As more Americans have moved into densely populated cities and multifamily housing units, the available space for backyard gardening has shrunk considerably, but the human drive to cultivate plant life is as powerful as ever. Fortunately, so-called “urban gardening” offers plant-loving city-dwellers a variety of options for growing lush greenery, flowers, fruits and vegetables in small spaces. With a little effort and ingenuity, windowsills, rooftops, patios and balconies can be converted into a gardener’s refuge, even in the midst of a concrete jungle.
The following tips, tricks and techniques will get you started on the path to establishing an urban garden and enjoying the fruits of your labor.
Pick plants known to thrive in urban gardening conditions
While a wide variety of plants can be successfully maintained in an urban setting, some species are better suited than others to this unique environment. If you’re new to urban gardening and nervous about your ability to keep your plants alive, start with these hardy, low-maintenance options:
- Lettuce and other salad greens
- Basil, parsley and other herbs
Get creative with containers
Whether you plan to keep your plants indoors or on a balcony, patio or rooftop, you’ll probably use some sort of a container for most of them. You can use traditional pots, utility buckets, wooden boxes or hanging baskets to help you maximize your space and provide your urban garden with the foundation it needs to flourish.
If you opt for pots, choose plastic over clay, since porous clay materials can soak up moisture and deprive your plants of the water they need. Adding an inch or two of organic mulch on top of the soil can also help keep water from evaporating.
Select your plants based on available sun and shade
If your window, patio or balcony faces north or east, you may be concerned about having sufficient sunlight to support an urban garden. Fortunately, there are plenty of species that thrive in low-light conditions, including begonia, copper plant, hydrangea, amethyst flower and ferns.
In contrast, areas that face the south or west enjoy hours of direct sunlight each day, which is ideal for some plant types but could be devastating to others. If the area you have mapped out for your urban garden gets tons of sun, look for plants like shasta daisy, yarrow, lavender, butterfly weed, coreopsis and verbena.
Expand upward, not outward
If you’re using a small balcony to house your urban garden, taking a vertical approach can provide you with additional available space for planting.
- Stack planters allow you to grow multiple plants in vertical tiers while only requiring the floor space of a single planter or pot.
- Rail planters turn balcony railings into usable space for a variety of plants.
- If you happen to have some available wall space, vertical wall planters create a lush canvas of color on your patio or balcony.
- Hanging baskets are also a good option for tiny outdoor spaces.
Plants that do well in vertical gardens include ferns, hostas, bromeliads, air plants, succulents and vines.
Add some flavor to your life with an herb or vegetable garden
Urban gardeners who also enjoy cooking may want to consider growing herbs, which can be cultivated on a windowsill as well as outdoors. Basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme and sage provide not only a splash of green in your environment, but also a fresh source of flavor in your favorite dishes.
Patios and balconies that get at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day can also support modest vegetable container gardens. Tomatoes, peppers, radishes, onions and leafy greens are all good choices for small spaces.
Build a tiny oasis in a bowl of succulents
If you don’t have a proper balcony or patio—or if patio furniture occupies all available outdoor real estate—consider using a succulent bowl as a centerpiece. Succulents are ideal plants for busy people, since they developed in harsh, dry climates and require very little water, time or attention.
To start your succulent garden, choose a wide, shallow bowl or container with good drainage features, which may require you to drill holes in the bottom. Succulents are generally difficult to kill, but the primary threat to their health is too much water. Fill the bowl with soil specifically blended for cactus or succulents, which is a mix of traditional potting soil, sand and pumice.
When selecting plants to fill the container, check the care instructions to ensure that all plants in the grouping have similar sunlight and hydration needs. Most succulent gardens feature one or two larger plants to serve as focal points, with smaller plants surrounding them. Try to assemble a good mix of plant textures, sizes and colors to create visual interest and contrast. If you like, you can fill in empty spaces with aquarium stones or gravel.
Give your plants what they need to thrive—and seek expert advice if necessary
No matter which type of container you choose for your urban garden, it will need to give your plants enough room for future growth. Doing some online research or checking with staff at your local nursery or garden center can help you pick the right size if you’re uncertain.
While you’re there, pick up some high-quality potting soil for planting, since it has been treated for weeds, pests and diseases and is formulated for optimal drainage. Never use soil dug straight from the ground to plant a container garden. You should also supplement the soil with fertilizer pellets, which release nutrients in consistent amounts over time to allow plants to absorb the much-needed nutrition.
Manage water levels carefully
Both overwatering and underwatering can be fatal to plants, so read the care instructions closely and set watering reminders for yourself if necessary. Each time you water your plants, add enough moisture to soak the container, put drain any excess water from the dish underneath it, since allowing your plants to sit in standing water can quickly rot the roots. Look for signs of overwatering such as droopy, wilted leaves and yellowing and adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
On the flip side, patios and balconies that receive substantial sunlight can become dangerously hot and dry. If this is your situation, you may need to water your plants daily. Signs of inadequate watering include dry, cracked soil and withered, brown leaves. If you stick your finger about an inch into the soil and don’t feel any moisture, you need to water more frequently.
If you travel often or find it challenging to stick to a schedule, water-storing crystals may be a smart solution for your urban gardening needs. The crystals are mixed into the soil in the pot or container and are capable of absorbing many times their weight in water, which they gradually release over time to keep your plants consistently hydrated.
Final Thoughts on Urban Gardening
Despite some common misperceptions, a home with a massive yard isn’t a requirement for maintaining a thriving garden. Urban gardening is an affordable, accessible alternative that can be enjoyed in as much or as little space as you have available. By incorporating pots, stacking containers, hanging baskets and other innovative solutions, even small apartments can be transformed into a plant-lover’s paradise.