The Evolution of My Small North-Facing Patio Garden
Plantflix is all about creative gardening, there is no limitation that can keep someone from gardening who really wants to, regardless of how much space, light or funds you have for the hobby! This post tells the story of how I’ve experimented and figured out ways to garden in our tiny and very shady north-facing patio, in hopes that it may inspire some of you out there to add some greenery into your small spaces at home.
Number one lesson learned: the two most important things to consider for low-light gardens is:
1) a good setup and
2) the right plants and seeds that can tolerate lower light and space!
Facing north, this patio doesn’t get a lot of sun as it is, but I also happen to be in a spot shaded by big eucalyptus trees and tall condos, so my plants maybe see a couple of rays of sun for a total of half an hour per day… and yet, here’s my garden(above)! Lush and gorgeous, if I may say so myself, and we harvest fresh food from it weekly(not enough to completely sustain us, but anything is better than nothing!)
The Beginning: 2018
I always had some sort of plants around since 2014 when I first moved in as a student, but it was never anything much because I had myself convinced I wouldn’t be able to grow anything in such a small and shady space.
I was growing some tropical plants at home, but was missing actively tending to veggies and herbs(I like the high maintenance plants!), so I decided to give growing my favorite veggies a try, namely: tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.
It wasn’t hugely successful, but I was honestly happy to have anything and just having that greenery around was nice, especially when I got to pick off the 2-3 tiny tomatoes and cucumbers that grew!
The biggest obstacle was definitely lighting, getting to the brightest light meant putting up the plants as high as possible. For a poor college student, buying any kind of patio furniture or planters was not really any option, so I had to make do with whatever I had lying around or could pick off of my parents 😛
The tomatoes did the best out of the 3 varieties I had planted, mostly because I couldn’t place the lettuce high enough for it to get any light, and tomato plants could at least grow tall enough to maximize their access to light! Having gotten this experience and learning a bit more about gardening in shady spots, I tried something a little more creative the next year…
2019: the gears are starting to turn
2019 was a big year for the patio garden(Consequently the year I started the plantflix Instagram account, which made me feel more motivated to keep up with plant care!) In fact, it’s the year I’m actually probably most proud of just because it was such a vast improvement from the year before!
The idea came from some door hangers I was trying to get ride of in an effort to be more minimalistic(that was a phase that didn’t stick…) The hangers just so happened to perfectly latch onto the side of the wall in my patio, and essentially made for shelves and hooks for me to hang plants off of!
This set-up was a game changer! It got my plants wayyyy closer to the light, which as you can see by how much more lush the plants are, they appreciated!
It probably also helped that I was a little older, and more consistent with my plant care. That being said, having a good setup where plants are set up to succeed helps! Everything just looks better, which was a motivator to come out and water them, and made the experience of having the patio garden that much more enjoyable!
At this point Lil baby Rocko came into my life! I didn’t actually get him myself, but circumstances made him my pup, and he became my gardening buddy which made being out in the patio that much more enjoyable :)
Because he was still relatively small(a mere 60-70lbs at 4 months), I kept the patio itself clear of any plants to make room for a little bed for him to hang out in the patio while I tended to the plants on the wall.
I also started slowly collecting other plant varieties, namely herbs, which thrived in this setup! A key component was learning to identify the plants that actually tolerated those low-light situations. I found peas did extremely well, tomatoes didn’t do too shabby either, and lettuce was much happier high up as opposed to the year before.
It was also a fun creative project figuring out budget-friendly(and consequently, eco-friendly) solutions for planters. Some were in nursery pots like I originally got them, but I mostly used cans that I spray painted and stuck drainage holes into. The hanging tubs were from dried date or fruit containers that I’d usually have to poke drainage holes into.
The end result, I thought, was pretty cool, especially considering it was all made from re-used items I had around the house and ESPECIALLY considering it was all on a north-facing patio! The biggest constraint for sure was space- these hangers weren’t made to bear very heavy weight the way I was using them, so I had to keep to plants that didn’t have particularly extensive root systems, which limited my options quite a bit!
2020: Greenifying the entire patio(because Rocko was too big to use it anyway and we’re stuck at home during a pandemic)!
So in 2020 I kept the same concept of the hanging wall garden, but I went a little more creative with making use of the rest of the space. My wall garden wasn’t looking as lush, mostly because I was working on Plantflix and at that point my main focus was germinating and growing tropical plants from seed, which took away time from veggie and herb gardening. It didn’t help that the year was just very dry and heavy with pests, so plants that naturally would have performed fine, like the tomatoes, just withered away and looked miserable in 2020(at least for me!)
I need more space to grow out my tropical plants I was growing from seed, so I started adding new growing spots and had to get creative!
First off, I discovered vertical grow bags and started adding some. These never performed particularly well in my space, however, because we ran into the same problem as the first year, which is it’s simply too dark in that part of the patio.
I initially attempted to make it an herb garden and hoped some cilantro, thyme, oregano, basil and chives would make the grow bags their home but alas, they just couldn’t put on enough size(understandably so!)
However, this side of the patio(pictured left) gets a decent amount of light because it’s not in the shadow of the patio wall, so I decided to put up a terrace and hang some wooden boxes from Michael’s to serve as germination shelves for my houseplant seeds!
Naturally, owning a seed business at this point, I was spending a ton of time researching shade-loving plant varieties, which really is probably the most important factor to consider when trying to establish a garden in a low-light and low-space patio like my own.
I also started moving out a lot of my houseplants outdoors to give them more light and to make more room for seed projects indoors. I merged my love of fish and plants by making a little patio pond(which I still have!) with some Gold White Cloud Minnows that fertilize the plant cuttings I add to this pond.
I used the patio pond and all the plants I added around it to prop up another terrace to create a little hanging herb garden! As you can see, my gardening buddy Rocko has grown into a full-on plant guard dog. At this point he’s about a year and a half and maybe 150lbs and still growing!
This spot was bright enough for herbs to thrive, unfortunately a lot of them got devoured by caterpillars, which were my main headache out here last year.
Growing plants in low light is tricky enough as it is, they grow much more slowly and don’t grow as big as they would otherwise, so to have an army of caterpillars devouring what small growth the plants are able to produce killed off a lot of my plants :’(
So to all my fellow patio and windowsill gardeners, here’s what I learned: if you see even one pesky pest, whether it be an aphid or caterpillar or two, get rid of them on the spot!! We can’t afford to have the little energy the plants have be sapped away by pests!
It always helps to have more gardening buddies! Jeff, my now-husband and plantflix co-owner, brought little Maia here when he moved in early last year. She and I spent many hours out in the patio garden, her thinking murderous thoughts about all the birds flying by(but looking very cute while she did), and myself just soaking in the tropical vibes from the pond and the little corner jungle that came together here!
A big theme for me last year was coming up with new ways to maximize space, and of course the key for any small-space gardener is vertical gardening- not only does it maximize space but it brings plants higher up and thus closer to light. I’m still on a tight budget so I can’t go off and buy the fancy vertical gardening setups, which means diy it is!(It’s also more eco-friendly and fun that way anyway!)
Next to the hanging herb garden I created a little tiered gardening system out of some spray-painted yogurt containers. I planted strawberries and some herbs, which were promptly devoured by caterpillars almost right away despite my efforts to get ride of the little pests…At this point I have a couple of strawberry plants that survived, as well as a random assortment of herbs, veggies and coleus seedlings growing strong and hopefully they’ll make it through the summer!
That basically concludes 2020, a very busy year for the patio garden :)
2021: The Most Successful Yet!
I always enjoyed being out in the patio garden, but now I REALLY just want to spend all my time out here. I told myself at the start of 2021: “I’m running a freaking seed business, and I can’t grow half the varieties of seeds I sell because my planters are too small. I need to make a ‘business investment’ and get myself some proper wall planters!” So I did. Thank goodness for living in San Diego because I was able to get my revamped wall garden started in January! This is how it looked shortly after getting the first wall planters:
The awesome thing about these planters is, they’re still so affordable and wayy more effective than any diy solutions I could come up with before. I got them in batches to spread out the cost(each planter is somewhere in the range of $10-20, so with the 7 I have, it totaled to maybe $200 including soil- not bad!)
We started off with some small seedlings in January and February, some that I had started indoors and some that I sowed directly outside(yep, right in the middle of winter, exactly what you’re NOT supposed to do…)
Clearly the were happy in their new home because this wall garden took OFF! Not going to lie I was a little worried, we live in a small community and I felt bad essentially placing out buckets of dirt on our patio, but within a couple of weeks things were green around here!
The lettuce really started to grow in, the petunias(to the left of the lettuce) completely took over their planter, as did the radishes and leafy greens! Further down I had some carrots, calendula and black-eyed susan that I planted a little later so they took a little more time to fill out, but they did!
Then the harvests kept getting bigger and more regular, so of course I had to go out and get one of those harvesting baskets(what kind of gardener would I be if I didn’t have one of those baskets??) so I could collect all the fresh flowers and veg with one.
Then the petunias started blooming, and Calendulas followed suit. Let’s not forget Rocko, either, who’s been growing this entire time as well! He’s now 2 years old(and a few months) and weighs somewhere around 190-200lbs and is an (almost) full-grown plant and seed guard dog who patrols our new warehouse now :)
Now in the patio garden I have a whole batch of different herbs, veggies and flowers, grown from seed! Here’s what I managed to cram into that tiny patio:
The Vegetables(all organic of course!):
Leafy veggies(like the ones in our Leafy Greens collection below) do particularly well! If you’re just starting out, that’s a great starting point because they’re easy and quick to germinate and aren’t as fussy about light and space as other veggies might be! They’re also great for regular harvests :)
Lollo Rosso lettuce - produces very dependable(and delicious!) harvests
Red Acre Cabbage - this one is spectacular right now! You can see it in the photo at the top- I’m in love!
Sugar Snap Peas - these grow so quick and beautiful! Perfect for anyone who loves vining plants and would like a quick harvest!
Rainbow Swiss Chard - These thrived in my patio garden! All the different colors are stunning to look at and contain various healthy nutrients!
Cucumber - they need a bit more light but they will always be one of my favorite veggies to grow and a must-have in my garden every year!
The Herbs(mostly on my herb wall):
Calendula - Calendula is thriving and taking over my patio garden! Be careful to keep your calendula bushes trimmed down so they don’t spread all over like mine did!
Gardening in the patio here has been a blast, I do look on other gardener’s pages on Instagram and turn a little green(get it?) with envy when I see all the different plots of land others have to garden on and how much I miss gardening in my grandparents’ farm in Russia that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. Honestly though, I’m extremely happy with my little corner, and appreciate all the challenges that came with it- it makes the whole experience that much more rewarding!
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go water my Black-Eyed Susans, they’ve finally put out flower buds that are about to burst and I want to make sure they have enough moisture to do so!!
Hope you enjoyed this slightly unconventional blog post, and if you like this sort of thing, make sure to follow us on instagram and subscribe to our new YouTube channel! Send over and tag me in photos of your setup and the different tips and tricks you’ve learned in your time gardening!
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