Gardening in small spaces

Sonya Day gave a great talk to the Master Gardeners to get us all warmed up! Here’s a summary. Any errors are mine.

It’s spring, and the gardening magazines tempt us with the promises of beauty, fragrance, and novelty. But — alas! We turn the cover to see huge greenswards, lengthy vistas, interminable flower beds, and despair of being able to create anything as enticing on our apartment balcony, condo courtyard, or postage-stamp city lot. What’s a person to do?

Lots! First, like any other gardener, you need to know your microclimate. Which direction does your gardening space point? Are there any large trees or buildings shading your space? The amount of light you get will play a huge role in the range of plants from which you can choose to personalize your space.

How high are you?

Gardening space on a balcony above the 8th floor is going to be windier than at ground level, and it is likely to get windier the higher you go. This also influences your plant choice, in terms of height (is that clematis going to be able to twine around the trellis in constant gale-force winds?) and drought resistance (evaporation rates on leaves and on the soil’s surface increase with temperature and wind speed).

How much effort are you willing to put into it?

For example, don’t buy cacti if you want something to tend to daily, and don’t plant roses if you believe in benign neglect.

If you’re at ground level, what’s your soil like? Sand, loam, or potter’s clay? Are you willing to amend it or build raised beds on top of it, if need be? Or do you want plants that do well, thank you, in the type of soil you naturally have?

Next, what do *you* want? What sort of atmosphere do you want to create? Hot, lush tropicals (you’ll have to either bring them indoors in the winter or treat them like annuals)? Cool forest greens? English country garden, Zen garden, xeriscape, native plants only?

Armed with answers to these questions, you should be able to approach any knowledgeable garden centre employee and come away with a list (and maybe a basket) of plants tailored to your environment and temperament.

Some quick tips for a successful gardening season:

Don’t plant tender plants until later in May. If you like herbs, you can plant parsley now, but leave the basil indoors until mid or late May, depending on how the season develops.

Plant trees and other woody-stemmed plants when it’s cool, preferably before the buds break (so the plant can initially concentrate on root growth), and water carefully for the first year, according to instructions that come with your tree or shrub.

If you’re moving tropical plants outdoors, move them into the sun gradually (leaves can and will get sunburned if you transition them too quickly).

If you’re container gardening, be aware that clay pots are going to allow the soil to dry out faster, so you’ll have to water more often.

Hydrogel crystals can help soil in containers retain moisture (they’re available at Sheridan Nurseries in Toronto, and probably at other gardening centres).

Follow instructions. If a plant’s tag says it requires full sun, it won’t give you the results in the picture if you sit it in your north-facing window.

Projections on what’s hot this year

  • Tropicals. Banana trees! Of course, you’d want to have enough space indoors to overwinter them.
  • Mixes of food and flowers. Plant a grape tomato variety among the sweetpeas.
  • Elephant ears. Start them indoors, move them outdoors, and harvest the bulbs in the fall for next year.
  • For more news about what’s hot, see Canadian Gardening’s website.
  • Looking for more information? You may want to get one of the following books, written by Toronto gardening writers:
    • The Urban Gardener – How to Grow Things Successfully on Balconies, Terraces, Decks and Rooftop, by Sonia Day. Key Porter Books.
    • The Urban Gardener Indoors – How to Grow Things Successfully in Your House, Apartment or Condo, by Sonia Day. Key Porter Books.
    • For information about creating a small garden in the city, check out Marjorie Harris’ website, or get her book “Pocket Gardening” published by Harper Collins Canada. Marjory also has a new book out on native plants, “Botanica North America: the guide to our Native plants, Their Botany, History, and How They Have Shaped Our World” published by Harper Collins, and has gardened organically in Toronto for the last 30 years. It sounds like a great book. I’m ordering it.
  • Also, during May, members of the Master Gardeners of Ontario will be available to talk to (for free) about your garden at all Toronto-area Sheridan Nurseries.Have fun, and grow green!

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