Small gardens: Always room to grow

Betsy Davidson waters a claw-footed bathtub, which she

Betsy Davidson waters a claw-footed bathtub, which she has planted with seedlings of collards, in her backyard. (Apr. 25, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

When it comes to gardening, more isn't necessarily better.

Cultivate too much land or plant too much, and you may find yourself overwhelmed and overrun with weeds.

New gardeners with a lot of property should always start small and gradually increase the size of their gardens, the numbers of varieties and overall plants. This ensures they don't bite off more than they can chew. And then there are the determined gardeners who don't have much of a choice: They grow tomatoes on fire escapes, get creative with containers on balconies, pot up perennials on patios or make the most of their windowsills.

Even those with acreage to claim can make their gardens more interesting -- and easier to maintain -- by growing small.

Those with limited or even no soil to call their own can exercise their green thumbs by installing window boxes, for instance. And most vegetables can produce a respectable crop in containers on sunny decks, balconies and patios. No sun? Lettuces and other leafy greens don't require much. You can even successfully grow greens between pavers or steppingstones!

Things to consider

Planning a small garden requires careful thought and planning to ensure you make the most of your space. Before shopping or even making your plant wish list, consider sunlight exposure, how much space you can assign to each plant and whether other structures -- fences, walls, trees, sheds etc. -- will need to be accommodated.

Next, consider what types of plants you'd like to grow. If you're solely interested in adding color, you might be happy planting annuals like impatiens and petunias, and being done with it. They'll flower from late spring until frost with little attention. If you prefer perennials, consider their mature sizes before making any investments.

Want something tall? Avoid the ever-widening Joe Pye weed and opt instead for Baptisia australis, which reaches 5 feet but has a spread of only 2 feet. Seek out plants with a mounding habit, which is usually indicated on the plant tag; they tend to keep a compact, neat shape.

Avoid plants labeled as "fast-growing," "rapidly spreading" or "self-sowing," which are industry catchphrases for "can grow out of control." This will rule out a lot of perennials, like Rose of Sharon, trumpet vine, black-eyed Susan and most butterfly bushes. You'll also want to avoid invasive herbs like mint and lemon balm. Opt instead for small varieties of basil, parsley, thyme and sage.

Unique planters

For fruits and vegetables, you can have your tomatoes and eat them, too, as long as you pass on heirloom slicing varieties and opt instead for ones that provide the most bang for the buck. A good one is Bonnie's grape tomatoes, which will produce thousands of small, sweet, elongated fruits over the course of a season. Look for plants labeled "dwarf" or "compact."

Making the most of recycled items can help provide the harvest of your dreams -- as well as a striking conversation piece -- while utilizing garden space you didn't know you had. Consider using rain gutters as planters, affixing them in rows to the exterior wall of a house and populating them with shallow-rooted edibles like beets, lettuce, spinach and chives. Or instead of attaching them to a wall, you might suspend them using steel cables fastened to a pergola, old swing set or deck overhang -- or build a frame to support them.

Or hang an old shoe organizer on the exterior wall of your house, shed or garage. After fastening it securely (it will get heavy), plant herb and salad seedlings in each pocket (see the following pages for step-by-step project instructions).

The edible garden

Betsy Davidson of Huntington Station knows you don't need a farm to grow enough plants to supply produce all summer long. Her clever and creative use of the limited space and sunlight available on her property allows her to get the most of every square inch to transform the land on her 60-by-100-foot lot into what she calls her "eclectic, edible Shangri-La."

In April, Davidson, 53, plants lettuces and greens in an old claw-foot bathtub at the foot of an oak tree in the backyard, where they receive just the right amount of shade. In May, pole beans go into an old dinghy in the front yard. Davidson stripped her own bamboo and fashioned a sail of strings around it for the beans to climb. She plants alpine strawberries, nasturtiums, chamomile and mint in old clam rakes discarded by her clammer husband, Brad, and positions one at every window. Grape tomatoes make good use of whiskey barrels.

"I plant potatoes in bushel baskets so they can be moved to accommodate the limited sunlight," Davidson said. Anything that will climb is trellised or staked, she adds, to avoid space-hogging sprawls. She's even planted dwarf cucumbers in hanging baskets.

"If I can't eat it, I won't plant it," said Davidson, who works seasonally as manager of the Gateway Community Gardens in Huntington Station.

And she prefers a natural, "hippie"-style of gardening, forgoing most of the lawn for clover, creeping Jenny, marsh marigolds and tomatoes. She routinely picks over discarded items on the side of the road and finds treasures like old rusted pieces of chain that she incorporates into the garden.

"I like old rusty, galvanized watering cans, too," Davidson said. "If it's new and shiny, I'm not interested."