Numerous circumstances can make a small garden space more appropriate than a larger one: rented spaces, no yard, physical limitations, the need to bring plants indoors for cool nights. Small-space gardening can be every bit as rewarding as gardening in a larger, in-ground bed.
For the greatest success in small spaces, a few tweaks of typical gardening practices is helpful to help gardeners maximize the return on space and effort. In general, larger containers contribute to better root development and water retention. Gardeners are encouraged to use the largest containers appropriate for space and budget. A large container holds more moisture in the soil, providing a reservoir for the plants within, and helps safeguard against soil temperature fluctuations. On the flip side, large containers are harder to move indoors when night temperatures drop.
Container and raised bed gardening are an alternative for those with poor soils. Amending a poor soil takes time, product, and incorporation of the product (labor). It’s often much more than the gardener anticipates. For gardeners with amendment on their to-do list, containers and raised beds can be a short term solution while the long term development of better soil is also undertaken. For many organic amendments, it takes 6 to 12 months — and sometimes even longer — for the soil to reap full benefit.
To the extent the gardening budget allows, raised beds and containers are places to invest in quality soils. Nutrients and moisture both flush through containers faster than in ground soils. A balance of moisture holding capacity and good drainage is ideal, but where that balance lies can vary depending on the plants inside. Local garden center Mountain Valley Gardens makes a premixed bulk soil for container gardening called “Six Mix.” this blend includes screened topsoil, premium potting soil, certified gardening compost, barnyard compost, soil conditioner, and pumice. No matter the quality of the soil, most large containers and raised beds will need to be “topped off” at the beginning of every growing season to enable use of the container’s entire depth.
Choose bush beans rather than pole beans, compact squashes rather than vining ones. If growing flowers, choose varieties that grow 2-3 feet rather than those in the 4-6 foot range. “Cultivar”, a horticultural contraction meaning “cultivated variety,” refers to plants with specific reliable characteristics like size, color, and habit. Smaller-growing choices are usually better for containers and raised beds. These help the gardener get more return on a small space in fruit, blooms or aesthetics.
Containers often need to be watered more frequently than in-ground beds. For containers in full sun, this may mean daily watering. If container soils become over-dry, water will roll right off the soil ball and drain out of the container without actually penetrating the roots. When this happens, bottom watering is helpful to re-moisten the soil with minimal water wasted. Avoid this over dry soil that is stressful to plants. When water is applied, it can be applied until it just begins to drain out of the bottom of the pot. Deep watering helps ensure the entire root ball has access to moisture.
In addition to size, gardeners can choose from container finishes and materials to benefit the situation. Containers of flowers to beautify a front entrance might be of heavier, color coordinated materials for aesthetic effect. Many of these decorative containers don’t stand up well to the freeze and thaw cycles of eastern Oregon winters and benefit from overwintering inside. Containers for vegetable growing need to be as large as possible, and durable enough to withstand moving, full sun, and multiple seasons. Basin Indoor Gardening, a grower supply store that recently moved to a new location on S. 6th street in Klamath Falls, carries durable “nursery” containers for this type of growing, from 2 to 20-gallon size. The black color of these containers can keep the soil warm, a benefit early and late in the season and on cool nights, and another reason to keep plants well-watered in the hottest part of the season.
Nitrogen and other nutrients flush through containers more easily than the soil profile. The roots of container plants can’t explore deeply into the soil for nutrients — they’re limited to what’s within the container walls. Some strategies employed by long-time container gardeners include using a slow-release fertilizer, or regularly applied, but weaker concentrations of liquid fertilizers. A slow-release fertilizer puts a tiny does of fertilizer into the soil every time the plant is watered, and can last the entire growing season.
Container gardening may require close attention to plant choices and watering schedule, but provides flexibility and mobility unlike that of an in-ground garden. For info on designing containers, check out Oregon State Extension materials online.
— — Nicole Sanchez is horticulture faculty at OSU’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center. For more information on this or other gardening topics, contact Sanchez at 541-883-7131 or Nicole.firstname.lastname@example.org.