Make the most of a small outdoor space

05/17/2014 2:59 PM

05/18/2014 6:25 AM

If your space for gardening is limited to a balcony or a spit of land outside your apartment door, make the most of it by choosing the right plants and decorating with pots, statuary and maybe a birdbath that pack a punch.

“The first step is to assess how much sun you’re getting,” said Sedgwick County extension agent Rebecca McMahon. She and her husband were able to grow vegetables with some success on their balcony when they lived in an apartment in Wichita.

One way to figure out how much sun you get is to take a sunny day when you’ll be home all day, and pay attention.

“Check a few times a day to see where the sun is on your deck or patio,” McMahon said, and note how many hours that the area is sunny.

“You almost have to pay attention the whole summer, because the sun shifts in the sky through the summer; the angle changes,” McMahon said.

If you can’t do that, you can buy a light sensor, though McMahon said she’s never tried one. Apartments can be tricky in that the buildings can be angled, and sometimes there is a balcony above that can shade things. The McMahons’ balcony was north-facing, but the building was angled just enough, and the trees were placed just right so that from the third week of May through the middle of August there were a couple of spots on the balcony that got six to eight hours of sun – enough to grow some vegetables.

“We got a table and put pots on the table to take better advantage of that,” McMahon said. “You have to be a little creative. ... Sometimes you may get more sun than you think you do even if it’s a north-facing situation.”

On the table they grew primarily herbs along with some peppers and tomatoes. More and more vegetables are being sized for container gardens, and the smaller-fruited versions usually do better in containers and with a little less sun, McMahon said. Cherry tomatoes, for example, can take a little less sun than full-size tomatoes.

“Probably the best tomato experience was I planted a Chocolate Cherry tomato in a 15-gallon pot and pruned it to wrap around a stake, removing all the side shoots,” McMahon said. “So I had one shoot to go up the stake, and positioned it in the maximum sun spot, and it was really quite productive. We were munching off of it all summer. It was a bit delayed from a full-sun garden, but it still did really well.”

Smaller-fruited peppers such as serranos do fairly well if they get enough sun, McMahon said. The Mariachi snack pepper with a touch of heat is one that would pretty well, she said. (Bell peppers are not a good idea for a container garden, as they are not high producers anyway, she said.)

Similarly, smaller-fruited eggplant would be a little more productive in a container or in low light. Bush cucumbers can be grown in a container if you have plenty of sun and a robust trellis, such as a tomato cage, for them to grow on, McMahon said. Watch for aphids, as they can swamp the plants pretty quickly.

Natalie Fullerton is part of a group of half a dozen high-rise residents who are trying a garden this summer in the Garvey Center that used to be the Holiday Inn across the street from Century II.

“We were thinking we have this sixth-floor patio that usually has some planters, and we thought how great it would be to use the planters to grow some plants this summer,” Fullerton said. The patio is on the southeast corner of the building, and the group in the spring planted spinach and chard, following those up with tomatoes and peppers in deeper containers for the summer.

They ran into an initial problem.

“We did have to put some netting over the pots just to keep the soil from blowing away.”

The residents are fortunate in that there is a water spigot, so they can use a hose to water. They have set up a rotation for watering.

“I’ve only gardened in a backyard or in a community garden setting ... so this is really the first time I’ve tried patio gardening,” said Fullerton, who works for the Kansas Rural Center.

If you have a true north-facing balcony or garden that doesn’t get much sun, it’s best to stick with planting leafy greens and some herbs for edibles, and impatiens, coleus, begonias and other shade-loving annuals for flowers, McMahon said. The good news is that you may be able to grow lettuce throughout the summer, whereas the greens wouldn’t be able to take a sunny hot spot.

McMahon has used both plastic pots and the fabric Smart Pots, which are foldable and easy to tote when not filled with soil. They’re not pretty, but because of their shape there is room for more root zone for plants, and it’s easier to put a trellis in them, McMahon said. They do dry out a bit more quickly than plastic because they breathe.

That brings up another point: It’s easier to drag a closed bag of potting soil up to your apartment than to get heavy pots of soil back down. And you’ll probably need a place to stash some garden supplies.

But you don’t have to rely completely on plants for your apartment garden. Concrete statuary that is in scale, seashells, mirrors, old garden gates, a bench or cafe table, a birdbath if it works for your space, glazed pots in one color or complimentary colors, outdoor carpets, window boxes – all those things that can be used to decorate a garden in a yard can be clustered for a pretty effect on a balcony or patio.

And if you still don’t have enough space, you can do what the McMahons did – they also rented a plot in a community garden.

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