GARDENING : Finding Room to Grow in Limited Yard Space


With a mix of ingenuity and sheer persistence, many gardeners who have very small yards have developed ways to grow vegetation in limited space.

"In Orange County, especially South County, most people have large homes on small and medium-sized lots with a lot of hardscape," says Gary Matsuoka of Laguna Hills Nursery Inc. in Lake Forest. "Because of this, in most cases there isn't a lot of land in which to plant. People do find, however, that you can garden in just about any space."

Compared to traditional landscaping, gardens in confined spaces are easier to maintain and cheaper because less filler plants and lawns are needed.

Also, says Matsuoka, "in a compact space, it's easier to have spectacular high-maintenance plants such as roses, because you only need a few to make an impact in your landscape."

Compact gardening requires that you use a variety of locations and some innovation when planting, unlike traditional gardening, which mainly relies on the ground for planting location. With compact gardening, you search out every potential nook and cranny in any available ground, and you also consider containers, raised beds and trellises.

Arthur and Fidelina Barron of Anaheim use just about every available inch of their 70-by-50-foot mobile-home space. They grow chayote squash up an old tree stump, placed a potted plant on top of a steel pipe and use the ground underneath for planting as well.

When the Barrons talk about their yard, it sounds as though they have a giant orchard. They grow kumquats, oro blanco grapefruit, Valencia oranges, loquats, Mexican red guavas, Satsuma tangerines, Babcock peaches, supreme nectarines, three grapevines (which hang on a trellis outside their living room window) as well as a cactus garden, five rosebushes, two gardenias and a number of other plants.

To fit this incredible amount of vegetation into his small area, Arthur Barron says he pays special attention to the type of plants he chooses.

"I generally plant dwarf trees," he says. "Not only do they take up less room above ground, they also use less root space, which is important because roots can disturb a mobile home's support system."

If you're interested in fruit trees, there are a number of popular ones to choose from, including the semi-dwarf Anna apple, which often makes several crops a year and can be maintained between six to 15 feet; the Meyer lemon; Robertson navel orange; many varieties of loquat and fig trees; pineapple and strawberry guava; some semi-dwarf pears; persimmons, and pomegranates.

"A number of spectacular color trees do well in confined spaces, such as the strawberry tree, which has green, yellow and orange berries and white flowers," says Matsuoka. "These can be maintained as small bushes or small trees. There is also the Oklahoma redbud, which has little plastic heart-shaped leaves (and) the Australian tea tree, which is grown for its weeping branches and Chinese wisteria."

Don't let the dwarf classification fool you, though. These trees can produce a great deal of fruit.

"I've had as many as 50 to 70 tangerines on my dwarf tree," says Barron.

If you would like to plant a larger tree in a confined space, it may be possible as long as you prune it at least yearly. However, Matsuoka says to stay away from trees that grow more than eight feet per year. These include elm, eucalyptus, mulberry, ash, alder and sycamore.

Besides a wide variety of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, the available selection of plant materials is quite large. Some terrific shade plants include camellias and azaleas, which are prime for planting now because they're blooming. For sunny locations, Matsuoka suggests roses, gardenias, pink India hawthorn and hibiscus.

Container growing is another important element of compact gardening and requires its own combination of plant types. According to Marie Bouse, chairman of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, there are a variety of plants specially designed for container growth, including pixie and patio tomatoes, green magic zucchini, little ball beets and short and sweet carrots.

"I started growing in containers because I have limited land," says Bouse, who has grown just about every plant imaginable in containers, including blueberries and potatoes.

There are plants that do not do as well in containers. These include pumpkins, azaleas, gardenias and persimmons. Pumpkins are often too large, and according to Matsuoka, the other plants don't do well if the soil is too moist, which can happen in containers.

Growing in containers also gives you the opportunity to experiment.

"There are many creative things you can do," Bouse says. "Try hanging baskets, such as lettuce balls, or try 'different' containers like an old wheelbarrow."

Barron also has a creative way to make the most out of limited space.

"Cooperation and participation of your neighbors is very helpful," he says. "I plant vegetables in my neighbors' yards as well as trees. I've put in a fig, grapefruit, lemon, macadamia and even an avocado."

The avocado tree sits just 25 feet from his kitchen window. Barron and his neighbors share all of their fruits and vegetables produced in their various yards.

It's important to take care in planning your compact garden. Start slowly. Don't rush to the nursery and buy a number of plants. Instead, look closely at your space.

"Find out where the sun falls in your garden, which will determine how many sun-loving plants you can purchase," Matsuoka says. "In the same respect, pick out your shaded areas. Every plant you place in your yard must match the available conditions. This also takes looking at water requirements. Keep in mind that shaded areas will maintain more water than sunny spots."

Barron suggests a gardener "look the area over and decide what would look good, then evaluate possible selections. Add plants gradually, stopping in between to see how things are working out. This will allow you to evaluate each addition along the way, and if you have to make any changes, they'll be minor."

While you will fertilize and water container plants more frequently than those in the ground, especially in the summer, be careful of over-watering your garden in general.

"Because everything is compact in a confined space garden, over-watering can be a problem," says Barron. "If your property is close to your neighbors, you might want to talk to them, because when they water their lawn or plants it may be watering yours as well. Too much water can lead to root rot in our hard clay soil. I lost a peach tree from over-watering because I didn't know that my neighbor's sprinklers were watering it in the middle of the night."

When planting trees and other plants, Barron suggests mounding dirt around the base of the plant so the water will run off and not collect at the plants' "feet."

To make sure your container plants receive enough water, Matsuoka suggests putting them on a drip system, which will regulate their watering.

Fertilizing should also be done on a regular basis in the confined space garden. However, this can get complicated, too, according to Matsuoka.

"Because the plants are so close together, you have to watch that the fertilizer you apply to each plant actually reaches it and not another plant," he says. "Drip irrigation helps with this, because when you have such a system, the roots of the plants will be below where the drip emitters are, so you can apply fertilizer at these points."

Though the confined-space garden may be smaller than the traditional type, it is by no means less prolific. It's possible to have a garden teeming with flowers, fruits and vegetables, no matter how small your space.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World