Small gardening space: apartment, balcony and shaded courtyards


Compact varieties of your favorite produce - like basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons - can help you get the most out of your small garden.

Compact varieties of your favorite produce – like basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons – can help you get the most out of your small garden.


Even if you only have a few square feet of partially shaded yard or a semi-empty spot on your apartment balcony, you have room for a garden.

As we prepare to transform our summer gardens into fall gardens, now is the perfect time to take stock of the space and dream of reinventing it for a new growing season. Look for pots and planters at the thrift store, get your soil tested (if you’ve been postponing it!), and start saving recipes featuring your favorite cool-weather crops.

The N&O spoke to Kavanah Anderson (Director of Learning and Community Engagement at Duke’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens) and Rebecca is waiting (curator of the Allen Education Center and NC Botanical Garden Entrance Landscapes) for more on gardening in small spaces.

How to know if your small space can be a garden

“Anytime you have light, soil and space, you can have a garden. And a garden is a garden, no matter how big or how small,” Anderson said.

But you have to think about the best plant to put in the space you have, she said. Be sure to ask these questions:

  • How much sun is available?

  • How much water is available?

  • What kind of soil do I have? Does it need to be modified to provide nutrients?

  • What types of nutrients are needed for the plants I want to grow?

Which containers and pots are good for growing in a small space?

Let’s break it down into two categories: size and material.

Cut: If you want to grow edible plants, the size of your container is particularly important.

“Five-gallon containers are the ideal size for fruiting plants, such as tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers. No less than five gallons,” Anderson said. “So consider whether you’ll be able to grow fruit plants like this on a small balcony or on a windowsill, if you think even a five-gallon container would be too big for your space.”

Non-fruiting plants, such as grasses, can occupy smaller spaces.

Material: Although you can turn almost anything – an old candle jar, a shoe, even a toilet – into a pot for a plant, you need to think about how the plant would occupy the space.

Darker containers absorb more sunlight, so your plants will warm up faster. Terracotta containers lose moisture faster, so you need to water more frequently.

“Make sure your container is a good fit for the plant you want to put in it. If that’s not a good fit, find a different plant with needs that are better suited to that container,” Anderson said.

These plants work well for container gardens in NC

Vegetables, fruits and herbs do well in containers in Piedmont, according to a recent post from NC State Cooperative Extension. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of a few that you can try.

Vegetables that grow well in containers in Piedmont, by NC State Extension: Beans (lima and snap), beets, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, kale, peas, squash, tomatoes, lettuce and potatoes.

Fruits: Apples, blueberries, grapes, figs, citrus fruits, peaches and strawberries.

Herbs: Basil, dill, chives, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, parsley, stevia, thyme and tarragon.

For the full publication, visit

And if you want to grow a fruit, vegetable or herb not listed here in your container garden, contact your local North Carolina State Extension Center to connect with an expert and learn your options. Visit to find county-specific contact information.

How to have an apartment garden

If you don’t have access to the ground, sunny windows and balconies work well for growing edible plants. Inedible plants have a wider range of conditions in which they thrive. Get in touch with your NC State Extension county center to find the best plant for your space.

Here’s how you can maximize your yield when moving out of an apartment:

Get compact varieties. There’s compact basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and more, Anderson said. These will grow to a certain size (small) and stop there. (Fun fact, there are even compact varieties of fruit trees!)

Just make sure the strain you select will thrive in the environment you have.

“What are the sun and water needs? A container dries out faster and needs more water, so be sure to plant near a water source. Soil depth requirements also depend on what you choose to grow,” Anderson said.

“Herbs and leaves can grow in cute little containers or hanging containers, but the things we eat fruit from – like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers – need more soil. In a small space, compact varieties of these can be useful.

Set up culture boxes. Using your balcony structure, you use zip ties to DIY a vertical grow box.

“By thinking vertically, you can be creative in terms of the containers you use,” Anderson said. “Of course, you can buy planters, flower pots, plant pots. But you can also reuse milk jugs, yoghurt pots – think of plastics that might otherwise end up in recycling. Then you can drill drainage holes, use zip ties to hang it on the railing, and create a creative vertical growing space.

You can even mount grow boxes (purchased or made by yourself) on your walls to maximize your space, rather than filling floor space with pots and containers.

Train your plants to grow vertically. Using twine, twist ties, and trellises, you can grow climbing plants upwards. Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and beans are great for this, Anderson said.

Window sill_111501_DJ_01F.JPG
Windowsills are a great source of light for apartment gardeners, said Kavanah Anderson, director of learning and community engagement at Duke’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens. DELORES JOHNSON THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Maximize your harvest in a garden bed

Free space in a garden bed is a missed opportunity to plant something, Anderson and Wait said.

It doesn’t have to be an edible fruiting plant, but it can be a pollinator or cover plant to make other plants perform even better. Here are some ideas:

Use native plants: Shade-loving native plants can be tucked under tall, leafy edibles — like squash or zucchini — to turn your garden into a pollinator’s paradise, Wait said.

The NC Botanical Garden holds a daily plant sale on-site from March through November. To learn more, visit

Plant cover crops“If you have room in a bed with salad greens, you can cover the remaining soil with a cover crop – like crimson clover – to add nitrogen to your soil and help keep weeds in. distance,” Wait said.

Plant herbs“Herbs prefer full sun, but one way to maximize the space you have is to stick them in occasionally shady spaces,” Wait said.

“If you put cilantro, chives, basil, oregano or any other herb in a sunny spot early in the season, but over time they are shaded by the leaves of other plants , they will not prosper but they will survive.”

companion plant: Companion planting is the idea that you can choose plants that support each other well to grow together, Anderson said. If you have free space in your garden, look for companion plants for the crops you already have.

“Basil and marigolds are an example. Marigolds provide protection against pests and attract beneficial insects to maintain pest balance. Grasses and flowers work well together because their root systems differ, so they don’t compete, but rather have room to grow around each other.

What plants to grow in shady places

We have pointed out that edible plants need sunlight to grow, fruit and thrive. But if the only place you need to garden is in a shady corner at the back of the yard, you can manage!

“Edible plants aren’t the only things to grow, and plants perform a variety of functions,” Anderson said.

“Yes, you can eat them, but some are home to wild animals. Help with storm water runoff. Some contribute to edible plants. Any space you have is an opportunity for a plant – if it’s not an edible plant, it’s another plant that will serve an important purpose.

Questions about backyard gardening?

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Kimberly Cataudella (her) is a duty reporter for The News & Observer.


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