Tips For Gardening In Small Spaces

Once you’ve reached a certain age, it doesn’t take long before you and your friends start talking about “downsizing.” The kids are off to college and you really don’t want to maintain a large family home. I’ve been thinking a lot about a friend who is leaving her home and, more importantly, her beloved garden.

She’s downsizing to a Federal-style brick townhouse. It’s charming and stylish, but very small. Sadly, this means her gardening days are pretty much over. Her new home has only a tiny patch of grass out front, where the she might plant a few things. She requested a selection of our irises (see above), so I went around our garden to collect a sample group.

I caught myself thinking of the agony she must feel at having so small a patch of land. I mean, she can only really grow one thing in her new space. This would be torture for any serious gardener who has a zeal for plants that borders on, well, greed. However, irises are a good choice, given the terrible constraint. I can only hope their one month of blossoming beauty will last her through the year. Of course, nothing is stopping her from raising beautiful plants indoors and cramming her townhouse with cut flowers from the supermarket.

Next: A small patio needs a plant

caladium and elephant ears
Caladium is a great plant for a shady area like many patios, here shown with some green elephant ears.

Her townhouse also has a beautiful, albeit small, patio. She expressed her desire for one pot for her patio; however, she wasn’t sure about which plant to choose. So I decided to surprise her with a housewarming present of one of our venerable urns that we’re not presently using—a tall, gracefully sculpted urn that appears to be made of beautifully weathered iron, but is, in fact, polymer.

I filled the three foot tall urn with rich soil and packed it down. She’s been worried about mosquitoes swarming around on her new patio so, in the middle of the urn, I stuck a sawed-off tiki torch. For the plants, I decided to go with a tropical theme. I found a beautiful, pale yellow canna lily at a local garden centre and I placed it in the centre of the pot, next to the tiki torch.

Then I chose a carmine mandevilla, which will be a lovely complement to the pale yellow and will weave through the canna and climb up the tiki pole, for added height and drama. Because her patio is rather shady and will mostly be used in the evenings, I wanted something bright to use up the rest of her tiny space. So, around the edges of the pot, I planted some variegated caladium, with their fresh, green-and-white elephant ear shapes hanging out over the urn’s edge.

The finished product looks like something in the tropical hothouse at the west front of the Capitol. When we worked on Capitol Hill, I would often go to the hothouse in the middle of a bitter, dull winter, just to luxuriate for an hour in the heat, humidity and all the spectacular tropicals growing in the depth of a bitter D.C. winter. I think she’s going to like my display. Of course, it will have to come inside during winter, but that’s the nice thing about having a tropical pot—it’s not too onerous and it’ll thrive inside, perhaps even more than it did outdoors in the summer.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog The Garden Interior which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. He’s also the author of The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty.