Small space gardening: apartment, balcony and shady yards

Compact varieties of your favorite produce — like basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons — can help you get the most out of your small-space garden.

Compact varieties of your favorite produce — like basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons — can help you get the most out of your small-space garden.


Even if you only have a few partially shaded square feet of yard or a semi-empty spot on your apartment balcony, you have space for a garden.

As we prepare to transition our summer gardens to fall ones, it’s a perfect time to take stock of space and dream about reinventing it for a new season of growing. Scope out pots and planters at the thrift store, get your soil tested (if you’ve been putting it off!) and start saving recipes featuring your favorite cool-weather crops.

The N&O talked to Kavanagh Anderson (director of learning and community engagement at Duke’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens) and Rebecca Wait (curator for the Allen Education Center and entryway landscapes at the NC Botanical Garden) to learn more about small space gardening.

How to tell if your small space can be a garden

“Any time you have light, soil and space, you can have a garden. And a garden is a garden no matter the size or scale,” Anderson said.

But you need to think about the best plant to put in the space you have, she said. Be sure to ask these questions:

  • How much sun is available?

  • What amount of water is available?

  • What kind of soil do I have? Does it need to be amended to provide nutrients?

  • What kind of nutrients are needed for the plants I want to grow?

Which containers & pots are good for small-space growing?

Let’s break it down into two categories: size and material.

Size: If you want to grow edible plants, the size of your container is especially important.

“Five-gallon containers are the ideal size for fruiting plants, like tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers. No smaller than five gallons,” Anderson said. “So think about if you’ll be able to grow fruiting plants like this on a small balcony or in a windowsill, if you think even a five-gallon container would be too large for your space.”

Non-fruiting plants, like herbs, can take to smaller spaces.

Material: While you can turn practically anything — an old candle jar, a shoe, even a toilet — into a pot for a plant, you need to think about how the plant would take to the space.

Darker containers absorb more sunlight, so your plants will get warmer faster. Terra cotta containers lose moisture faster, so you need to water more frequently.

“Make sure your container is a good fit for the plant you want to put in it. If it’s not a good fit, find a different plant with needs better fit for that container,” Anderson said.

These plants work well for container gardens in NC

Vegetables, fruits and herbs work well in containers in the Piedmont, a recent NC State Cooperative Extension publication says. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some you can try.

Vegetables that grow well in containers in the Piedmont, per NC State Extension: Beans (lima and snap), beets, carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, kale, peas, squash, tomatoes, lettuce and potatoes.

Fruits: Apples, blueberries, grapes, figs, citrus, peaches and strawberries.

Herbs: Basil, dill, chives, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, parsley, stevia, thyme and tarragon.

For the full publication, visit

And if you want to grow a fruit, vegetable or herb not listed here in your container garden, contact your local NC State Extension center to get connected to an expert and learn your options. Visit to find county-specific contact information.

How to have an apartment garden

If you don’t have ground access, sunny windows and balconies work well for growing edible plants. Non-edible plants have a wider range of conditions in which they thrive. Get in touch with your NC State Extension county center to find the best plant for your space.

Here’s how you can maximize your yield when growing out of an apartment:

Get compact varieties. There’s compact basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and much more, Anderson said. These will grow to a certain (small) size and stop there. (Fun fact, there are even compact varieties of fruit trees!)

Just make sure the variety you’re selecting will thrive in the environment you have.

“What are the sun and water needs? A container dries out faster and needs more water, so make sure you’re planting close to a water source. Soil depth requirements also depend on what you’re choosing to grow,” Anderson said.

“Herbs and leafy things can grow in pretty small containers or hanging containers, but things we eat the fruit of — like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers — need more soil. In a small space, compact varieties of these can be helpful.”

Mount grow boxes. Using the structure of your balcony, you use some zip ties to DIY a vertical grow box.

“Thinking about going vertical, you can be creative in terms of the containers you’re using,” Anderson said. “Of course you can buy window boxes, flower pots, plant pots. But you can also reuse milk jugs, yogurt containers — think about plastics that might otherwise wind up in recycling. Then you can drill some drainage holes, use zip ties to hang it from the railing and make a creative, vertical growing space.”

You can even mount grow boxes (bought or DIY’d) on your walls to maximize your space, rather than filling ground space with pots and containers.

Train your plants to grow vertically. Using twine, twist ties and trellises, you can make vining plants grow upwards. Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and beans are great for this, Anderson said.

Windowsills are a great source of light for apartment gardeners, said Kavanah Anderson, director of learning and community engagement at Duke’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens. DELORES JOHNSON THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Maximizing your harvest in a garden bed

Free space in a garden bed is a missed opportunity to plant something, Anderson and Wait said.

It doesn’t have to be an edible, fruiting plant, but it can be a pollinator or cover crop plant to make other plants perform even better. Here are some ideas:

Use native plants: Shade-loving native plants can be tucked under large, leafy edibles — like squash or zucchini — to make your garden a pollinator haven, Wait said.

The NC Botanical Garden has an on-site daily plant sale from March through November. For more, visit

Plant cover crops: “If you have any space in a bed with salad greens, you can cover the remaining soil with a cover crop — such as crimson clover — to add nitrogen to your soil and help keep weeds at bay,” Wait said.

Plant herbs: “Herbs prefer full sun, but one way to maximize the space you have is to stick them in occasionally shaded spaces,” Wait said.

“If you put cilantro, chives, basil, oregano or any other herb in a sunny spot at the beginning of the season, but with time they get shaded by other plants’ leaves, they won’t thrive but they’ll survive.”

Companion plant: Companion planting is the idea that you can choose plants that support one another well to grow together, Anderson said. If you have free space in your garden, research companion plants for the crops that you already have.

“Basil and marigolds are an example of this. Marigolds offer pest protection, plus they attract beneficial insects to keep pests in balance. Herbs and flowers work well together because their root systems differ, so they’re not competing, but instead have enough space to grow around one another.”

Which plants to grow in shady spaces

We’ve been stressing that edible plants need sun to grow, fruit and thrive. But if the only spot you have to make a garden is a shady corner in the back of the yard, you can make it!

“Edible plants aren’t the only things to grow, and plants serve a variety of functions,” Anderson said.

“Yes you can eat some, but some are homes for wildlife. Some help with stormwater runoff. Some contribute to the edible plants. Any space you have is an opportunity for a plant — if it’s not an edible plant, it’s another plant that will serve an important purpose.”

Questions about backyard gardening?

Do you have questions about your backyard garden? Any stories you’d like to see about gardening topics? Tell us here! Or email

This story was originally published July 30, 2022 6:15 AM.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.


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