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Urban parks and gardens help city dwellers stay connected with nature. Then there is the growing trend of gardening within one’s living space—no matter how small. These urban gardens comprise their own unique ecosystems. More than just houseplants, if done right, these urban mini-gardens can be lush and green even inside the tiniest spaces—in courtyards, on balconies, or inside living rooms.

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Got a Courtyard? Dig Right In.

If you live in a large building with an unpaved courtyard, you’re in luck. You can easily arrange a few flowerbeds or vegetable patches, planting right into the ground. If your courtyard is paved, a few raised beds filled with topsoil from a store might be an easier solution.

According to Kate Smalley of Small Spaces Garden Design, when choosing what to plant, it’s important to take into account your environment, assessing what’s around or what may be growing in your neighbors’ yards. If you are planting into the ground and your neighbors have tall, sprawling trees, those trees will provide shade on hot summer days, but will draw moisture from the soil. And if your courtyard is very narrow or has tall fences, getting enough sunlight may be a challenge. The buildings or boundary fences can cast a shadow over your beds, blocking light and rainfall. In these cases, shade-loving plants may be a good choice. If your beds aren’t getting enough rainwater, you will have to water them by hand. Another option may be installing a drip irrigation system, possibly connected to a battery-operated timer to assure that the plants get water regularly.

A Few Pots on the Front Porch

No matter how small front porches and balconies are, they can fit a few pots, whether on the floor or hanging from the rails. Unless the space is covered, your plants will likely receive some sunlight and rainfall. If you are planting on a balcony, which is elevated by definition, your miniature garden will likely be more exposed to the drying effects of the winds. Placing your pots in saucers with water isn’t a good solution because it stops oxygen from getting to the root zone and roots need air just as much as they need water. Using bigger planters would help preserve moisture, and also allow you to grow some small trees. When planting on a balcony you have to consider the weight of your miniature garden. If you are aiming to use larger pots or troughs, opt for lightweight containers, such as fiberglass rather than concrete or stone.

Permaculture experts Dan Palmer and Adam Grubb suggest using wicking beds—containers that water the plants from ground up by maintaining a layer of water on the bottom, which slowly rises up. Wicking beds are a perfect solution for busy horticulturists who don’t always have time to water their gardens and for those who travel frequently.

Give Your Living Room a Living Wall

If you have no outdoor options, you can green your inside space. Who says you can’t have an herb garden on your wall? Vertical horticulture goes back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More recently, living walls have become a popular trend, partially in response to the increasing urban population density.

Small planters can be attached to the walls. This article in ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future suggests Woolly Pockets made of recycled polyethylene, which can sustain herbs that have shorter roots. An assemblage of such wall-mounted Woolly Pockets can grow a variety of edible herbs, including oregano, thyme, parsley, basil, and rosemary. Non-edible plants that would look good on a wall are ground covers and grasses, especially of different colors and foliage shapes. Ferns and some flowers, such as fuchsia and begonia, can make your wall even more picturesque by adding color and blooms.

Because small pots dry out quickly, vertical gardens are best combined with an automatic watering system that is programmed to supply water to each pocket for a few minutes a day. You will also need to keep all that moisture away from the wall, so stretching a piece of plastic between the wall and the planters is a good idea.

Got a bigger garden? Here’s how you can turn it into a carbon sink.


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Sanctuary: Modern Green Homes, No. 36, Sustainable House Day Special (Spring 2016), pp. 82-87 (6 pages)
Alternative Technology Association
ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future, No. 135, Water Saving Special (April–June 2016), pp. 50-52 (4 pages)
Alternative Technology Association
ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future, No. 138, SUMMER DIY PROJECTS (January–March 2017), pp. 48-51 (4 pages)
Alternative Technology Association