Growing up in Burley, Idaho, on a small farm with a large garden, Camille Wells discovered the healing powers of working in dirt.
She lost that refuge when she moved to Boise, Idaho, for work and rented a small apartment. But she was determined to get her fix anyway, finding a “Gardening for Renters” class to help get her started on a new way of thinking. After that, the number of pots on her patio began to multiply.
“It got a little out of control,” she said.
She started with strawberries, reveling in the ability to wander right outside her apartment to pick a few pieces of ripe fruit for breakfast each morning. She also grew mint, basil, chives, cilantro and lavender. This year, she wants to try rosemary. And she’s interested in experimenting further with her container garden, finding video tutorials online for inspiration.
Wells’ thriving congregation of containers illustrates the point her class instructor, Lisa Anderson, emphasizes: “You may be limited, but you can garden.”
It’s still possible to grow your own produce or create a miniature escape into nature when living in a small space. If you’re closely surrounded by neighbors, gardening can also be a way to create privacy by setting up planters end-to-end on a balcony (just make sure you know how much weight it can hold) or even using the railings as a trellis for plants such as tomatoes or lemon cucumbers, Anderson says.
If you’re new to container gardening, start small.
“Don’t get carried away and think you have to plant everything you ever wanted to grow,” said Doreen Guenther of FarWest Landscape and Garden Center in Boise.
Herbs are good plants to start with, she said, and they offer a fun way to explore new culinary opportunities. You can also find seeds ideally suited for containers because they produce smaller varieties of plants, such as a type of eggplant called “Little Prince,” she said.
Just be practical with your selections, Anderson warns. Before you get started, consider the colors you find appealing or the veggies that would actually be useful to have growing on your patio.
“Don’t grow stuff you don’t want to eat,” she said.
And, perhaps most important, decide how much effort and time you have to commit to a garden.
Anderson suggests beginners start with plants instead of seeds and advocates for keeping things simple.
“I go for easy,” Anderson said. “I have a pretty busy schedule, and I like my yard to look nice.”
Kecia Carlson, principal designer and general manager of Madeline George Garden Design Nursery in Boise, says planning a container garden is not that different from any kind of landscape design. You start with determining what type of investment you’d like to make — a good-quality piece of glazed pottery or something more inexpensive — and then consider the look you’re going for. For example, if you have a dark house, lighter-colored pots will pop more.
From there, select your plants and get creative with an arrangement.
“Don’t make it any harder than that,” Carlson said.
Experts offer a simple formula for designing a container: Start with a “thriller”: a centerpiece that’s tall and unique. Add “filler”: colorful, upright masses. Then finish with a “spiller”: plants that spill over the container edge.
Guenther suggests selecting plants that are foils of one another to keep things interesting. She rattles off one idea: rainbow chard and “Silver Posie” thyme planted alongside flowers.
Carlson notes that grasses can add a lot of drama to a container. Guenther said black mondo grass is a good plant to add for contrast.
Cathy Creechley, who works in custom potting for Edwards Greenhouse, loves pairing white flowers with mosses.
“The green and white just kind of pop,” she said.
Don’t shy away from mixing vegetables and flowers. In fact, planting them together can be useful because the flowers will draw pollinators to the vegetables, Guenther said. African marigolds are particularly good for that, she said.
Guenther and Anderson also suggest selecting both annuals and perennials when putting together a container. It’s good to mix a perennial foliage with two or three annuals, Guenther said.
There are benefits to growing in containers. Though there is always the possibility of attracting bugs, Anderson said she has had fewer problems with pests such as snails when planting in pots.
And if the thought of arranging containers is starting to get overwhelming, you can also consider a fairy garden, terrarium or bonsai tree, Guenther said.
However, container gardening experts insist that it’s all trial and error.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to fail,” Wells said.