurately termed “railing boxes” in this case, but still provide a functional and attractive way to grow plants. Many windowboxes can be purchased online, at local gardening stores, or you can build your own if feeling ambitious. You may have the urge to clutter up your windowbox with lots of plants to create the traditional lush, full look, but don’t forget about the constraints of container gardening, and remember that these plants will require special attention to their water and space needs. Overcrowding puts plants in competition; it’s better to have three thriving plants than four struggling ones.
Container gardening can also be a good opportunity to get into aquatic gardening. Digging a giant hole in the middle of your backyard (if you have one) to create a pond is a daunting prospect, but having a pot of aquatics on your porch can feel like a somewhat more manageable task. Get some floating plants, submerged plants, and emerging plants, and have a ball with unusual species. Keep in mind that your aquatic garden will be heavy even if it’s not very large, so make sure to situate it in a location you can commit to for a reasonable period of time. A great guide to aquatic container gardening is available at Water Gardening.
Bonsai gardening is a relaxing and rewarding hobby, perfect for container or indoor gardening. You can start with the aforementioned popular Japanese maple and go from there. Whether pruning or just appreciating your small trees, you’ll rest assured knowing you have a unique and individualized garden.
We’ve seen that container gardening has as many or more possibilities as traditional gardening or landscaping. Whether you want to start out with a single potted violet or jump in feet first with an aquatic container garden, there are resources on the web and in print to help you out. Just a few of them are listed below.
Most gardening websites will have a section on container gardening, companion gardening, or both. These sites are good places to start in your garden adventure.
Above all, have fun, and enjoy your container gardening experience!