Patio Gardening in Containers

Tips on Growing a Garden in a Small Space

More and more of us are moving into homes without a lot of sprawling real estate. The reasons may include: 1)lower monthly mortgage payment, 2) property less costly to maintain, or 3) it requires less upkeep. Many families live happily in urban condos, lofts or apartments. Even single family homes today have smaller yards and in some instances only a patio.

But having a small space does not mean a garden is out of the question. A little creative thinking can turn a boring patio into an inviting "mini farmers market", alive with color and energy! There is no need to squelch that inner gardener in you!

The Advantages of Gardening in Containers on a Patio

Gardening in a container has many advantages.

    Containers can be moved to the appropriate place on a patio. As the angle of the sun changes during the year, so can the container. If you find the plant is getting too much sun or not enough, you can find a better spot for it.
    Color and fragrance can be scattered around the space, filling it with energy and ambiance.
    When a change of residence is made, container gardens can move with you and bring certain memories with them. My hanging pothos once dripped water on my ex-mother-in-law's head. It traveled with me to my new home, where it filled an urn proudly, as if celebrating with me my new single status!
    Container plants can be moved to showcase the most glorious in the garden. Those that are in season, with either blooms or fruit, can be moved toward the front. It is hard for most gardeners to give up on a plant, even if it has only one tiny little green shoot and I am no exception. My sickly plants take back seat to the beautiful ones, out of sight, where they will either recover or die a private death.

Gardening in Containers,(Ortho Books,1984) has been my long-time reference partner for container gardening. (If only I could have found a man so timeless!) In the "Climate and Container-grown Fruit Trees" section, it states: "planting in containers allows even tender plants far from their natural climate zone to grow well; you can move them to shelter when cold weather comes, and wheel them to a shady spot when it gets too hot."

Consider the Patio's Space When Picking Plants

Obviously, a 10 x 10 patio can only hold so much. When planning a garden for your space, it is important to keep in mind the growth potential of each plant. Also, make sure it blends in with your patio in a way that adds beauty and calm. You and your guests might avoid your patio entirely, if it has an overgrown tangle of branches poking your head and vines growing unfettered over everyone's toes.

For patios you should only choose the dwarf variety of fruit trees, which offers many choices such as orange, lemon, apple, apricot, nectarine, and even pomegranate! My grandkids love to check my dwarf nectarine tree when they visit, hoping there is a ripe one.

Almost any type of vegetable can be grown in a container on a patio, thrive and produce a good crop. You can choose from beets, eggplant, cucumbers, parsley, peppers, Swiss chard and of course, tomatoes. There are many "bush" varieties of plants now that grow less leggy and more dense for a concentrated crop.

An herb garden is a wonderful addition to your patio. Herbs are like mini vegetable plants that can be grown in individual pots or in a planter box and set on a shelf. Wherever a little space is available, your herbs can grow. They add wonderful fragrance that wifts through the air when a breeze is blowing! Additionally, if your patio has some ground soil you can plant mint or lemon thyme between stepping stones or along the patio edge where they will release fragrance when they are stepped on or brushed against. If you don't have ground soil, they can be planted in hanging baskets.

A small 10x10 space can easily hold a dwarf citrus tree, one bush tomato and one pepper plant, a cucumber vine tied strongly to a trellis in the corner, and a row of individually potted herbs such as parsley, chives, basil and thyme. Just keep an eye on growth and prune when necessary to keep everything under control.

Picking Containers for Vegetable Gardens and Fruit Orchards

Anything can be a container for your patio plants (pot, box, basket, can, bowl), but the size of the container and how well it provides drainage is important. Instructions are outlined in Garden Shed's "Clever Container Gardening Ideas" on Better Homes and Gardens website: "When choosing containers, remember that they need proper drainage to prosper. Drill drainage holes in the bottom of your planter. Then layer pebbles or shards from broken terra-cotta pots on the bottom to prevent the plant's roots from clogging the holes".

According to my trusty, dog-eared Gardening in Containers, "Choosing Containers" section, dwarf citrus trees should be planted in containers about the same size as its root ball. However, If the soil is well drained, it can be larger by 3 to 4 inches. They suggest bare root trees should be planted in containers the size of a 5-gallon can.
Since the container may be a long-term home for the tree, it is wise to sit the container on a platform with wheels or casters for easy movement as the tree gets larger.

From my own experience, vegetables grow well in containers with room to grow; however, it would look silly to plant a slow growing vegetable plant in a huge pot. Research the growth expectations for the plants, i.e., the height they are expected to reach and the estimated sprawl and chose the container accordingly.

Maintenance Tips for Your Container Garden

If you want to have a fruitful crop in your mini farmers market, you must be aware of the soil, fertilizing, pruning and watering requirements that are best for the types of plants you have chosen. Information is readily available in print form and online. One such site is Scotts Miracle-Gro's website.

You can make your own organic soil or buy a commercial brand, which might be composed of sand and an organic mixture containing all or some of the following: peat moss, shavings, sawdust or bark. Some gardeners add rich loam to the mixture to hold the water better, or some of their own compost. Once the plant is in the soil and container, it can be topped with bark chips or peat moss to further improve the moisture retention.

All plants require regular watering, with care given not to overwater but also to never let the root ball dry out completely. If the plant is wilting at all, water immediately, as all plants can dry out quickly in containers. Learning how to properly prune a tree is essential also, as is the seasonal timing of when it is done. According to the Fruit Tree Nursery Website, "If we don't prune them correctly, then we will have an odd shaped tree and unhealthy fruit".

Some fruit trees require fertilizer and others are self-fertile, so do your research. A weak solution of fertilizer and water can usually be applied to vegetable plants every other watering. The best advice I ever got was to just look at the plant. If it is growing and bursting with new little green shoots and buds, you are probably doing things right. If it looks sickly, you might need to step up your game and expend a little TLC.

You Are the Gardner!

There are many plants perfect for your container garden, but making a success of it depends on you. Good plant choices that are thoroughly researched, along with consistent, loving care will provide delicacies you'll have on the family dinner table in no time....and YOU can take all the credit!