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Planting a Garden on A Small Property

The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered many hobbies indefinitely defunct.  However, interest in some hobbies, namely those done alone and/or outdoors, has soared in response. One such rapidly growing pastime is gardening. In fact, annual research done by The Garden Media Group indicates that nearly 18-24 million people took up gardening in 2020, a number that is only expected to rise in 2021. 

However, not everyone has the same opportunities to flex their green thumbs. For those living in rentals, limited space and strict leasing agreements can put a damper on DIY gardening endeavors. But don’t despair. Whether you’re working around a small yard, leasing restrictions, or no yard at all, there’s a way you too can try your hand at at-home horticulture. 

In-Ground Garden Beds

When you envision yourself gardening, your mental montage probably includes scenes of tilling the soil, spacing your seeds or starter plants, and spending long afternoons trimming and harvesting. We get it. If your rental includes a decent amount of outdoor space and a yard large enough to support in-ground or ground-level raised beds, it can be tempting to get started as soon as the season begins. Unfortunately, living in a rental means it’s not always that easy.

Almost all rental agreements state that any modifications made to the property, even those you may see as an improvement, need explicit landlord permission. So before you head out to your backyard with a shovel and a vision, make sure you have the go-ahead. Once you’ve gotten proper approval, there are a few key things to keep in mind before getting started.

Have a Plan

It’s crucial to know now how large you want your bed to be, how much time you can commit to maintaining the space, and what you’d like to plant before you begin. Different plants require different amounts of attention, sun, water, and soil. You may find that while you love the notion of growing your own cauliflower and sweet potatoes, your midwestern climate has other ideas. For resources on understanding what your specific growing zone will support, how to care for specific plants, and how to get started check out The National Gardening Association

Understanding City Laws and Codes

Navigating your lease and negotiating with your landlord is one hurdle, but whether you’re renting or a long term homeowner, it’s important to research and understand your city’s ordinances when it comes to gardening.

Where some municipalities may have very little regulation on where and how you can plant, others may restrict gardening to certain areas of the property. Some areas may not allow gardening in front yards, and some urban areas may not allow it at all. Understanding your zip codes specific restrictions will help you avoid fines and complications.

In-Ground Gardens are an Investment

While seeds and starter plants can be largely inexpensive, the process of transforming an untouched space into a productive garden bed can be more than you bargained for. Costs such as tools, soil, fencing, and other start up equipment can add up quickly. Additionally, future gardeners should be prepared to understand the time investment of keeping the plot properly manicured and maintained. Inexperienced gardeners may find themselves overwhelmed by unanticipated upkeep.

Renters should also keep in mind that whatever garden they design, they will leave behind in the event that they choose to move from the property. Short term or single year leases may even result in a situation where you are forced to leave your project behind before you’ve ever harvested the rewards of your hard work.

Start Small

Not only can larger garden beds quickly become overwhelming, but most rental properties don’t afford enough space to maintain a large ground-level raised or in-ground bed. If not planned correctly, or mapped inaccurately, garden beds can easily become overgrown eyesores taking up large portions of previously liveable space.

Starting small and containing your plot to a small, linear area allows you to plant without feeling overwhelming and without compromising livable yard space. Beds that are no wider than four feet will allow your plants enough space to thrive, allow you to tend the garden without stepping on the soil, and won’t overwhelm a small yard.

Have a Backup Plan

Of course, not all landlords are going to be okay with you modifying the property, no matter how good your pitch is. But that doesn't mean all of your visions of vegetable harvests should be abandoned. If you can’t get landlord approval to break ground, don’t be discouraged. Nowadays, there’s more than one way to turn your gardening dreams into a reality.

Container Gardens

One of the best advancements in the recent embrace of urban and small-space gardening has been the rapid influx of options for container gardening. Where individuals may have been previously restricted to pots and window boxes, modern container gardening means you can grow nearly anything you can imagine without ever breaking any ground.

The Benefits of Container Gardens

Renting or not, container gardens boast a wide range of benefits that contribute to their popularity. The most pronounced of these benefits is control. Container planting affords you control over elements of gardening that beds simply do not.

Pots and raised planters allow you to shield your crops from the elements, relocate containers to maximize sunlight, and customize the soil mix to the plants you are growing. This can mean higher rates of success, bigger yields, and an overall less stressful experience for first time gardeners. And unlike in-ground beds, renters can take their containers with them from property to property.

Choosing the Right Container Garden

Materials

Not only does the material of your containers have an impact on the success of your plants, but it makes a huge aesthetic impact as well. Some of the most common options for planting containers are wood, terracotta, concrete, synthetic materials like polyurethane foams, and metal. Each has their own aesthetic value and can be chosen to fit your living space, however it’s important to consider the pros and cons of the given material.

While terracotta is pretty, it’s not incredibly durable and is prone to cracking and chipping. Concrete and be modern and insulating for your garden, but is too heavy to function well on decks or balconies. Wood is a great option for those looking to customize or build their own raised containers, but DIYers should choose rot-resistant, or treated varieties. Polyurethane foams are lightweight, but can look a bit cheap, and though metal is both sturdy and pretty, it can rust and conduct too much heat to keep the roots of your crop happy. 

Whatever you choose, it’s crucial to ensure that your setup has adequate drainage, high-quality potting soil, and is suitable for your space.

Grow Up, not Out

Plenty of renters have outdoor space that is severely limited, often to just a small balcony or hard surface space. If you can’t fit a larger container bed in the space afforded to you, do what city planners have been doing for centuries- build up. A trellis or vining apparatus can be tucked neatly in a corner of a small balcony or along the side of a house.

Vertical options are wide, and range from more extensive set ups, to simple, uninvolved wrought iron or wood vining apparatuses. Accessing your space and determining your price point can help make vertical gardening realistic for you. 

Buy What Makes Sense in Your Space

If your space is severely limited, or even reduced to a small balcony or spot of concrete, investing in a large container planter is likely not realistic. In this case, pots and vining are likely better solutions. Small, modern style spaces can be finished beautifully with small concrete planters.  Simple terracotta pots, or small, window box style set ups are easy ways to get the most for your money. For those with more room, but a knack for simplistic or organic designs may find a clean, wood box planter is perfect for their space. 

Those looking to go all-in can find larger, self sustainable setups like the vegepod, which comes in three sizes and is designed to allow you to simulate the experience of in-ground gardening in a container setting. More space is required for larger set ups, so ensure you know the dimensions of your space before making a purchase.

Set Up and Location

Purchasing a container set up is easy enough. But once you’ve made the financial investment, there are additional considerations you should make to ensure that your horticultural endeavor is a success. To thrive, plants have two very basic needs: water and sunlight. With container gardens, water levels are more within your control, as you can cover and uncover your plants to prevent heavy rain from oversaturating your crops. Sunlight, however, is another story.

Set up your planter(s) in an area of your property that gets an ample amount of sun. Most summer crops like tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and herbs prefer long hours of direct sunlight and will not grow well in shaded or partially shaded areas. If your outdoor space does not enjoy long periods of sunlight, it’s important to choose plants that can adapt and grow well in lower light conditions.

Crops like broccoli, kale, and other non-fruiting vegetables are better adapted to partially shaded environments. To maximize the reflection of light, placing your containers on or near light colored surfaces may help to bounce sunlight to your garden. Light colored pavement or concrete, or even white decking and fencing can help low-light areas feel brighter and allow those without yard space to succeed.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Even amidst restrictive leases, small yards, and varying budgets, gardening can be incorporated into just about any living space with some planning and a proper right approach. Small, in-ground gardens can be enjoyed by renters with prior approval, and can be great ways to maximize the potential of even small yards. Unable to break ground? Container planting and trellises provide an option for even those limited to small balconies. No matter what your living situation is, modern gardening is making it possible for anyone to discover their very own green thumb.

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