By Sigrid Wright / Photos by Cerena Childress
For Cerena Childress, who lives in a small apartment with a great view of the mountains but no outdoor growing space, the phrase “garden anywhere” has extra meaning—perhaps the hint of a challenge. Despite her small home, Childress lives with the year-round abundance of produce she grows herself: artichokes, red lettuce, Green Lake beans, chard, kale, zucchini, tomatoes, watermelons and more.
Her garden consists of two 10×20 plots at the Pilgrim Terrace community garden just a few blocks from her home. Author of the Green Bean Connection blog and a regular speaker at garden clubs and nurseries, Childress has mastered the art of gardening in a small space and takes inspiration from those who may not have easy access to all of the elements of a traditional garden.
Joy Kelly and her husband Sandy Campbell faced a similar challenge when looking to grow some of their own produce: lack of space and soil. They invested in a handful of pre-made soil-less aeroponic structures by Tower Gardens and began to experiment with the closed-loop system that relies on a patented nutrient mix and a small amount of water. Within a few months, they had amassed 39 structures, which stand at about 6 feet each, on the rooftop of their triplex near West Beach.
“We only live in 1,200 square feet, in a foggy microclimate that can be challenging to grow in,” Kelly says. “But if you have space for a 30-inch-circumference unit and some sun, you can grow just about anything except root vegetables and trees.” In addition to the standard crops, the couple also experiments with rare heirloom lettuces.
“With Santa Barbara’s year-round growing climate, you almost don’t have an excuse not to at least try and grow here,” says Oscar Carmona of Healing Grounds Nursery, one of the first certified organic nurseries on the Central Coast.
“I tell my customers, if you’re not sure what to start with—start with an herb: they are hardy and almost foolproof. Then as you get comfortable, move on to cherry tomatoes, summer squash, spinach—things that don’t need much space and are pretty indestructible.”
For those would-be gardeners with limited space, soil or sunshine, here are some tips:
Plant in containers.
Plants that do fine in smaller containers include lettuce, arugula, bunch onions and strawberries. Plants that need larger containers with more soil—five gallons at least—include tomatoes, melons, squashes, cucumbers and bush beans. “Things with small roots, like salad mix and herbs, do especially well in containers. For larger items, you want to give the root zone enough space to grow,” says Carmona.
Choose smaller plants.
“Early” varieties take fewer days to produce, so they don’t spend as much time leafing out and don’t get as big. “Dwarf” varieties—such as dwarf figs, dwarf Meyer lemons, and other citrus and dwarf melons—are just smaller and can live year-round in pots.
“Start to see your garden in three dimensions,” says Carmona. “I’ve seen some very creative and artistic uses of shelving and hanging plants.” Tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini can all be trained to climb a trellis, and more skilled gardeners can train melons and heavier squashes. “You can also interplant,” says Childress. “By putting beans and cucumbers on the same trellis, for example, beans can go up high, and cucumbers can stay down low.”
Keep things growing at all times: as one plant is finishing, plant the next right at its feet. Succession planting allows you to be efficient with little space and keeps a rotation of vegetables going. “If you’re a big salad eater, you might plant lettuce every two weeks,” says Carmona. Other items that are fairly quick, like tomatoes, can be planted every three or four weeks.
Go toward the light.
Most varieties need six to eight hours of sun, but leafy greens can tolerate as little as four hours. “If you’re working with a small space that doesn’t get much light down low—like a patio with a high fence, or a balcony with a barrier —then you may want to raise the plants up higher, at least three feet off the ground. For example, you can get containers that fix on S hooks that you attach to the fence or hardware that slips over the top of the fence,” says Childress.
Water when needed.
“You’ll need to water more frequently with container plants, so you need to be aware,” says Carmona. “A pot can create more heat, which can be good for some items, like tomatoes. But you’ll want to check daily by putting your fingers in the soil, down to the root zone. You never want it bone dry; you want to water until you see water coming out the bottom of the pot.” That said, “If you’re setting up a garden on a balcony, you need to be mindful about where the excess water is dripping,” says Childress.
Work with good soil.
If you don’t have it, create it. “Get a good potting soil, mix in some compost or compost tea, and add a good organic complete-nutrient supply, like fish emulsion or kelp,” says Carmona.
Create a space you enjoy being in.
“Make your garden a destination place—put out a table to sip your tea or check your email. Find practical ways to connect with the garden,” says Carmona. As you do this, you’ll get into the habit of checking on the plants, which will help you determine when to water and whether there are pests or problems.