Small-Space Gardening: 3 Rules of Thumb

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Notions of a small space can greatly vary depending on your perspective, but whether you have a balcony or a small garden, there is always the potential for growing something. Sometimes I fantasize about a larger yard in order to expand my veggie beds and grow a true cut-flower garden, but to be honest, making what I have work to my heart’s content is plenty challenging every year—and bigger spaces tend to overwhelm me. When you have growing kids in tow, a tiny garden is a perfect garden!

Despite what this blog might have you thinking, I’m an overly impulsive gardener at times, so when it comes to gardening in my small space, I like to follow three general rules of thumb whenever I tackle a project in a flower or vegetable bed. These are: the design of the space, plant spacing, and plant food—for the best performance.

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1. Designing: work with different heights, texture and color!

I’m an architect and I tend to have specific ideas of how I want the space around me to shape up. One of my biggest frustrations and most valuable lessons from gardening is that it takes patience, time, and a lot of care to see your vision materialize—and it will probably differ from what was in your mind’s eye. So here are a few tips I’ve learned over time (mostly the hard way) when it comes to garden design.

You get the most impact when the eye has places to wander, so work with height. This can mean planting trees and bushes, but one great substitute/addition in tighter spaces is to use vines. I have an ivy along a dividing fence that compensates for the shallow depth of my flower bed, while allowing me to layer more delicate flowers. I also have a grapevine that takes over my third-story fire escape, making it feel like a little forest for most of the summer, while taking up less than one square foot of space at ground level. In my raised vegetable garden, I always have a few plants trellised to give it more height and structure in the earlier months. Putting support structures in first really helps provide a visual sense for what the garden will be doing before the vegetation grows in. I have grown sweet peas, cucumbers and zucchini, and edible flowers like nasturtium, over my teepees. You can easily build your own teepee by pulling together 3 bamboo sticks and wrapping them with a garden string. 

Foliage texture is your friend. I like the look of a little bit of everything, but have learned to be selective within a palette. Too much of a good thing can start to go wrong, in my opinion. Try to get a variety of different leaves—the flowers are almost secondary. For flower beds, I like to stick with 1-3 colors per bed/area. This helps keep things a bit more cohesive and has worked in minimizing my frustrations. In my vegetable bed, I love using a variety of herbs at the edges to help with this idea, as well. They create a border and are easy to access when needed!

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2. Plant spacing: planting densely, but not too densely

I find myself wanting to use every corner of uncovered soil when planting, and I always have to scale myself back. Plants don’t like to be cramped, and won’t reach their full potential in size or productivity if their roots don’t have space for proper expansion. So what I have come to train myself to do is to leave at least 3/4 of the suggested spacing between plants. (If the package says leave 12 inches, I’ll leave at least 9.) Planting in a triangle rather than rows tends to be a good way to maximize on space, too.

3. Food for the plants!

This is a necessary practice for healthy growth, but you can overdo it. Too much fertilizer can burn out your plants and adversely affect your soil’s pH level. I tend to feed most plants with fertilizer at about 3-4 week intervals, and this has worked well for my soil.

As you might have guessed by now, organic eggshells can be your good friends when it comes to feeding plants—giving them a boost of calcium. Luci has come to be a bit of an expert at eggshell cracking, so she will show you how we do it. 

    1. Wash your empty Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggshells

    2. Let them dry

    3. Wrap them in a paper towel and crush them until the biggest pieces are under 1/2 inch

    4. Sprinkle them near the roots (if you’re starting to plant), or above the soil, and work them in

We love using Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggshells for this, knowing that by supporting them, we’re also supporting small family farms.

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This is the fourth and final post in a series to promote growing practices in small spaces with Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs. I have absolutely loved researching and putting together the content for this campaign, and am so grateful for their outreach. I can’t say it’s been easy to keep up a blog while working full time and raising two kids, but having this little space and the push to dive into things I really enjoy makes me want to do a whole lot more of it! Hope you enjoy this series with a sprinkle of up-cycled eggshells.

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Elen Zurabyan