Gardening By Inches

Pipestone Flyer

Aaaaaahhh, spring! Even though the weather has not been overly kind in the last couple of weeks, the promise of spring really is just around the corner. As the days get longer and the sun gets warmer, visions of flower buds begin to dance in my head! As, I'm sure, it does for many thousands of Albertan gardeners who have endured the long, dark days winter, awaiting the moment the ground thaws enough so we can once again sink our trowels into the dirt.  

    But what if this season finds you in a space that is not traditionally garden friendly? What if you are a younger person living in an apartment, just awakening to the lure of growing things? What if you have recently downsized to a retirement condo but you aren't quite ready to retire your gardening habit? Or maybe you find yourself in a rental home where the owner does not want the yard disturbed? No matter the situation, for a determined gardener there is always a way. And for those of us who go way past determined and happily leap into the crazed category (just ask my husband!) we are more than happy to suggest ways to not only cram something pretty into every nook and cranny, but also help you with any gardening dilemma, hence this article on small spaces gardening!

    There have been many excellent articles over the last few years discussing small spaces gardening. However, I really haven't seen any that addressed the special needs of small spaces and container gardening in this part of the world. With our rapidly changing weather where it can rise or drop 20 degrees in a single day, extremely low humidity, and sudden bursts of high winds, it can definitely make any type of gardening in this province a little challenging, but it can certainly be done, and is very rewarding when done well.

    Having a smaller space doesn't mean you can't garden, it just means you need to get a little creative. Amazing things can be done in a tiny yard, or if you are in an apartment that has a balcony you have it made in the shade. If you have no outside spaces at all it makes it a little more challenging but it can still be done.

    Depending on your personal style and what you think looks good, you can go with little pops of colour throughout your space, or you can make it like a virtual jungle depending on the plants you choose and the size of containers that fit in your area.

    There are so many inventive and fabulous containers on the market now your plants no longer have to just sit on the floor of your patio. For the cost conscious there are soft plastic hangars with built in pockets that you can hang on any wall. You load the pockets with potting soil and bedding plants such as pansies and petunias which will grow to completely cover the plastic, and in the case of petunias, drape beautifully down your wall. There are also metal wall hangars that do the same thing and are more attractive to see before the plants cover them, but are obviously much more expensive. This type of hangar can also be used for growing strawberries! How much fun would that be to walk out onto your patio and pluck some fresh strawberries off your wall to place on top of your guests dessert? 

    There are also long, narrow planters that come with a metal brace and hang on the edge of a balcony railing or top of a fence that will keep pots off of your limited floor space and give a wonderful home to beautiful trailing plants.

    One of the most important things you need to assess before trouping off to your local nursery to load up on little green things, is to figure out how much sunlight, or lack thereof, your small space gets each day. This will influence the type of plants that will be most successful in your small space. Whether your area is bright and shiny from morning 'til night or barely sees a ray all day, there are plants that will thrive in either type of exposure. If you are unsure what goes where, head to your local greenhouse and read the tags on the plants that catch your eye. This is a fun way to get familiar with new varieties and colours. Some nurseries even group their plants by exposure with shade plants in one area and high sun and drought tolerant types in another. A second invaluable resource is your local library. There is an almost endless supply of books out there that will walk you step by step through container gardening and give you ideas of which plants compliments others and how and where to plant them. 

    One trend that is catching on like wildfire is mixing edible plants such as different types of lettuce, chives, tomatoes, peppers and beans in with your blooming plants. All of these vegetables do well in pots and this way you get a beautiful look and yummy benefits too! 

    The main trick to container gardening is water. Water is a basic plant need but when gardening in containers it's really the most important tool in your toolbox. Plants in pots have a much higher need for water than if they were set out in a garden but the timing of your watering and how much you water is much more important. Again, depending on the level of sunlight your small space receives every day will gauge how often you need to water. A full day of sunlight reflecting off walls and a cement floor might mean you need to water twice a day but the plants that thrive in a shaded environment might only need to be watered every third day. Here in Alberta, due to our extremely low humidity, plants do tend to require more frequent watering than in other parts of the country. And if you have a windy spot in which to plant, your little green friends will need even more water than others. The winds in Alberta can be extremely damaging to plants, wicking away the moisture and burning them in just one day, so if possible, try to create some sort of wind barrier if you have a breezy spot. It doesn't have to be a solid wall, just an attractive piece of lattice to break the full strength of the wind will work wonders.

    The type of soil you put in your pots will also dictate your moisture needs as well. I do recommend spending a little extra and getting a good potting mix for use in containers simply because they typically are higher in peat moss which helps the soil not to compact and become like cement that won't allow water to be absorbed if the pot does get a little dry. Some types even come with a timed release fertilizer mixed in, which will save you even more time. However, no matter how long the bag states the fertilizer will last, I have found that after 60 days your plants will benefit from a little extra shot of food once every week or two. And if for some reason your pot does excessively dry out and water simply runs off the top of the soil when you try to give it a drink, don't despair, set the container in a bucket, dish or bowl (or even your bathtub!) and let it sit in a few inches of water for an hour or so. The pot will suck the moisture up from the bottom and revive. Don't let it sit too long though or you will have gone from cement to mud, neither of which your blossoms will appreciate!

    Realistically, small spaces gardening is a little higher maintenance on a daily basis but it is well worth the work. Just a few minutes a day can reap huge rewards right outside your patio doors. So even though the snow is still on the ground at the moment, now is the perfect time to grab a book or Google some great ideas and get inspired for the months ahead. And remember, good things come in small packages!