City dwellers dreaming of lush gardens dotted with bruschetta-ready tomatoes may be dispirited when their outdoor space consists of a balcony, stairway landing or small stretch of grass beside their building. But small spaces can be a great canvas for an outdoor oasis that covers much of your farmer’s market shopping list.
Here’s everything you need to know to create a micro urban garden from scratch.
What to grow
It might seem limiting to work out of planter pots, baskets, and wall hangings, but according to Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, these small containers can be mighty, and offer a bonus of organizing your crops.
“Quite frankly, you can do almost anything in containers that you can do in the ground,” he said. “It just requires a different level of care … being a little bit more particular in the plant that you select so they’re the right vigor or the right size for a small space.”
His seed-selection advice? Find something you’re passionate about. If you like to cook, grow container-variety tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. If you have fond memories of tropical vacations, get a few hearty-but-lush decoratives like marigolds, zinnias or cosmos, which Soulsby says are “pretty bulletproof,” perfect for first-time gardeners.
If you’re looking for something more permanent, shrubs and small trees can be planted in containers, too. “If you like it and it’s small enough to fit in the container in the space that you have, give it a shot,” Soulsby said.
That’s exactly what Heather Baigelman did when she planted her then-4-inch banana tree into a terra cotta pot. She left it out on her Old Irving Park deck one summer and it exploded to 6 feet, creating some height variety among her containers of salad mixes and flowers.
She also has an avocado tree and a clementine tree, both growing in pots.
“The trees are really fun, it just adds height to a backyard garden having a big tree,” she said.
Baigelman, a glass-blower and professional photographer, started gardening three years ago when she grew peonies for her wedding bouquet. Her flower garden is now just as purposeful: She uses freshly-cut flowers to style her glass vases for her business’ Instagram page.
Nicole Gordon-Phillips, who grows herbs and veggies in south suburban Country Club Hills, echoed Soulsby’s advice about growing what you love. She caught her green thumb while growing up with her grandmother in Humboldt Park.
“I always tell people to grow what you like. If it’s something that you really enjoy . . . you’re going to make sure that you take care of it and it won’t be a chore.”
Consider factors other than plant appearance or tastiness, too. Vanessa Liwanag, who tends a tiny garden in her backyard on the northwest side of Chicago, said she loves to plant Bee Balm and Asters in her planters, which attract hummingbirds and pollinating insects.
Pick your planters
Once you’ve picked out your plants, it’s time to match them with containers. For a really small space like a balcony or stair landing, boxes or baskets that hang will maximize your space. If you have more room, it’s simplest to start with a few pots on the ground.
Garden stores sell planters made of different materials like terra cotta, plastic, ceramic and concrete. For a roof or balcony that gets a lot of wind, a heavier pot will ensure that your plant doesn’t tip over and spill out of its pot. But if you’re working with a tight budget, a plastic container can be stabilized by putting a brick or some rocks at the bottom of the container — just make sure there’s still airflow around the drainage hole.
Gordon-Phillips, who tries to keep her gardening as low cost as possible, said she and her husband go around to neighborhood stores and restaurants asking if anyone has any buckets to spare. Then, her husband drills holes at the bottom.
Another way to save money and to repurpose old containers is to scour summer garage sales, said Baigelman.
A hospitable (plant) home
For soil, Soulsby said to look for a mix labeled “container soil,” not top soil. These lighter weight mixes are best for containers because they are porous and won’t stay wet and heavy.
For a garden in planters or window boxes, you’ll need fertilizer, because your plants won’t be drawing nutrients naturally from the ground. Shortly after planting, Soulsby recommends using a slow release fertilizer so that as you water your plant, it will release nutrients in the soil.
You can also use foliar fertilizer, most commonly sold as Miracle Grow. Make sure this is a balanced fertilizer, with an even nutrient mix like 10-10-10. (That’s 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 10 percent potash.)
Fertilizers that are too high in nitrogen will make your plants large and green, but they won’t produce any fruit.
Take care and enjoy
Pay attention to the care directions on your plant or seed packet, and also check it regularly for overall health. Using containers, your plants will need more water than if they were in the ground. That’s because the wind is not only hitting the plant, but all sides of the container, drying it out a lot faster.
“There are so many resources that are available for the first time gardener, from YouTube, books, and magazines,” advised Liwanag, who got her green thumb six years ago after her husband surprised her with a flower box for Mother’s Day.
“My first year of gardening was the year of learning lessons for sure. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Liwanag says that’s part of the fun.
“The thing about gardening is you tend to grow with it; you become more knowledgable each year, and your technique and understanding become sharper than the year before. I am currently in my sixth year of gardening here in Chicago, and I have grown so much.”