Green Thumb : Getting the Most Out of a Small Garden

Townhouse living is a popular lifestyle in Southern California and many townhouses have small patio gardens, which are a challenge. But much can be done with a small space.

I live in a townhouse with a patio garden measuring about 15 feet square. There is also a concrete slab in the patio measuring nine feet square. When I moved in, five years ago, I found that the soil was hard pan (compressed) and primarily a clay-type soil.

Clay soils hold water and do not allow oxygen to get to the plant's roots. The opposite would be a sandy soil, which has great drainage and aeration, but doesn't hold water long enough for the plants to drink it. The ideal soil is a mixture of these two, and is called a loamy soil.

After I moved in, I spent an afternoon digging through my soil, removing the biggest rocks and chunks of clay. Then I spread a bag of steer manure over the top, and let it sit for a week. (If you mix in the manure immediately, it may burn your plantings.) Then I used a spade to turn the steer manure, and added several bags of planting mix. I also added several bags of rabbit droppings. (Animal manure such as rabbit, horse, chicken, etc. can often be had for free or minimal cost from a breeder.) Rabbit manure has higher amounts of nitrogen, phosphate and potash than other animals' manure.

Every year I added another bag of steer manure and several bags of planting mix. After five years I now have a beautiful, dark, rich, loamy soil.

One section of my garden does not get much direct sunlight. So I built a rabbit house for my pet rabbit in that spot. The rabbit house sits three feet off the ground. Underneath the rabbit house I dug a compost hole. I put kitchen vegetable scraps (banana, orange and lemon peels; peanut shells, etc.), as well as dead plant material into the heap. The rabbit droppings also fall directly into the hole.

Most books on composing tell you that a compost heap takes time, trouble and equipment. All I do is throw my scraps and foliage in the hole, and I get great results. One secret is to chop up any plant material so that it has more surface area and decomposes more quickly. The rabbit droppings speed the decomposition process along. About three months after throwing waste in the hole I have rich black compost, which I spread around the yard. I also have hundreds of earthworms in the hole, which aerate the soil.

Next I bought several dwarf fruit trees (lemon, fig, avocado and a kumquat bush). The dwarf trees will only grow to be 10 to 15 feet tall instead of a normal 20 to 30 feet.

I also bought several thorn-less blackberry vines. I harvested about four bushels of berries from the vines in May. These berries don't attack your hands while you pick, as normal berry vines do. They grow on a nylon net that I have strung along the inside and outside of my fence. By using both sides I take advantage of vertical growing spaces. Green beans and cucumbers can also be grown vertically on a fence.

I decided that I had too much concrete slab space and not enough growing space. So I built a planting box on the slab. I found some huge old timbers at my favorite botanical garden, which the caretaker let me have for free. I built a planting box on the slab by bolting the beams together. The box measures 18 inches by 6 feet by 3 feet.

I bought two large hanging baskets for my favorite flower--alyssum, commonly known as candy tuft. In the hanging baskets I mixed in some polymer crystals that absorb water and slowly release it to plant roots. These crystals, which can be purchased at the nursery, can be added to planting boxes or anywhere in your garden, making it more water-efficient.

Along my front walkway, I removed the ugly ground cover and replaced it with an herb garden consisting of lemon balm, chives, rosemary, peppermint and aloe vera.

My favorite season is summer. I specialize in growing tomatoes and zucchini squash. I plan out my planting ahead of time on graph paper. This way I know what I need and where I will plant it. Then I go to the nursery. The people at the nursery are a great source of information and advice.

Mid-February is the time to begin thinking about planting tomatoes. Generally, after Feb. 15 we don't experience any significant frosts. You can protect your plants during this period with cheesecloth or plastic.

I like "Better Boy" or "Early Girl" tomatoes, which are some of the larger varieties. They are sold as very small plants in a six-pack, or as larger individual plants in a single plastic container. I prefer the larger individual plants. They seem to be stronger and have a better chance of thriving. Before I plant them, I cut a small piece of newspaper and wrap it around the stem where it will be in contact with the ground. This prevents cutworms from attacking my plants.

At tomato planting time, I also insert large stakes (2 inches by 2 inches by 7 feet) into the ground next to the plants. Then I use small green bamboo stakes to create a checkerboard grid of support with the large stakes. Now my plants can grow in any direction and I can support them by tying them to the grid.

I don't like to use the green wire twist-ties to hold tomatoes to the grid, because they tend to cut into the plant as it grows. Instead, I cut cotton T-shirts into strips. I use these strips to attach the plants to the grid. The strips expand as the plant grows. Because the strips are 100% cotton, after the growing season I can let them drop into the soil or put them into the compost heap.

Zucchini squash plants grow very big, so I usually can only have one or two plants. Most zucchini found in stores are six to seven inches long. I let my zucchini grow to their maximum size (about five pounds at 24 inches long). If you pick them within a day or two after they grow this large, the fruit will be tender and delicious. They are just as tasty as the smaller ones (and you get much more vegetable). However, if you let them sit on the vine for a week or so after they mature, they will get woody and tasteless.

You can best utilize your small growing space by deciding what you like and want, planning it out on paper and being creative. Utilizing vertical growing space, hanging baskets, planting boxes and dwarf fruit trees can use your limited space to its best advantage.

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