How to garden in small spaces

Plants growing on a London balcony

You don’t need a large amount of space to create your own green paradise. There's a lot you can grow if you have a patio, balcony or even just a windowsill, from colourful geraniums to exotic creepers. In this article, we share tips from balcony gardener, Alice Vincent who has created a mini oasis in her London flat. You can also listen to our podcast to find out more about Alice's journey from gardening novice to passionate expert.

Balcony gardener, Alice Vincent on her balcony

Falling in love with gardening 

Alice Vincent is a writer and music journalist. She grew up in the countryside but from a young age dreamed of life in a busy city. It wasn’t until she moved into a London flat that she discovered her love of gardening. She started small, growing a few herbs on the balcony of her flat. But within two years, she transformed her small balcony into a luscious garden paradise. She’s now an established expert in the world of micro gardening.

Alice's gardening top tips

Whether you want to take your first steps into horticulture, keep the kids busy with a simple gardening project, or would just like to bring some colour into your home, these small scale gardening tips are a great beginners guide.

In this article:

Getting started: growing herbs

If you’re a beginner, one of the easiest and most satisfying first steps is to grow herbs. They don’t require much space or specialist equipment and can be grown using things bought from a local supermarket. What’s more, you can use them in your cooking.

The easiest way to start your herb garden is to buy a pot of herbs from your supermarket. Just keeping these plants alive can teach you some valuable gardening skills, such as, the importance of finding the right growing location and how much to water.

Try growing your own herbs
Herbs growing in pots
Try growing your own herbs

For the best chance of survival, you may want to repot these herbs into larger pots to give their roots room to spread. You can also try splitting them to make them go even further.

You can even take the cut herbs you get in bags at the supermarket and put them in water. Once they start to root, you can plant them in a pot and use the skill you’ve picked up growing your potted herbs to turn these stems into full and healthy plants. It’s also a great way to use up herbs leftover from a recipe.

You can use cuttings from supermarket herbs
Cuttings of mint
You can use cuttings from supermarket herbs

What do you need?

You might think you’d struggle to find the equipment you need while we’re in lockdown, but you can repurpose things you might already have around the house. From using cuttings of herbs you already have in your kitchen, to creating your own mini compost bin using food waste, there are some simple things you can do.

You can reuse the plastic containers from supermarket vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms. Once you’re done with their contents, just give them a quick wash, make a few holes and fill with compost to grow seedlings in. Toilet roll tubes are perfect for starting peas, sweet peas, carrots and other crops that require a deep rooting area. You can even plant in old shoes or welly boots.

Get creative with things you can find around the house
Spring daffodils in pots
Get creative with things you can find around the house

What to grow and where?

According to Alice, one of the most common mistakes people make is bad positioning. She says, ‘People just shove stuff in dark corners, and I did this as well. But the direction and the strength of your light is really crucial. If you’re not sure, you can use the compass app in your phone to find out what direction the light is coming from. Once you know if your growing area is north facing, south facing, shady or bathed in sunshine you are in a much better position to know what will work best in your chosen location.’

The next step is choosing what to grow. Do you want something that looks nice or tastes nice? If your growing area is south facing, most plants will have a great chance of survival. Alice recommends that bulbs are a good option for a beginner gardener.

‘I think people think bulbs are quite difficult. But actually, chucking a load of tulips and daffodils into pots in September/October is always incredibly satisfying six months later and makes everyone feel like they've performed a magic trick.’

Potted bulbs
Potted bulbs
Potted bulbs

What plants to grow in shady areas?

If your growing area is shady or north facing your options are a little more limited, but there are still lots you can grow.

Edible plants

If your space doesn't have much light, you’ll want to go for herb varieties like parsley, coriander and mint. Basil, rosemary and some lavender aren’t suitable for shadier spots. If you're growing mint, make sure you grow it in its own pot because otherwise it will take over your whole garden.

Other edible plants that will do well in shadier spots are leafy varieties of vegetables, such as lettuces, Asian salad leaves and spinach.

Ornamental plants

‘I grow a lot of ferns and nettles’ says Alice. ‘They're great for shady gardens and are very beautiful.’

Plants like ferns can be grown inside or outside
Plants like ferns can be grown inside or outside

‘As long as you keep it watered, you can also keep a bamboo looking elegant anywhere. Hardy geraniums are also great for shadier spots. Heuchera, are brilliant whether you've got a lot of light or not very much at all.'

How much should you water?

Whether you're growing from seed or nurturing an established plant, watering is one of the most important things to get right. Luckily Alice has already made her watering mistakes, so you don’t have to.

‘Overwatering's incredibly common. We know plants need water but we're not really taught about how much they need, so we sort of assume that they need loads.

‘Houseplants only really need watering once a week. And outdoors, it's only when the weather gets really warm in proper summer that you'll need to do a daily water. Check the soil before you water as you only really want to be watering into dry soil. If it feels remotely moist, then you can probably leave it for a bit.’

Listen to our podcast with Alice

Listen to our podcast episode with Alice to learn more about her journey from music journalist to gardening expert. Discover what motivated her to transfer her balcony into a green oasis.

Codger's Fort on the estate at Wallington, Northumberland

Episode 76: How gardens heal

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