Making the Most of Small Gardening Spaces

From the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II to today’s myriad urban gardens throughout the city, Milwaukeeans have proven there are no limits on what we can grow. Whether it’s a small city lot, a balcony or a windowsill, you can fill your space with greenery that provides beauty and sustenance.

Evaluate the Yard

When choosing a space to plant your garden, evaluate sun exposure and daylight hours. Six or more hours of direct sunlight is generally considered to be full sun, but lots of herbs will grow in partial sun/shade (three or four hours of direct sunlight). Those include bee balm, chives, chervil (also known as French parsley), cilantro, lemon balm, lovage, which has a taste similar to celery, mint, oregano, parsley and tarragon.

Calendula, a hearty annual that’s a genus of the marigold family, also grows in partial shade. It has bright orange and yellow blossoms that attract pollinators. Calendula has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat wounds, rashes and inflammation. UW-Madison’s Arboretum has several suggestions for Wisconsin native flowers that do well in shady gardens: arboretum.wisc.edu/news/arboretum-news/gardening-with-native-plants-woodland-plants.

Now vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, peas, beans and corn need full sun. Also, consider the time of day that sunlight falls on the planting space. The hours between sunrise and noon are generally shaded from the scorching afternoon sun. Cool season crops like lettuce and spinach may rot faster when exposed to afternoon July heat.

It might be tempting to fill garden spaces with as many plants as possible. The University of Minnesota Extension advises to choose plants wisely to avoid overcrowding. Plants that are too close together compete for soil nutrients and sunlight. Vines from winter squash and pumpkins spread and take up a lot of space, so those are not recommended for small yards.


Stay on top of the news of the day
Subscribe to our free, daily e-newsletter to get Milwaukee’s latest local news, restaurants, music, arts and entertainment and events delivered right to your inbox every weekday, plus a bonus Week in Review email on Saturdays.


Vertical growing is a space-saving option for cucumbers and even tomatoes, which will grow upwards if trellised and guided properly. Mother Earth News notes the first rule of vertical growing is to know how tall your plants will get and place the tallest ones in the northern part of the garden, so they don’t block shade from the smaller ones.

Container Gardening

Container gardening has become a popular way to maximize space in urban yards and apartment balconies. Plants can be easily moved in or out of the sun as needed. The UW-Madison Horticultural Division advises it’s important to choose light-weight soil that’s high in organic matter. Look for a combination of compost, peat moss, perlite or bark.

The Farmer’s Almanac recommends plastic pots over clay ones, because plastic pots retain more moisture and won’t dry out as fast as terra-cotta. Choose pots with good drainage and add about one inch of coarse gravel at the bottom to improve drainage.

Modern horticulture has produced lots of varieties of classic vegetables to remain compact. Tomatoes such as Patio or Celebrity varieties have been hybridized (not GMO) to remain smaller and more suitable for small spaces. Lettuce, eggplant, peppers and radishes can also grow in containers. Hanging baskets aren’t just for flowers; herbs, cherry tomatoes and strawberries also work well in hanging baskets.

Bringing the Garden Indoors

Bright, sunny windowsills are ideal places to start the seeds for a small garden. There’s a variety of seed-starting kits available at area garden centers that make it easy, convenient and cost-effective to grow basic lettuce, sprouts, herbs and microgreens. Window greenhouses can also be made from recycled plastic trays and clam shells with drainage holes punched through. While windowsill gardens won’t produce enough of a yield to entirely sustain an individual or family, microgreens and herbs grown right on the windowsill add nutrition and a pop of flavor to salads, smoothies and other dishes.

Sheila Julson

Sheila Julson is also a freelance writer who enjoys capturing the stories behind Milwaukee’s happening food, beverage and urban farming scenes. She also writes articles about holistic health, green living, sustainability and human-interest features.

Read more by Sheila Julson

May 10, 2022

3:31 p.m

.