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Small Space Gardening

containers with plants on deck

Searcy, Ark. – 

If you close your eyes, can you visualize what your ideal small garden would look like?  What do you see?  Maybe it’s a secret hideaway or a secluded garden confined to a city lot or even a lush balcony.  It could be a few carefully chosen containers with stunning plants, or it might be crammed with colorful blooms, a collection of herbs or even vegetables.   

So whether you are dealing within the confines of a postage-stamp-sized lot, balcony or small planting space, or just trying to create a small garden hideaway or outdoor living space within your larger landscape, you can create a wonderful outdoor space no matter what your boundaries or limitations are. 

First you want to consider your site.  Take into consideration your existing features, walkwaysutilities, sun and shade patterns, wind direction, soil, drainage, slopes, existing trees and shrubs, other features such as pool, satellite dish, etc.  Views you want to enhance or eliminate. 

Location:  If raising edible produce, vegetables, herbs, or some flowers, make it easy to harvest.  If you locate it closer to your kitchen entrance you are more likely to harvest the produce by making it easily accessible.  Around the walkways is a good place for veggies, especially lettuce that makes a good border plant, as well as herbs.  Rosemary is great to use like a shrub.  

Everyone has their own definition of sun and shade.  Then to add to the confusion we have partial sun or partial shade. 

As you grow things, you will be able to fine-tune these definitions to fit your own garden and planting experience.  Trial and error happens a lot in gardening.  If something doesn’t work out in one spot, then try moving it to another location.  That is why container gardening is good, because it’s easier to just move the container to another location without having to disturb the plant. 

Full sun:  An area that receives 8 hours or more of direct sunlight. 

Part sun:  4-6 hours of direct sunlight in morning or afternoon. 

Light shade:  Areas that are bright though shaded much if not all day.  Some people include dappled or filtered shade in this category.  Light shade at mid-day in the peak of summer provides relief from the heat and allows flowers to produce a more brilliant colorful display. 

Open shade:  These areas are shaded by nearby buildings or fences.  There are no overhead trees or structures blocking the sunlight.  Just like light shade, these areas may be well lit even though they do not receive direct sunlight. 

Dappled or filtered shade:  The sun shining through a fine textured tree canopy or lattice covered arbor creates sun and shade patterns below.  As the sun moves across the sky, these patterns change throughout the day.  This creates an ever-changing combination of sun and shade. 

Partial or medium shade:  This occurs in areas shaded for most of the day.  They may receive direct sun in the morning or late afternoon.  Areas under large shade trees or bright north facing exposures often fit into this category. 

Full shade:  These areas have little or no direct sun all day.  The only light reaching these areas comes from sunlight reflected off a nearby wall or surface. 

Dense shade:  This can be found under decks and stairways, in heavily wooded areas, and under evergreens branched near the ground.  No direct or reflected light reaches these areas. 

Soils:  The easiest way to find out what your plants need and the type of soil you have is to have a soil sample run.  This is free of charge through the Extension Office (paid for by the taxes you pay on fertilizer).  The test will give you the type of amendments needed for your soil.  Of course, if you are planting in small areas like your flower bed, the best thing to do is to add compost or shredded leaves. By adding compost each year this will help build soil.  Fertile soil full of organic matter is also full of earth worms, whose castings are an important source of nutrients for plants. 

Using a basic fertilizer will also help your plants produce successfully.  Adding compost to your herbs is the best way for them to get their nutrients.  Fertilizing herbs heavily will produce leafy plants with little oils.  Oyster shells, fish emulsion, and green sand is some of the things that herbs like best. 

Drainage:  Some things to consider when planting in the landscaped areas are downspouts, soggy areas, and other drainage problems.  All of these problems could be solved by using containers to grow plants and veggies. 

Watering:  Not all plants can be close to a water supply.  That’s where soaker hoses or better yet, drip irrigation comes in handy.  Drip irrigation is much easier to install these days by the home gardener or by experts if you prefer.  Select plants adapted to your climate. Plants that thrive with the average amount of rainfall in your area will need less supplemental watering once established.  Check them during extended periods of drought, as they may need a helping hand. 

Group plants by watering needs.  You can design and program your irrigation system to match plants’ needs.  If you have a manual systemthat would be YOUit will be quicker and easier to manage the plants. 

Plant moisture-loving plants near a water source.  A shorter hose or quicker trip with the watering can is all that will be needed to get water to these plants. 

Collect water in rain barrels for use in the garden.  New designs make them easier to use and incorporate into small spaces.  There are also plans to make your own rain barrels. 

You can also invest in watering cones.  These devices screw onto plastic one or two-liter bottles.  Fill the empty soda container with water, screw on the watering top, invert and place by the plant, whether it be in the ground or in a container.  This no-waste system delivers water to the plants roots.  

As a final step in your planting, you will also want to add mulch to your space as a way to help hold moisture in as well.   

A few other things to consider:   

  • Wants and needs.   

  • Who will be using the small space (adults, children, or pets)?  

  • How will it be used  (Entertaining, family dining, quiet reflection and resting, meditation or yoga, storage of furniture, tools, composting bins, water gardens, grow fruits, veggies, and herbs, cut flowers or attracting birds, butterflies or other wildlife.) 

Even in urban settings, you’ll be surprised by how quickly wildlife finds and takes up residence in your pond.  Frogs, especially, seem to appear overnight.  Moving water will do more to attract birds that bird feeders. 

Then the last thing to consider is what you want to grow in your small space.  Vegetables, herbs, and fruit, of the dwarf variety, can be grown right along with your flowers and shrubs, maybe even replace some of them.  

When choosing plants remember that healthy looking plants, not size, is the key to success in choosing plants.  Just because a plant is blooming doesn’t mean it will produce quicker.  A smaller, healthy plant will grow and do much better.  A healthy plant will mean less work for you and will be a better-looking plant with greater impact for the space it occupies.  Select plants that are hardy to your region.  A USDA cold hardiness map will be helpful to help you determine your hardiness zone.   

So whether you are dealing within the confines of a postage-stamp-sized lot, a balcony or small planting space outside your back or front door, or just trying to create a small garden hideaway or outdoor living space within your larger outdoor living space, these suggestions should help you to get started to create your very own space no matter your boundaries, schedule, or gardening skills. 

For specific information on recommended varieties for Arkansas’ growing conditions refer to our website at The University of Arkansas System, Division of Agriculture is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. For more information you can contact your local county extension service, you can also follow Sherri Sanders on Facebook @UADA.WhiteCountyAgriculture . 


Photo credits:  Virginia State University, Gary Bachman (Mississippi State University) and Napa Master Gardeners 

By Rose Ann Houston 
White County Master Gardener
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Sherri Sanders
County Extension Agent - Agriculture
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
2400 Old Searcy Landing Road, Searcy AR 72143
(501) 268-5394

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The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.