16 Small-Space Garden Ideas to Help You Make the Most of Any Outdoor Area
From what to plant to our favorite DIY containers, you'll love these inspired ideas for maximizing your tiny garden.
Feeling left behind by the grow-your-own-food revolution because you live in an apartment without any outdoor space or own a home with a small backyard? Take heart: Anyone with a sunny windowsill, patio, or balcony can grow just about anything they want. In fact, choosing plants that are nourishing, delicious, and beautiful is the ultimate way to maximize limited space, and that's true whether you're working with one little window box or several large containers on your patio.
Even if you only have access to a window, the small-scale garden ideas we're sharing will work just about anywhere. That means that anyone who wants try their hand at tending their own patch—whatever size that patch may be—certainly can. When space is limited but enthusiasm isn't, go for containers. The window boxes pictured here, just two feet long each, are big enough to grow all sorts of herbs, including oregano, basil, chives, and rosemary. But if you had your heart set on terra-cotta planters, we're showing you how to make your own herb tower that not only adds to your garden's charm, but also serves as the type of container garden you can enjoy in any size space. With so much extra room for herb varieties, it's the ideal choice for anyone working with limited outdoor square footage.
Contrary to what you might think, there are so many plants—from your favorite roses to delicious produce—that you can grow in a small garden. "Plant breeders have been focused on developing new varieties for small spaces in recent years, so even some of your classic favorites like hydrangeas, crapemyrtle, and sweetspire [are available]," says Ryan McEnany, public relations and communications specialist for Bailey Nurseries. "Plants that remain genetically compact will not take over your space as time goes on, but the root system will generally stay smaller as well, which will keep the plant—and those surrounding—healthy for the long haul," he says. Ahead, explore some of our favorite small garden ideas to make the most of your area.
Think of Bright Light
Just as in conventional vegetable gardens, sunshine is vital for patio garden success. Six to eight hours of bright light daily is best. Food crops also need consistent and frequent watering, so be sure to think about the location of your hose or faucet when planning where to plant—the closer your plants can be to water, the easier it will be to keep up with your plants' optimal hydration schedule.
Optimize Space for Vegetables
Devote the most planting space to the vegetables your family loves best. Keep in mind that large plants such as beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes require large pots (two feet in diameter or more). Smaller pots are perfect for peppers, greens, kale, and herbs, and they look great tucked between larger containers on your patio garden. For season-long interest, combine plants with varied flowering times so that some things will be ripening while others will be ready to harvest. In hot weather, water evaporates quickly from the elevated soil in a container. You may need to irrigate your pots every day if temperatures go above 90 degrees.
Minimal growing space often corresponds to a dearth of off-season storage. Sturdy containers that can be left out on your patio year-round, above, are a good solution. These three sizes of these stackable planters in a lightweight, all-weather resin accommodate all kinds of vegetables. Large plants such as tomatoes will need staking: Bamboo is an attractive, inexpensive option; sturdy metal tomato cages work well, too. By keeping the plants upright and well aerated, you help minimize the possibility of disease while maximizing yield. You also increase available space, allowing an under planting of small plants such as carrots, radishes, or herbs.
Choose Superproductive Plants
Don't wait all season for a few huge slicing tomatoes. Instead, opt for prolific, early-bearing, and delicious cherry tomatoes, such as 'Sun Gold.'
Combine Similar Species
An 18-inch pot will hold a wide selection of plants. These fiery habanero and hot lemon chiles and purple-leaved peppers make a colorful mix.
Look for Dwarf Varieties
Plant breeders are constantly introducing vegetables that take up less space, such as this tiny but tasty dark-green 'Diamant' cucumber.
Use a Window Box
A two-foot-wide box will easily host four to six large herb plants or a small crop of salad greens. Try to choose plants with a variety of shapes and colors, such as purple basil, tall lemon verbena, and chives, to make the display attractive. Herbs are particularly good choices for urban window boxes, since they can be maintained with just a watering can and a pair of shears. Most herbs require minimal fertilizing. In fact, overfed herbs lose essential oils in their leaves, making them less flavorful.
"When choosing plants for small spaces, be sure to check the plant tag or brand's website to make sure the mature size stays compact," advises McEnany.
Utilize Plants That Pull Double Duty
Variegated herbs, such as this two-tone mint, make a strong visual impression (without sacrificing flavor or productivity) when mixed with solid-color plants. Sowing a few extra seeds of easy-to-grow nasturtium and borage into any herb or vegetable planting adds a welcome touch of color to pots and to salads.
Select Upright Plants
"Upright plants are a great addition because they add dimension without taking up too much space [on your patio]," says McEnany.
Harvest salad greens once a week to encourage growth; when the plants become exhausted, remove them and plant seeds for a new crop.
"You want multiple levels to add intrigue, but also to draw attention to new places in your landscape," he says. "Adding a columnar shrub or tree to the corner, for example, creates an anchor in the garden that draws you in."
Check for Small Root Systems
"Plants that remain genetically compact will not take over your space as time goes on, but the root system will generally stay smaller as well, which will keep the plant—and those surrounding—healthy for the long haul," he says.
Make the Most of Vertical Space
This easy to make DIY is not only a welcome decorative element to any small garden, but it also offers up room for a variety of herbs, making the most of a patio garden.
Add Smaller Versions of Your Favorites
"Little Mischief Rose is one of my favorite roses for small spaces," he says. "It's low growing and is especially beautiful draping over rocks or other hardscapes." This shrub rose puts out deep pink flowers non-stop from late spring through fall, can withstand the cold of the north and the heat of the south, and is super disease resistant.