Tips for gardening in small spaces from Gayla Trail

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Gardening writer Gayla Trail says that one of the strangest places she's seen a plant growing was corn coming up out of a crack in the pavement in an alley. Trail will use this, and other examples, to help inspire gardeners to grow their own plants even in the smallest, strangest spaces tonight at the Denver Botanic Gardens for her lecture based on her book Grow Great Grub. We caught up with Trail before her talk and she gave us a few tips on how to garden in even the most difficult places. "I just try to make general rules for beginners so that they'll have a better chance at success," explains Trail. "Once you've gained confidence and had more success then you can start to push against some of those rules." The bigger the container, the better Gayla Trail: A lot of small space gardeners are dealing with containers. One of my first tips, especially for beginners, is that bigger containers are better. The reason for that is that they don't dry out as quickly. Bigger containers mean that your plants will be happier; they'll have more space to move their root into and the soil won't dry out as quickly as it will in a small pot.

When you do use a small container, choose your plants wisely GT:With small containers, you're going to want to choose plants that are happiest in those containers. So you want to choose plants that have a shallow root system. Thyme is a good example; oregano, chives, strawberries will do fairly well in a small container. Generally herbs tend to do a little bit better, but there are a number of herbs that have very large root systems, so it's good to have some kind of an understanding of the difference.

Mix plants with care GT: How you mix plants is especially important when you're growing crops. It's not as important if you're growing flower or something ornamental, but when you're trying to produce fruit it's especially important how you mix the plants in the containers, otherwise they'll compete against each other. My general rule of thumb for mixing in containers is to stick with one fruiting plant, so that's a tomato or a pepper or a cucumber, something that produces fruit, and to grow that with multiple leafing plants. Leafing plants are herbs like basil, oregano, even lettuce or edible flowers. You can, however, do multiple leafing plants together, and as long as you don't do too many together in a pot, you don't have to be concerned about production. They generally won't out-compete each other.

Shop outside of the gardening department GT: Gardening can be expensive depending on what you're buying. In garden stores, big containers are incredibly expensive. I don't really know why that is. It's like because it has been defined as an object that is for gardening, they've packed a premium price onto it. So my tip is always if you want to get a big container, but you want to save money, go to a different department in the store. Say you're in a large department store, go to another department like the housewares department. I find garbage cans or big containers that are meant for storing things in garages or in basements. I bought these really ginormous containers in a department store for $8 each. When I went to a local garden shop and looked at containers that were plastic, so they weren't any better quality and they were the same size, they were running in the $60 range. The only trick there is that you do have to make sure you add drainage holes. Drainage holes are very critical for most vegetable crops. My rule is one hole for every two inches. Grow determinate tomatoes, not indeterminate GT: Determinates are bushing types. They don't grow to be exceptionally large, just a few feet at the most, and so essentially they grow to a determined height and they stop. Those are easier to grow in containers than indeterminates. Indeterminates are the very large, very tall plants that grow into vines. A plant can produce very small fruit, like a cherry tomato for example, but that doesn't mean it will be a small plant. The size of the fruit has nothing to do with the size of the plant. It's important to know what type your tomato is, and the tag should say. You can grow the very tall indeterminates in containers, but you need a very large container to achieve some success with that.

Try herbs GT: If you are starting out and you're looking to produce something edible in a really small space, I always suggest people try to grow herbs. Herbs are the most productive in a small space. You get the most sort of bang for your effort from herb plants because they start to produce very quickly, which means you can start to harvest very quickly. Thyme, oregano, chives and lavender are very easy.

For more information on how to grow in small spaces, check out Trail's talk tonight at 7 p.m. at the Denver Botanic Gardens or visit her website.

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