Garden trend: Small Gardens are Big Business

If you have been to a garden center or home decor store lately, you’ve likely seen an increase in the popularity of small garden containers and plants.

At garden centers, you’ll find small containers full of miniature plants. At home stores, you’ll find tiny pots with artificial succulents (though the real ones aren’t much harder to care for).

It seems that small gardening is big this season.

Of course, this trend isn’t just in the area of ornamental gardening and houseplants. You are also more and more likely to find fruits, vegetables and herbs in containers on porches and patios.

Small-scale gardens are popular for many reasons. Containers are easy to fit anywhere. They can make a bold decorative statement or grow fresh produce even in smallest spaces. Apartment dwellers can grow flowers and food even on a small balcony or stoop. When I was in grad school in Morgantown, I had the lushest sidewalk you ever saw in front of my apartment.

Container gardens also are popular for their ease of care for busy individuals and even their transportability. It seems a love of freedom (and more difficulty entering the housing market) means an increase in the popularity of renting.

Rather than letting lack of space and lack of a permanent garden get in their way, many are growing flowers, fruits and vegetables in movable containers. A few years back, I had the great pleasure of helping a friend move several hundred miles with pots of kale and eggplants (and a suit of armor) in tow.

What to grow in containers

One of the big trends in ornamental container gardening is to grow small plants with big color. Whether it is a container full of many flowers of the same color, like petunias or Calibrachoa (million bells), or a single, bolder statement such as some of the newer, shorter cana lilies, a bold splash of color goes a long way.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the color palate simple — one bold color and a coordinating color. Don’t go too crazy with mixing colors — too many muddies the water and looks less striking.

Terrariums, the cool gardening trend of the 1970s, seem to be finding a revival. New terrariums go beyond the one your dad had in an old goldfish bowl. They are in interesting jars and containers and usually have a more minimalist configuration.

Another big trend is mixed containers of small succulents, such as Sempervivum (hens and chicks), cacti and other interesting, low-maintenance plants. I’ve seen them in everything from sleek, modern hanging planters to pieces of hollowed-out log. These planters are finding themselves both inside and out.

When it comes to food, there are many different options for containers. Several fruit plants, including blueberries, apples and peaches have been developed in smaller, container-friendly form — though, given enough space, you could theoretically get something up to the size of a dwarf apple tree into a container such as a large livestock water trough.

Most vegetables — with some exceptions, such as corn and large pumpkins — can make great container plants. Smaller plants, such as leafy greens are the best candidate and are the easiest to fit in containers. Larger plants, such as tomatoes, will take a container around the size of a 5-gallon bucket (or an actual bucket, if you aren’t going for looks). While several plants, such as cucumbers have compact bush forms labeled for containers, you’ll use less space by growing a vining variety and using a trellis to grow vertically.

Container tips

While growing in containers is just as easy as growing in a garden, there are some specific things to keep in mind.

First, use a good, light potting mix heavy in organic material. While some people are tempted to use actual soil, going so far as to dig it out of the ground, most potting “soil” is actually a soilless potting mix.

The lighter textured the mix is, the less likely it is to get water-logged and damage roots. If it is a perennial plant, you’ll need to repot every year or so to freshen the soil and provide more nutrients. A complete fertilizer is also in order, as the soilless mixes tend to be lower in fertility on their own.

You should also keep in mind that, when it comes to containers, smaller containers will need to be watered much more often than larger pots, since there is less soil to hold onto water.

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