Greenspaces in Small Places

Photo © Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie

Big, or small, outdoor spaces can be beneficial to wildlife and humans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas‒with 20% of those folks residing in apartment and condo buildings.open_in_newThis means that many of us only have small spaces to create greenspace. You may be asking, can my small space really make a meaningful contribution? The answer is simple, absolutely.

Green roof of the ASLA building (American Society of Landscape Architects) in Washington D.C.

Photo © TNC (Karine Aigner)

There is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that small green spaces at home, the office, or in the city can benefit humans and wildlife.open_in_new Those benefits are numerous–from reducing stress, to cooling the city. A study conducted by the Technical University of Crete found a five-degree Celsius difference in surface temperature in residential areas with an urban garden versus without.open_in_new

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Photo © Yu-lin Chen

Small greenspaces also have a positive impact on wildlife, especially insects, whose ranges are not so extensive as to require massive areas for carrying out their life functions. Pollinators, of great conservation concern right now, carry out their life cycles in relatively small habitat patches and some research has found greater pollinator biodiversity in cities compared to surrounding rural areas,open_in_new highlighting the importance of small green spaces in the places we live.

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Photo © Brandt Erick

So, how do we do this? It turns out, with a little attention to nutrient-availability and moisture there are many ways to incorporate a greenspace, in a small space. Keeping plants alive and thriving in pots can take some skill. In fact, people have been inventing ways to make it easier for quite some time (see this 1933 patent for a “flower pot” aiming to help a plant retain moisture). Like any hobby, there is a learning curve, but with a little practice your plants will thrive, the wildlife will come, and your neighbors will be oogling over your new patio garden in no time.

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Photo © Kat Northern Lights Man

Providing too much or too little water is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when gardening in containers. Finding that goldilocks amount–just right–will take some practice. To help, ensure there are drainage holes in all planters so roots have access to air and are less likely to sit in heavy, wet soil. Containers can change temperature easily (compared to the ground). They can dry out without access to surrounding moisture if watered too little, or they can become saturated if they have poor drainage.

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Photo © Gardening Solutions

Don’t get discouraged, it’s an experiment to find the right amount of water. Try watching the leaves to tell when to water–droopy or wrinkly leaves may be a sign the plant needs water, but before you get the host push your finger about 2 inches down into the soil. Is it dry? If yes, give the plant a drink. Yellow or brown leaves can be a sign of nutrient deficiency or an indicator that the plant needs to be repotted. For nutrient deficiency, try adding a handful of balanced compost to the top of the soil. But, if you lift up the pot and you can see roots coming out the drainage holes in the bottom, this is usually a good sign the plant is ready for a larger container.

Ditch the drainage gravel

Did you know you don’t need to put anything in a pot except soil? The need for a layer of gravel or pot shards in the bottom of a pot is a persistent myth, and may actually slow drainage, rather than improve it.

Students from Chamblee Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia conduct a habitat survey – looking for pollinators, insects, and other wildlife – in their school garden which is used as an outdoor science lab. Chamblee Middle School received a Nature Works E

Photo © TNC (Nick Burchell)

Second to water will be maintaining appropriate nutrient levels. Potted plants, unlike their grounded cousins, cannot stretch deeper or wider to access nutrients when they run low. Some container plants–especially veggies, fruits, and herbs–respond well to top-dressing with compost. Fortunately, this is easy to do. Simply add a handful or two of compost to the top of your plants every three to four months. Compost is available for purchase at most garden retailers, or to keep a ready supply of compost available, consider making the compost yourself.

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Photo © Tushar Dayal

A large area for composting isn’t always available, so for small spaces, we recommend vermicomposting (worm composting). Eisenia fetida or red wigglers, the fun name for composting worms, are efficient decomposers of food waste. They will turn your kitchen scraps into beautiful, rich organic matter in a matter of days. And, it’s easy to do, odorless, and can be done inside, year-round. Not to mention worms are a fun, low-maintenance petto add to your household. Add this rich, nutrient-filled organic matter to the top of your plants (top-dress) as a home-worm-made fertilizer.

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Photo © Inhabitat

Follow these simple steps to get started worm composting:

  • Purchase or prepare a layered container with holes for ventilation and drainage.
  • Shred non-coated paper into 1-inch strips.
  • Wet the paper with just enough water to thoroughly moisten the entire strip, but not to where it is dripping.
  • the container with the moist paper strips.
  • Add worms. The worms will burrow to the bottom and begin their magic.
  • Add appropriate food scraps with an additional layer of moist paper strips. Don’t overfeed your worms or you will have odor problems.
  • Find a cool shaded area to store your container.
  • Continue to add food scraps until the majority of the contents in the container are broken down into a dark, and uniform substrate.

Water, check. Compost, check. What about space? What are the best ways to grow in small spaces?

Vertical Garden

Photo © Jaysin Trevino

Vertical gardens, like the one pictured above, are a fun and efficient way to grow a variety of plants including flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables on a wall or even in a free-standing structure. DIY projects may include materials such as wood pallets, old clay pots, lattice, and even leftover fence boards. Many people enjoy recycling, or upcycling, materials found around their homes to make the perfect vertical garden.

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Photo © looli

Window or railing planter boxes help your small space feel bountiful. This is not only a beautiful feature but with a regular watering cycle, this is an easy way to manage a garden. When issues do arise there are benefits to container planting. Removing damaging-causing insects or addressing growth problems, for example, may be easier in a small, contained garden. This may even allow you to forgo the use of insecticides and other pesticides to manage issues.

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Photo © Ewen Roberts

Growing potted fruits and vegetables, like strawberries (pictured), cucumbers, or tomatoes, provides luscious plants with a built-in snack value. Your small space will begin to feel like a green oasis if you grow your own prized produce.

Upside-down Planting

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Photo © chris riebschlager

A variety of produce will grow upside-down. This frees up space and makes for easy watering. Great choices for this growth pattern are tomatoes (pictured), cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, grapes, and kiwis. You can even double-up, by utilizing the top of the container for shallow-root plants, such as lettuce or radishes.


Photo ©

Some people enjoy using their container gardens to showcase local native plants. These native arrangements can become collections of otherwise rare urban plants helping your neighborhood learn about their local flora. Discover your ecoregion to help you choose the best native plants for your area. These plants often fair better outdoors than nonnative plants as they are acclimated to the growing conditions of your region–although not every plant native to your region will thrive in a pot.

Natives in pots

Native species pictured in pots include; Coreopsis, Bee Balm, Whorled Milkweed, and Pink Muhly Grass.

Photo © Hilary Brandt Streever

Once you have chosen the perfect plant(s), care for them by providing the right amount of water, sunlight, and substrate. If you choose to create containers with native plants (as the picture above), this resource may be useful for understanding their ideal growing conditions. A possible bonus is native pollinators may pay a visit to your patio garden!

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Photo © Phil King

Water features are a relaxing way to define your patio garden and, by incorporating plants, you can continue to add more green to your greenspace. This is also a great way to help thirsty wildlife stay hydrated during their visit. Make sure to provide exit routes for small visitors, like pollinators. Place sticks or rocks in the shallow area where they can crawl out if need be.

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Photo © Kevin Hale

Why stop with patio gardens? There are many benefits to bringing plants indoors. According to a study conducted by the EPA reported in Nature, the average American spends approximately 90% of their time indoors. This might mean we have a lack of exposure to fresh air. There is a growing body of work that demonstrates that air inside homes and buildings is sometimes more polluted than the air outside.open_in_new Poor indoor air quality can have negative impacts on our physical and mental health.

Overwintering plants

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Photo © Alan Levine

Depending on the plants you are growing, the climate, and your goals‒you may need to bring your plants indoors in the winter. This transition, especially in northern, cold climates can be hard on plants. Putting your plants in windows (usually south-facing) that get a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight a day is ideal. One way to make it easier on the plants is to use LED grow lights. They can even be found with a timer so you can control the amount of light the plants are getting without having to pay too close attention. Make sure to have a regular watering routine. Don’t be disappointed if your plant looks sad, it’s normal for plants to slow their growth in the winter, they general perk back-up in the spring.

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Photo © F. D. Richards

Studies have shown that having indoor plants can help reduce stress and the symptoms of sick building syndrome.open_in_new open_in_new Indoor plants can remove small amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air, including formaldehyde (sometimes present in rugs, vinyl, and cigarette smoke), benzene, and trichloroethylene (sometimes found in man-made fibers, inks, solvents, and paint).open_in_new Indoor plants will not completely solve indoor air quality problems, but they will help, while also providing a relaxing decorative aesthetic.

air cleaners

Photo © Emma Story , Colleen Prieto, Jeff Wong

According to NASA’s Clean Air Study, the following is a list of the best indoor plants to help filter indoor air space.open_in_new Two of the most thorough air-cleaners are pictured, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), right, and florist’s chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum morifolium, left. Please note that some of these plants are not necessarily native and can be considered invasive if planted outside (English Ivy). Also, some indoor plants are poisonous to humans and pets, for example, the peace lily.

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Photo © Nelson Pavlosky

No matter how much space you have, you can enjoy the benefits of having plants around. Direct access to plants has been linked to better mental health. Do your part for your home and community, no matter the size of the spot, and create a greenspace in a small place.

Did you know you can add a planter object to your habitat map? If you have a patio garden, consider mapping it and showing us your planters. Lots of our partners are interested in how people are greening urban areas, so rest assured your efforts won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, but first, you have to document them!

Hungry for more? Coming soon, more articles discussing the details of growing in a small space.