Designing My Patio Garden: Making the Most of Shade and Small Spaces
My Patio Vegetables '09
Food and Flowers in SoCal
A few years ago, I bought a condo with a brick patio in the back, with four feet of dirt around three sides of the perimeter. I live in southern California, so I've got a long growing season, much longer than I'm used to from growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
There were just two problems.
- Low light. The house is on the east, and the patio walls cast shade on the other three sides!
- Poor soil. California clay is bad enough, but the previous occupants had (a) let six cats use it as a box, so it was highly acid, (b) tossed all their cigarettes out there (yuck!), and (c) filled all the dirt areas with gravel in what I assume was a failed attempt to block the cats.
I had my work cut out for me. And I have arthritis, so I can only do so much. But I've turned what was a barren and fairly ratty space into an attractive little haven in the past three years.
On the right wall, I grow fruits, vegetables and herbs. I've usually got 2-3 tomato cages there and fill in around them. Next to them, on the back wall, is a flowerbed that gets morning sun and is visible from my dining room, so I look out at flowers. The left side of the patio, shaded by an ancient, gnarled cape honeysuckle that gets glorious hummingbirds, has my table, whatever will grow in the shade, and a fragrant star jasmine on a trellis that I found sadly neglected when I moved in.
My patio is never going to appear in a garden tour of California's Best Gardens. It's still quite humble. But I've got bright color, birds, butterflies, and vegetables—even peaches—in spring and summer. I'm proud of how far it's come in a few years!
My patio garden last year: peace, birds, windchimes, cat
1. Mapping the Daylight
Before planting last year, I turned my patio into a giant sundial. First, I cut up a bunch of slips of paper. Every hour, I'd put down slips marked with the time around the edge of the sunlight patch. I held the paper slips down with pebbles so they wouldn't blow away.
By the end of the day, I'd learned about the small circular area that actually gets 6 hours of light, which areas get 4-5 hours of light, which are almost all shade, which get morning and afternoon sun. I've had a lot better luck since I bowed to these realities.
I put a strawberry pot in the exact center of the "lots of sun" area, which, inevitably, was the paved part of my patio, and I frequently put pot plants there! And I now know where the cool spot is in the afternoon that will grow spinach and peas.
2. Amending the Soil
My first two years, I plastered each new area I planted with organic compost and fertilizer. It was vital to break up my hard-clay soil so roots could penetrate, and add fertilizer to make up for a nutrient-poor dirt. I had to dig down at least 6 inches, chipping away and breaking up the clay; it would've been better if I could've gotten down a foot, since soft soil holds water better.
I knew my soil was acid, so I needed to add some lime. This will depend on where you live. Your local garden center can probably tell you, but if not, there are you can use to get a soil reading (1-6 = acid, 8-14 = alkaline, 8 = neutral). It's best to buy plants suited to your soil's acidity. Or look for native plant offerings in garden centers to be sure! pH testers
This year, my arthritis was too much for me. It took me a couple tries to find a gardener who would do the soil-amending-and-conditioning for me, digging down and replacing the dirt. He used a good mix of organic humus and fertilizers.
Corn Grown in Raised Pot
3. Square Foot Gardening
I have been fairly creative in using the few places that get light. If there's one area that gets lots, that's where the tomatoes go, no matter how silly it looks. I've used for cherry tomatoes successfully. upside-down planters
Since my air conditioner has a large spot on the side that's covered, I use it as a platform to raise pots up high where they get more light. For the past two years, I've put 3 to 6 plants of sweet corn in an oversized pot and grown them up there. The corn ears are about two-thirds full-size, but they're still sweet and yield a few meals... just for fun!
I remember reading about how native Americans raised beans and corn together, using the cornstalks as trellises. As a variant of that, I grow sugar snap peas around my tomatoes and let the peas climb the cages.
I've even tried growing sugar baby (small) watermelons up a trellis and supporting them with old panty hose hammocks. They didn't grow that well because of light issues, but they did grow, and if you have more light, this could work!
The practice of building vertically is something I picked up from square foot gardening, a popular way of gardening in urban and limited space gardens.
4. Trial and Error
I keep empty seed packages and flower tags on a small shelf in my garage, and note on them with a sharpie when each was planted. I try to note which ones didn't make it.
After a few years, I've started to get a handle of what works, what doesn't. Taking lots of digital photos also helps!
My Patio Garden Plan
5. Mapping My Space!
This year, playing with my new iPad, I used a measuring tape and the SketchpadHD app to create a map of my garden.
I noted sun and shade areas on the map and any trees or plants I planned to keep. Then, armed with my iPad and a list of possible plants, I went to the garden center and planned each area with the plants available that day, even arranging pots on the ground so I could get an idea of bed layouts!
While buying plants, I noted them on my iPad sketch so I'd remember where they went when I got home. And now I've got a record so I can track which ones do well or poorly. It's a little anal, but every year, my garden should be a little better as I find solutions that work.
More Patio Garden PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
My Patio Garden Diary 2012
I continue to tweak and update the garden as things grow, bloom, and finish up: see my patio garden 2012 photo diary!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.