How to Plan a Small Garden
Many people garden without a plan, but a small space is easily overwhelmed by random purchases. Any garden requires some amount of planning to be really successful, especially if you have a black thumb like me! And more so when it's a small one.
I have kept (real) gardens for years, letting plants ramble where they would. When I moved to countries where apartments with small balconies was normal, I had to completely change my gardening techniques because all my potted plants kept dying.
A small garden requires a much less random and forgetful approach than I was used to. In my last move, I had the chance to start from scratch and carefully planned to make the most of the space.
Learn About Your Space
Earth and water weigh a lot, not to mention ceramic planters (if you want to use them), rocks and water features. If you are gardening on a balcony or a roof terrace, work out how much weight it can hold—a collapse would be very expensive to repair!
If you plan to have window-style planters hanging over a railing, you'll also need to know how much weight these can hold.
If there is decking under your garden, it will probably need protection. Trays under pots protect the wood from the soil and enzymes that run out with excess water. Raising the pots above the wood, using low shelves or wheeled pot-plant supports, can prevent staining.
If you have a walled space, you may consider attaching planters to the walls. Find out what type of material the walls are made of, and what equipment you might need.
Watch the sun and the weather for a season or two to learn when, where and how much sunlight reaches into the garden. You'll learn which way the rain comes, and also if it is prone to strong winds.
A Poll About Your Garden
Is your balcony garden . . .
How I Worked With My Balcony
My balcony is walled and finished with slate tiles so I can't easily attach things to the walls (rental), and has no space for rail-planters. Prone to strong winds and heavy rain, and although it is protected a little from snow, I must move plants inside during cold winter.
On a more positive note, it is south-facing, with a lot of sun at one end, especially in the afternoons when it pours through the windows and turns the kitchen into an oven! I needed to work out some kind of sun protection that still allowed light and air in but kept the insects out.
Set a Budget
It's very easy to go crazy in a plant nursery, buying beautiful plants, seeds and accessories that aren't on your list, but that would look stunning in your small space.
I learned the hard way when I had my larger gardens, how much an unplanned plant shopping trip could cost when I had set no limit. To add to the pain, many of these plants died!
Choose an amount of money that you'd be happy to spend, and then modify your plans to fit to your budget. Although, you should also be prepared to spend a little extra.
Don't forget to include pots, trays, hardware for mounting things on walls or over hand railings, soil and anything else you can think of that you might need, in your estimate and budget.
My budget was initially around $250, including the usual equipment: hand trowel, soil, bamboo supports, pots, trays, fertiliser, etc.
With 'feature creep' aka "that plant looks wonderful", a few unexpected plant deaths during winter, and a water feature, the budget was increased.
I wanted to save water and not add the watering costs to the household's bills, so I also needed a large, covered water barrel, and a bucket in which to collect cold shower water.
You can save some money by growing cuttings, splitting plants or sharing seeds with friends and family.
- Ceramic pots look great, but are expensive, heavy, and can allow the soil to dry out quickly. They are better to prevent plants from falling over though.
- Plastic pots are cheaper, and many imitate a ceramic look. Keep in mind that black pots can cook plant roots if in the full summer sun for a long time. Terracotta or light colors are better in the hot sun.
The size of the pots will determine which plants will thrive in them. When you plan your plants list, this will affect the size of planters you'll need.
Almost any container can be used as a plant pot, as long as it does not disintegrate in water, and the water can drain properly. Be careful and ensure that unwanted chemicals can't leach into the soil - some treated woods, containers that have paint remnants, etc., should not be in direct contact with soil.
Choose a Theme or Purpose
Your balcony's limits and the patterns of sunlight and weather can help you choose a purpose or theme for your garden.
If it is always in shade, there is no point choosing plants that require a lot of sun (most fruit and vegetables).
If it's windy, then you'll want heavy planters, ceramic or large pots, so the plants aren't blown over. Or you can fix planters to the walls.
A selection of themes:
- A productive kitchen garden in containers: vegetables, fruits and herbs, on a sunny balcony.
- A butterfly garden: flowers that butterflies adore, liking part to full sun.
- A shade-loving fernery: shade-loving plants, away from the direct sun.
- Containers of tall flowers: great for cut flowers inside, typically requiring full sun.
- A succulent garden: heat-loving cactus and succulents require little water.
- A herbal tea garden: herbs that can be used to make tea, such as peppermint, sage, spearmint, chamomile, lemongrass, lavender, and more. From shade to sunny, you will find herbs that can grow in most conditions.
- A scented flower garden in containers: cut and brew your own fresh herbal teas!
- Color-themed plant and flower garden: could you grow your sports club colors in a garden? My mother would certainly love such a balcony garden!
My Garden's Purpose
I like cooking with and eating foods I made myself, so herbs and vegetables were a must. To help with pollination and pest control, I wanted some flowering companion plants to encourage the helpful insects.
Map the Space and Choose Your Plants
Keep in mind what you want to use the area for. There is no point filling the space with plants when you use a lot of room for entertaining.
Draw a map/plan of the balcony and its occupants (plants, tables, chairs, etc.).
Choose plants keeping it's limits and purpose in mind. You may like to choose a longer list of plants first, then cut your list down as you draw them on your plan.
Decide which plants you will buy as seedlings or fully grown plants, and which you will buy as seeds:
- Seeds are usually cheaper, but may be more difficult to grow.
- Some plants grow wonderfully from cuttings or when a larger plant is divided.
Check with friends and family for plants, cuttings, divisions or spare seeds to keep the costs lower.
My List of Plants
I had to keep in mind that the longer-lived plants will need to come inside during winter (and therefore I must have space for them).
Most of the others I have treated as annuals, and chose seeds - the left-over seeds will be used next year to restart my balcony garden after winter.
I also wanted a water feature, both for the soothing sound of running water, to provide water to birds, and increase the variety of beneficial insects.
A Productive Shortlist
- Herbs: basil, coriander, parsley, rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint and oregano
- Veggies and fruit: a lemon tree, tomatoes, mixed lettuce, mixed asian greens, snow peas, peas, beans, and chili peppers
- Flowers and others: Japanese maple, nasturtiums, calendula
- 'Feature' creep: chamomile, spring onions, okra, chives, replacement maples, sakura cherry blossom tree, prunus tree, a packet of mixed flower seeds, Japanese iris and water plants.
If the space and budget had allowed, I would have included spring bulbs, bay, kumquat and lime trees, strawberries, sunflowers, cucumbers, capsicums (peppers), lemongrass, aloe vera (for burns), a variety of cut-able and scented flowers, a worm farm, plus some fish for the water feature.
If there is space in my weekly budget, some of the smaller 'extras' may be allowed to creep in, but probably not the worm farm or larger pond with fish. The rest must wait for next year or a larger balcony.
Buying and Planting: The Fun Part!
Finally—shopping and planting! Try to choose a day that is not too hot, or with stormy weather, and re-pot any plants that need it immediately.
If planting seeds, you may have better results with a seed raising mixture instead of regular potting soil.
I either use a layer at the top of the pot and plant the seeds directly outside, or start the seeds in degradable cardboard egg-cartons, keeping them inside until the weather is warm enough, and the seedlings are large enough to be transplanted.
Keep an eye on the soil of your pots - it is easy to under and over-water. Feel the soil or use a water indicator to check before watering.
Read and follow seed-packet directions and plant labels. I've learned the hard way. If you ignore the advice, the plants are more likely to die or seeds never sprout!
Enjoy Your Garden!
The most important part of growing a garden is to enjoy it. Spend time in it every day, take photographs of your plants, watch it change throughout the seasons. Talking to your plants is completely optional, although many swear it helps them grow!
What do you have on your balcony? What would be your ideal tiny garden? Let us know in the comments below!