The Inner Gardener

Inner City Gardening for the Soul

Using the space you’ve got 04/05/2012

These days inner city garden space is often non-existent with apartment balconies or courtyards being the average size of outdoor space available for gardening.  But there are ways and means of fitting in some edibles and other plants into smaller spaces.  Here are some tips on using your space efficiently:

Trees -Narrow and Dwarf Cultivars: Growers and the nursery industry have produced a whole range of narrow (fastigiate) cultivars of trees in response to the increasing urban squeeze. An example of a tree I have used is Pyrus ‘Capital’ (deciduous ornamental pear) which is the narrowest of the Pyrus cultivars, growing up to 10 m high and only 3 m wide.  I have mine growing in a bed only 55cm wide. I bought them young and bare rooted in winter, and allowed their roots to grow into the restricted space. Luckily the first year I planted them the long Victorian drought broke and they got lots of summer rain and established well. Two years on and they are looking good and I’m hoping they will blossom for the first time this coming spring. Young trees can take a couple of years before they flower. Five of them have been planted as a screen to protect the western side of the weatherboard house from the hot afternoon sun in summer. I expect in another year or so, they should start to make a real difference by cooling and saving the paint work on that side of the house.

Row of ornamental pear trees (‘Capital’)

There are now also a range of dwarf trees, particularly fruit trees, that don’t grow to usual full size but produce full sized fruit.  They are terrific space savers with the added bonus of not growing so high that the fruit is out of reach and they all do well in big pots on a sunny balcony. I have a dwarf ‘Valencia’ orange and dwarf ‘Eureka’ lemon to supplement my full-sized espaliered ‘Meyer’ lemon, although you can now get dwarf ‘Myer’ lemons too (‘Lots O’ Lemons’). I also have a couple of dwarf nectarine trees and a peach. There are dwarf columnar apples and dwarf pears and limes (Tahitian and Kaffir), so you can practically have an entire orchard in a courtyard if you want to.

Dwarf ‘Eureka’ lemon tree

Using the vertical plane:  Speaking of espalier, that is another way to save space. In Europe espaliering fruit trees has been carried out for centuries. It is a great way to save space by using the vertical plane, but this type of training and pruning can also increase fruiting. Some trees are still not available as dwarf cultivars, for example figs, so until they invent a dwarf fig I am espaliering mine against my front south facing fence. This way it gets the sun in spring and summer while it develops fruit and then in late autumn and winter when the sun has gone from that area, the tree loses its leaves and goes into dormancy.  The olive is another tree that responds well to the espalier technique.

Espaliered fig tree

If you have a fence or support, then climbing plants are also a good way to include some green life in your space. Even food can be grown this way, taking up minimal ground space eg. snow peas, climbing beans, grape vine.

Hanging pots on a fence is the simplest form of the vertical gardens that are now very popular. Epiphyitic plants such as staghorn ferns, orchids and bromeliads are easy low-care plants for a vertical garden in half sun.

Pots & Containers:  I have trialed the Greensmart pots in my own garden and they are great for growing food plants on balconies and small spaces. They have a water reservoir which provides moisture for plants to use as they need. This design is based on the ‘wicking’ principle, which can also be done on a larger scale to create very water efficient veggie beds. In my experience this wicking method is the best for growing food plants, especially in summer as thirsty fruiting plants have access to a constant supply of moisture and you can even fill up the reservoir and go away for a couple of days without worrying.

Greensmart pots come in small (pictured) and large

If you don’t have any garden bed space, then pots are a perfect way to include some ornamentals and food plants into your environment . As mentioned previously, citrus do well in large pots as do the range of dwarf fruit trees. Small vegetables and herbs such as lettuces, rocket, parsley and leeks can be grown in re-used polystyrene fruit boxes, that are easy to move around to follow the sun in winter and shade in summer.

Tahitian lime happily growing in a large tub for years.

Hanging baskets are an efficient way to use the vertical space

I had these narrow plater boxes made up from steel (designed to rust). They are 40cm wide and fit along the narrow side of the house against the neighbour’s brick boundary wall.

My potting shed was built using the previously wasted space between the garage and boundary fence. It is 1.2m wide and 6m long. It even includes a 200l tank which collects rainwater from the garage roof next to it. It has electricity for lighting and to run a fan in summer!