Grow big in small spaces

I have a degree in Agriculture and a paved yard… the irony is not lost on me. I live an urban life and so my wide-open spaces are parks and my tiny little paved patio is my garden. But within my garden I have two apple trees, a blueberry bush, a cluster of raspberries, potatoes, numerous tomatoes, a herb patch, a maple tree and a plethora a flowers (annuals, hydrangea, dahlias, lavender, just to name a few) to bring in the pollinators. Everything growing quite happily in containers. Lack of a traditional garden space shouldn’t limit you; it is easier than you think to create your own little oasis, you just need to containerize it. 

It’s not necessary to go to the level I have (I have a large and expensive green thumb), a foray into container gardening can be as simple as finding a lush, colourful, already planted-up container that speaks to you. GardenWorks staff can help you pick one that will work for your site (eg. sun versus shade), take it home, water it regularly and perhaps deadhead and clean it up from time to time. Transforming your outdoor space can be that easy, if you want it to be. The addition of plants can immediately change the atmosphere of your patio, balcony or deck (not to mention how great it can be for providing privacy and blocking unwanted views). And since we are all being encouraged to “staycation” this summer, it’s a good idea to expand our living space outside. 


Know before you Grow 

But before you jump in there are a few things to consider. This first thing is to realize that container growing is different from traditional in-ground gardening in one very important aspect, you are missing the buffering effect of the ground. Let me explain a bit further. When a plant is “in-ground” its roots can expand without barriers to find water and nutrients, the ground also is slower to warm up and cool down. By sheer volume of soil available, change happens slowly, and the plant has more resources at its disposal. In a container, the opposite is true. Change is faster and soil is finite. Some of this can be a benefit if you are growing something that needs a bit more heat than our climate offers like tomatoes and peppers, growing in a pot can mean fruit ripens faster. Some of the downsides are that in the heat of the summer your containers will dry out much faster and you will have to be mindful of soil fertility. 

The other thing you need to ask yourself is, how much work do you really want to do? If you want to grow something that isn’t naturally adapted to growing in a small amount of soil, like a tree, shrub or large perennial, then you may have to commit to doing a bit more work in order to make it happen. The more your plants grow the bigger their root system is going to be and subsequently the less soil in the pot. As roots grow, soil disappears. It’s a bit of a catch 22 that as your plants flourish, they are creating their downfall. So, you need to work on balancing your tops and bottoms. If you think of your containerized plant as part of a system where nutrients are going in at the roots and being used to grow shoots and leaves at the top then you need make sure the system is in balance, your root growth needs to equal your shoot growth. If it’s out of balance then you need to prune, either roots or shoots. Obviously above-ground pruning is much easier, so always make sure to keep your plant pruned to a size similar to the container it’s growing in. Have a critical look and think if it seems “top heavy” or not. But if over the years, despite your efforts, you notice a lack of vigour then you might need to dig it up and check out what is going on below ground. If the roots are circling the container or just too aggressive then you can selectively prune some of roots and then replant it. This is going to re-invigorate the plant and make more room for some fresh new soil. Hopefully you will soon see and improvement in growth and vigour. It can seem a little daunting, but plants are more resilient than we give them credit for. Just make sure to do the root pruning on a cool day and give your plant a lot of love in form of water and fertilizer/rich soil after the operation. If in doubt, there are lots of on-line resources or better yet pop down to your local GardenWorks and get some advice. 

No matter what you choose to grow, annuals or espalier apple trees, you need to know your space before you start. Knowing your space means taking a real look and being honest about what is possible. Do you have a small windy balcony on the 23rd floor? Or a large backyard deck space? Do you get 4-6 hours of sunlight a day? North or south facing? Knowing the answers to these questions is going to help you when it comes time to choose your plants.  

Getting Started 

Size of container –

I hate to say it but size matters. Little pots are like puppies and kittens, cute but a lot of work. The bigger the container, the more soil it will hold and the less often you will have to water, fertilize and re-pot. So, if you can, go big. The choice of containers today actually makes me giddy, no more having to settle for a half barrel or dragon egg pot (not that there is anything wrong with them, if that’s your jam then… you do you, but it’s nice to have options). There are so many beautiful planters out there that they sometimes rival the plants for their beauty, which is good because it’s a lot easier to change your plants than change your pots, so find some you adore.  

Choose well –

A question I get a lot is “will this grow in a container” and my answer is usually “sure, almost anything can be grown in a container, if you are willing to do the work.” The key is to know your space, be realistic and choose wisely. If you’ve been following along then you should already know your space and put some thought into how much work you really want to do, so now it’s time to think about what to plant, choose wisely.

It’s true that almost anything can be containerized, but some plants are easier than others. Annuals, herbs and most veggies are by far the easiest thing to grow in a container. And the good news is growers and plant breeders have been paying attention and have obliged us with so many good options specifically for container gardening. Read plant labels and look for key words like dwarf, patio or bush varieties of your favourite plants. These are going to be plants that are better adapted to growing in a smaller space with “better behaviour.” This goes for trees and shrubs as well, look for a dwarf or semi dwarf variety if you want to tackle something a bit more challenging. 


Soil –

When first planting a container choose a good soil mix that is formulated for containers. These mixes contain all the water holding and nutrients needs specially required for container gardening so using a good container mix will set you up for success. You will notice if you are growing from year to year, that the level of soil in your container drops every year. No, you aren’t seeing things, the soil is slowly disappearing, it’s being used up by the organisms and plants. So, each spring you need to top up your pots with a good soil amendment. I personally use Sea Soil but there are lots of options available. 

Nutrients –

Feeding your plants is important in containers because nature will not always provide in such a small space. The options abound, the easiest being a spring addition of slow release, or perhaps something organic for your veggies, or consider a natural source like worm castings. No matter what you choose, just make sure to give your plants something to eat. 

Water source –

cannot stress this enough… you need to know where your water is going to be coming from. As I mentioned earlier containers dry out much faster because they don’t have as much soil to hold the water. Depending on the heat of the summer and the size of your container you may be watering daily. Check your plants regularly by sticking your finger in the soil to see if it’s dry, hanging baskets can be checked by giving them a lift to see how light they are (heavy hanging baskets are full of water). Make sure you stay on top of it, plants can dry out quickly. 

Watering VegePod

The “new reality” is we are going to be spending a lot more time closer to home this summer. An extension into an outdoor space might be just what is needed to escape without going too far from home. Are you a country mouse in the city like me? Perhaps, grow your own veggies. Are you a night owl or work late and need a place to unwind? Get some comfortable outdoor furniture, LED lanterns and plant a white garden that will glow in the evening light. Nervous first-time gardener? Pick up a pot of annuals. A foodie that hates running out to the store? Plant a herb pot near the kitchen door. Find something uniquely yours and enjoy outdoor living with colour and life. 


Vegetable Container Gardens

If you want to get serious about growing your own healthy organic food and you don’t have a garden then consider investing in one of the new self-watering growing systems that are on the market today. They are well designed and make growing veggies ridiculously easy. The Vegepod system (pictured above) comes in three different sizes and is customizable to suit your needs. You can even fit it with wheels so it can be rolled around your patio to follow the sun. Lifespace Gardens is a local North Vancouver company that makes beautiful planters out of cedar. Both of these growing systems (they are so much more than simple planting containers) are raised up to waist level to save your knees and come with self-watering technology to take the guess work out water (not to mention save you from spending every day of the summer watering your veggies). Check out the Vegepod system at your local GardenWorks location. 

**If you are growing tomatoes in a container then beware of blossom end rot (which by the way is exactly what it sounds like, the fruit rot on the end where the blossom was, it’s gross and makes your crop inedible). This happens when there is not enough calcium available for the plant and is especially a problem for tomatoes grown in a container. But have no fear, it is easily combated with the application of a specific calcium magnesium fertilizer. 


Written by Ingrid Hoff

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