So you’ve finally made that move out of the suburbs and into an apartment or a loft. Or maybe you have a cozy house in a neighborhood nearer downtown night life.
No more worries about mowing or raking leaves. But you still have garden-oriented questions. Like will it be possible to grow a few vegetables or flowers when all you have is a balcony or a tiny patio?
There are lots of options, it turns out.
Apartment living has become one of Kansas City’s biggest trends, emerging as a preference for mortgage-shy millennials and baby boomers wanting to downsize. That all intersects with a renewed interest in healthy eating of fresh vegetables.
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The result, local gardeners say, is an interest in small-space gardening not only among apartment and loft dwellers but among a few local restaurants.
“A lot of people are going back to gardening because they think their food might be better and they may be going more organic,” says Lu Tarr, a Gladstone gardener who gives talks on container gardening for the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City. “It really isn’t hard to do. There are so many directions you can go.”
And from vegetable towers to flat trees, local gardeners are trying them all. Here are a few suggestions:
“On a patio or balcony there’s not a lot of floor space, so you have to think vertical,” says Jim Spilker, another garden speaker with Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City. Spilker and his wife, Shara, who recently moved to Overland Park, are gradually putting in a kitchen garden outside their back door with an eye to saving space.
The idea is to have everything close and easy to get to, so it’s easier to tend as the couple get older, Shara says.
The Spilkers have incorporated several space-saving ideas. For one, they’ve fashioned a simple strawberry tower from 5-inch plastic pipe. Holes are drilled on the sides every few inches. Then the pipes are anchored upright and another smaller pipe is placed in the middle, for watering. The plants’ crowns are stuck right into the holes, where they thrive and produce berries.
Strawberries aren’t the only plants that could go in the towers. The system could work for salad greens and other small plants as well, Shara says. Similar towers are available through garden stores and online, but the Spilkers say theirs cost only about $5 to make.
Another way to grow up is to use trellises for vining plants and put plants in hanging containers, both things the Spilkers are doing. One set of baskets is growing nasturtiums, an edible plant that does double duty beautifying the space. Another trellis supports peas, with other vegetables planted closely around the base of its container.
Yes, that’s right. There’s a way to get fruit trees to grow flat against a wall. It’s called espalier, and it’s a technique that has been around since ancient times. The branches are trained in a long horizontal pattern that looks a little like how a grapevine might grow. Some garden centers offer the already-started trees.
The Spilkers are growing apples and plums that way and it’s not hard to learn to do. That makes them easier to tend, and the fruit is within easy reach. And, of course, it does save space, Shara says.
A combination of raised beds and intensive planting is another way to maximize a small space. This is how Craig Howard, owner of Howard’s Grocery Café and Catering, has been supplying fresh kale, Swiss chard, red cabbage, tomatoes and peppers to his business in the East Crossroads since shortly after it opened in 2015.
The restaurant incorporates two poured concrete raised beds of vegetables into its landscape for diners but also is adding more in back and in the adjacent yard of his landlady, Julia Cole, Howard says. Eventually he wants to put in a rain catchment system and possibly raised beds on the roof. He also is working on a planter for an espaliered tree.
Howard, who has been gardening for about 12 years, says he likes to put greens in the beds, “as long as it’s not super, super hot.”
Another restaurant, the Westside Local, grows food on the premises and even has a grapevine giving shade to diners on its patio.
The Spilkers have plastic tubing arched over each raised bed so they can attach shade cloth or row cover, extending the season through the winter.
There are a lot of pricey options out there, but the container doesn’t have to be fancy, Tarr says. “Think of a 5-gallon bucket.”
Container gardening is probably the most practical if all you have is an apartment balcony. That said, there are caveats.
First, there must be light. Most food-producing plants need six hours or more of full sun, Tarr says. “If you don’t have that kind of environment, you’re probably not going to have very much to show for it.” A shady balcony might be more suited to a shade-tolerant ornamental plant, she says.
Then there’s the matter of what to put into the container. Tarr recommends a soil-less potting mix, the fewer the ingredients the better. And be sure there are drainage holes in the bottom, she says.
The plant variety also matters. Beans and cucumbers that spread long vines will need some support structure. But there are also some bush varieties that don’t vine. And Tarr recommends staying away from indeterminate tomatoes in a container because of how tall they’ll eventually grow. Determinant tomatoes — a type that stops growing taller at a certain point — are a better choice.
Container plants also dry out quicker, so they need to be watched carefully for watering. “Anything in a pot you have to check daily. You may not be watering every day but you have to check it,” she says. If you don’t feel any moisture after pushing your finger into the soil up to the second joint, it’s time to water.
Tarr has grown all kinds of flowers in containers as well. Some of her favorites are lantana, purslane and rose moss. Succulents also do well.
Growing in potting mix means container plants will need to be fed. Tarr says an all-purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer should do the trick about every one to two weeks.
Another option is compost tea. Shara Spilker says that a compost pile may be out of the question for an apartment dweller because of the space it takes up. That can be solved by getting a worm farm. There are systems that fit in a kitchen cabinet. The worm castings are mixed with water to make a compost tea that then can feed the plants, she says.
For the Spilkers, the garden is not only a place to get food and flowers, but a respite from the rest of the world. Space saved in planting can be used for a garden rocker or water feature.
“You let it feed your soul, not just your body. Yes, you want the vegetables, but it’s also supposed to be a place of beauty,” Shara says.