Micro Magic: Intensive Gardening for Small Spaces

Growing in containers, whether on a balcony or a strip of windowsill, turns even the smallest space into a productive garden.
Micro Magic: Intensive Gardening for Small Spaces
Be sure to check how much direct sunlight your plants need, and plan your setup accordingly. (martinxmarie/Shutterstock)

Home gardens are enjoying a renaissance, largely due to a desire to eat healthier, enjoy fruits and vegetables not available at the local supermarket, and make the budget go further in these challenging economic times. Most of these new gardens are nothing like the sprawling spreads of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1930s and ‘40s, when the typical family garden had sufficient space and wide paths through row after row of fruits and vegetables.

All that space was both a good and a bad thing, as these bare paths needed regular weeding or herbicides that had to be carefully kept away from the growing stock.

Today, more people live in apartments and condominiums, and homes are being built on smaller and smaller lots, often with little space for gardening. The answer? Micro gardening. It makes growing a productive garden in even the smallest space possible, reduces the work required, and eliminates the need for chemical controls.

Micro gardening can be anything from a few herbs in small pots on a kitchen windowsill to several larger containers on a balcony. (vaivirga/Shutterstock)
Micro gardening can be anything from a few herbs in small pots on a kitchen windowsill to several larger containers on a balcony. (vaivirga/Shutterstock)

The Premise

Micro gardening is designed for modern life, where most everyone is short on time, space, energy, or money. By having the garden close at hand and close to a watering source, which can be as simple as a watering can for a small to midsize setup, it will be easier to maintain. Additional benefits include less weeding than a conventional garden, less wildlife damage than is caused by in-ground beds, and, in many cases, the ability to quickly move the garden to shelter if needed because of severe weather.

The easiest way to start is to “farm” in a container, and that may be all that’s ever needed. This can be as simple as a few herbs in small pots on a kitchen windowsill, several larger containers on a balcony, porch, patio, or rooftop, or a multi-tiered, freestanding, wall- or trellis-mounted vertical system that takes advantage of unused air space, which is perfect. Other popular options include multi-level plant shelves and hanging baskets, both of which are particularly well-suited for strawberries.

Getting Started

Many vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, need full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun), while others, such as beans, beets, broccoli, and potatoes, can make do with partial sun (5 to 6 hours of sunlight), and in some high-heat areas, this is actually preferable. Some herbs, most lettuces, and Asian greens will do best in partial sun (morning only) or part shade (4 to 5 hours of dappled sunlight). For a three- or four-season garden, be sure to take into account seasonal sun angle changes.

Other concerns are wind and rain. Potted plants may need protection from strong winds, such as those on an exposed balcony, and need to be set back (or moved as needed) from pounding rain, particularly if there is runoff from a roof or balcony above.

That raises the question of container size, which can range from standard pots, hanging baskets, or window boxes to a raised wooden bed, an old-fashioned bathtub, or a half barrel. Keep in mind that a smaller container, or one that has a plant caddy set beneath it, is easier to move. Otherwise, this is an opportunity to get creative. Just be sure the chosen container drains properly; drill additional drain holes if needed.

Use an all-purpose potting soil or mix together a DIY recipe for your microgarden plants. (wk1003mike/Shutterstock)
Use an all-purpose potting soil or mix together a DIY recipe for your microgarden plants. (wk1003mike/Shutterstock)

Down in the Dirt

Micro-gardening in a container offers total control over the soil. There are no concerns about in-ground pests or existing soil that is too sandy, is depleted, or has heavy clay.

This also means the gardener must provide everything the plant needs. Beds can be easily filled with an all-purpose potting soil mix or a less expensive DIY mixture of two parts peat moss, pre-moistened coco coir, or potting soil, plus two parts compost or composted manure, one part perlite, and a quarter to a half part vermiculite. This is a light recipe well-suited for hanging baskets and window boxes. How much do you need? Kellogg Garden Products has a handy soil calculator online: KelloggGarden.com/soil-calculator.

Let’s Get Growing

Start by choosing plants of a manageable size. Some popular choices are small, resilient, and often fast-growing crops such as round Romeo baby carrots, extra dwarf bok choy, fino verde basil, jingle bell peppers, fairy tale eggplant, Red Robin tomato, and Rocky cucumbers. There are even dwarf or compact options for large plants such as melons, squash, and cabbage.

Take advantage of the benefits of companion planting. More plants in a pot also help to consolidate watering and reduce weeds. Top combinations include tomatoes and basil (or dill or carrots or some combination, which can be harvested as the tomato is growing), cucumbers and beans (or radishes or cauliflower), eggplant and bush beans, parsley and asparagus, beets and lettuce, peas and celery, and mustard greens and mint.

When in doubt, start small. The joy of micro gardening is that it can be easily expanded.

Micro Efficiency

Size doesn’t matter when it comes to the quality of homegrown crops. Here are some more micro tips for macro results.

Sprouting Savvy

Germinating seeds indoors is easy and gives a jumpstart to the season. Small containers can simply be brought inside and planted. For large containers, consider starting seeds in small pots or yogurt cups. Transplant them outdoors after they have two sets of true leaves.

Feeding Seedlings

Seeds are a miracle because they contain all the nutrients necessary to support their growth for the first few weeks. After the plant gets its second set of true leaves, fertilize with an organic liquid fertilizer at 50 percent strength.

Fun Fertilizer Facts

Fruiting vegetables normally like a once-a-month feed. Cut and come again lettuces normally don’t need anything, as they’re harvested quickly. Lavender, thyme, and rosemary prefer nutrient-poor dry conditions, so there is no need for supplemental feeding.

Sandy Lindsey is an award-winning writer who covers home, gardening, DIY projects, pets, and boating. She has two books with McGraw-Hill.
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