Just because you don't have much space for gardening doesn't mean you can't grow fruit, vegetables and herbs. In fact, you can make them part of the attraction by choosing varieties that are ornamental as well as edible. Colourful Swiss chard, red, yellow or purple-podded beans, multi-coloured carrots with their ferny foliage, peppers of all kinds and cherry tomatoes (grown in a hanging basket, if you wish) all look and taste great.
Patio apples, pears and even (if it's sunny enough) a nectarine will have blossom in spring and a crop later in the year. A standard gooseberry takes up very little room at ground level, but will give a delicious crop and trailing rosemary underneath it will attract bees as well as providing a tasty addition to your cooking. Creeping thyme will grow over a pot or in a gap in the paving, but most herbs can be kept in pots close to the kitchen for use as you cook. Just remember to keep everything well watered and feed the plants to get the best crop. If you install a watering system, you can set a timer to deliver water regularly, even when you’re not at home.
TIP: Mix in some edible flowers, like nasturtium, pansy and marigold for colour and your garden will look wonderful.
A balcony may not feel like the biggest space in gardening history, but you can still make it a miniature oasis where you can sit and unwind in the open air. The key is to make it feel private by working out what you need to do to block things out. If screening at the sides will reduce your view, use something that you can see through, like bamboo fencing. This will help reduce wind flow too, but if the wind is strong, you may need something more substantial like a canvas sail or fence panel. Shorter bamboo fencing can go across the front of the balcony if people can look up at you. You can disguise it from within by placing pots of evergreens in front or install a saddle container, if the railing is strong enough, with trailing plants that can go down both sides of the screen. This needs anchoring firmly in place so there is no risk of it falling. A tall thin plant or a climber on a frame will block out a single window opposite the balcony and the rest of the planting can be adapted to the available space. The sunnier the balcony, the more often you will need to water, but you can reduce water loss by grouping the plants together so they shade each other. Then you can enjoy your own little garden in the sky. TIP: Weight can be an issue on balconies, so choose sturdy but lightweight containers and use saucers underneath to catch surplus water rather than have it run off.
Small gardens, balconies and roof gardens may need screening if they suffer from a lack of privacy, but also if they are exposed to gusty winds that can sweep down the gaps between buildings and stop you enjoying the potential of the space. Strong winds can burn plant leaves, too, so a windbreak may be essential if you’d like to grow many plants. Windproof mesh, trellis or a canvas sail can be erected at the side that gets the most wind or you can use fencing. Wooden fencing can be softened by putting a trellis in front for plants to grow through. The bamboo type of fencing that comes on a roll can be very effective, but tends to fade quickly, so you can either varnish or paint it for a better effect. Fix the screen firmly as it goes in so you don’t need to move everything to make repairs later. You can disguise any screen with plants and - if you painted it - follow the colour scheme with your containers. Plants like bamboo are sometimes recommended as screening, but they usually grow quickly and can look unsightly if the leaves get wind-damaged.
TIP: If you are overlooked by a single window or there’s an eyesore you’d rather not look out on, choose a tall, thin plant or a container growing on a tall frame and position it to block the problem out. It’s much easier than trying to grow a hedge!
Plants are the unsung heroes of the natural world, because they sit quietly doing what they do - but what they do keeps us alive. Their natural process of turning sunlight into sugars and starches to live on involves them absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and giving off oxygen. If you’ve ever walked through a woodland and emerged feeling better for it, it’s because of the increased oxygen levels (although they give off other beneficial chemicals too).
Some plants are better at absorbing toxic chemicals from the air than others, but they play a part in keeping our air clean. In Victorian times, any housing development included a park to walk in and unwind, but also to absorb some of the chemicals given off in the smoke from factories. Street trees were common until Councils became reluctant to replant trees that would need expensive attention, even though a tree like ash can absorb a large amount of chemicals every year.
In your garden, however small, planting will help clean the air. By planting a hedge if you are next to a road, you can reduce the chemicals from car exhaust reaching your house as well as baffling noise levels slightly. Good old privet is sneered at, but it’s an excellent choice for this sort of position, because it’s evergreen, tough as old boots and easy-to-grow.
The garden has long been regarded as the “room outside”, but to really make full use of the space, you need to be able to enjoy it into the evening. This doesn't just mean stringing a set of lights round the patio, but also making the most of your favourite trees and shrubs as features. Up-lighting the white stem of a birch tree will draw attention to it and make you look into the garden. Place the up-light under an arching, finely-cut Japanese maple and you’ll see the leaves as never before. Down-lighting from a tree, fence or wall can highlight colourful foliage or a water feature. Individual solar lights can be lined along a path or hung from a tree to add atmosphere and make you want to go and investigate what’s there. Low-level lighting under seating or around the patio is enticing - as well as improving safety on uneven surfaces. Erect a sail over your seating area, with lanterns hanging at intervals, and add a chiminea or fire pit for warmth as it turns chilly and you have the perfect recipe for an outdoor room you can enjoy right into the night.
If you don’t have much space to garden, but you’d still like an area you can really make full use of, don’t forget the walls. Gardening upwards or downwards makes full use of the area above the main floor space. Climbers don’t take up much room at ground (or pot) level, but can cover a piece of trellis or an area of wall with colour. You can grow them on a frame in a container or they can trail down from a balcony and soften the hard lines of a building. Hanging pots and baskets can be filled with colourful or edible plants and you can get containers that fix over the rail of a balcony - make sure they are installed properly so there is no danger of them falling. The key here is to choose plants that are appropriate size-wise to the area they will grow in. A rose like ‘Rambling Rector’ that will reach 20m up into a tree is clearly going to be a problem in a small garden, unless your neighbours are happy to share! The range of Patio Clematis from Raymond Evison are ideal for small spaces, as are wall shrubs like evergreen Ceanothus.
TIP: If your garden tends to be dark, reflect all the available light around by painting the walls white, hanging a mirror on the wall and using white gravel on the floor or surface of the pots.
In a small garden the trick is to make the most of whatever space you have available, using walls or fences to give you extra opportunities. Think of your planting like a wedding cake, in tiers. At ground (or pot) level, choose low-growing or spreading plants that will not only look good, but also smother weeds and reduce water lost through evaporation from the soil surface. Through this, dot taller plants to give added height and colour interest. Aim to have something providing interest throughout the year: leaves, flowers, berries or stem colour. You can also add height in the form of standard plants, where an ornamental variety such as a rose is grafted onto the top of a bare stem - this takes up very little space at ground level, but adds plenty of interest at height. You can achieve the same result using containers, moving them around until you like the result.
Finally, check whether you can use nearby walls or fences to train plants against or hang containers off and think about adding small spring bulbs for a burst of colour at the end of winter.
TIP: A well-planted border should always be hiding something that you need to go into the garden to spot, so stand back and work out how to achieve this.
This story was published on: 21/10/2019
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