CONTAINER GARDENING ESSENTIALS
A Tight Spot
I used to have almost an acre to tend, with room to grow anything I wanted. Then a mid-life crisis hit and I moved to a condo in Las Vegas. But I wasn’t ready to give up gardening! Now I have to approach this passion a little differently. In addition to all the other pitfalls of gardening in the desert, I’m space-challenged and so are my herbs. Over time I’ve learned a bit about this challenge, so if you’re in cozy quarters, perhaps you’ll find a useful tip here.
First, look around and assess what obvious space you have available with adequate sun exposure (or in the case of Las Vegas, land of perpetual sunshine, the available spots that provide some afternoon shade). Once you’ve filled all those obvious places with potted herbs — the steps leading up to a front door, the small patio with its limited floor space — that’s when you get creative.
The layered look is the best way to pack more plants into the smallest floor space. This can be achieved in a number of ways — including tiered plant stands, hanging herbs from the ceiling of a porch to utilize the space above your growing area, and even within the pots themselves, underplanting upright herbs with creepers and sprawlers. The interplay of colors and textures of plants with different habits growing together cozily is delightful, and the container garden becomes more than the sum of its parts.
One of my favorite ways to achieve this effect is to stack containers in decreasing sizes so they form a pyramid shape. On the bottom of the stack is the largest container you have room for; a half whiskey barrel works splendidly if you have the space, not only because it provides good drainage but also because this hefty base allows you to stack up five or more layers of gradually smaller pots until it becomes a towering structure.
To do this, situate your largest container in the location where it will remain, preferably in a spot where you don’t have to be concerned about the runoff. On a concrete patio like mine, the whiskey barrel sits directly on the concrete.
Fill the half-barrel within an inch of the top with a good potting mix, then set the next-smallest container directly on the surface of the potting soil, and fill that one with potting soil, and continue up the pyramid. In tight quarters, it seems to work best to place all the pots at the edge so the finished planter can stand against a wall or in a corner, but if you want to be able to walk around it and admire it from all sides, you can place each pot in the center of the one below it, giving you more but smaller planting spaces. Be sure each pot in your pyramid has adequate drainage holes because you want the plants in the smaller pots at the top to be able to send their roots down through the drainage holes into the more plentiful potting soil below them.
Then you can start planting all those little spaces with a large assortment of both upright and prostrate herbs, with a tall one on top to further emphasize the height of this structure. The result is literally a living sculpture of greenery, and it’s hard to imagine a group of plants more suited to this type of planting than herbs. It’s a lovely effect as the plants settle in and grow into their spaces and spill over the top into the pots below. The plants have far more combined root room than they would have, for example, in a kind of tiered planter.
This kind of arrangement is also efficient at conserving water and watering time, as you water from the top and the runoff is slurped up by all the plants below it.
When I first moved in, my little patio frustrated me because not only was the floor space extremely limited, but I also had a wall with a door (to a storage area) along one side of the porch and couldn’t figure out how to use that space for more plants. To solve the problem, I recycled an idea from my orchid-growing days.
I got a white wire shelf the length of the door from my neighborhood hardware store. I attached it sideways to the door with a couple of over-the-door hangers, to provide a framework from which to hang plants. I had a few plastic pots with a convenient hole on the rim where I could attach to the shelf with an “S” hook. For others, I wrapped a loop of wire around plastic pots that had a lip, so I had something to hook, or made a hole for the hook. When I was done, I had covered the door with 15 hanging plants in plastic pots, and I could still open the door! It’s surprisingly stable.
I hang the thirstiest plants toward the bottom of the door, the more drought-tolerant ones at the top. I put a couple of seed-germination trays on the floor to catch any runoff, and I eventually tucked moss in the spaces between the plants, which also catches water and raises the humidity in that space. The only drawback to this door of hanging plants is that some of the pots tilt forward slightly, so I have to water gently and carefully in the beginning until the soil settles into place so the water and potting soil don’t spill out. This is where I keep young plants in smaller pots, the seedlings I buy or germinate myself or the herbs, such as aloe, that are content to stay in smaller pots.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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