Creative gardening: How to be smart with your space, climate

Posted May 5

Spring is the season for traditional planting, but for some burgeoning gardeners, nontraditional options may be more realistic. For those lacking a yard, looking for a project for children, trying to save on water usage or just getting creative, these unique gardens can be great options.

Indoor edible gardens

Elizabeth Millard, author of “Indoor Kitchen Gardening: Turn Your Home into a Year-round Vegetable Garden,” takes advantage of the controlled indoor environment to grow edibles — even in the winter.

“We have seasons, and a couple of them aren’t really appropriate for growing things outside. It’s also a nice way to do small-scale growing,” said Millard, who lives in Minnesota. “You can adjust for humidity by misting more often or adjusting your airflow, and you can really replicate an ideal environment in your house or condo or apartment.”

Growing indoors is possible in almost any living situation as long as the plants have access to light, soil, appropriate drainage and airflow.

“You need light — you can use a window, but for a lot of it you can use a full-spectrum fluorescent, which is what people often use as their kitchen counter lights,” Millard said. “I’ve grown a lot in a basement before using those lights on a shelf. You don’t need the plasma LED ‘grow lights.’”

She added that gardeners can purchase soil specific to indoor planting or “loosen up” regular soil with vermiculite for ideal indoor growing. An addition as simple as a desk fan can increase airflow and ward off mold around the plants.

Indoor growing can be great for children, Millard said, and it also can save parents money on fresh herbs, mushrooms and microgreens.

“(Microgreens) are the first stage of growth of a plant,” she said. “If they were to grow up, they would become beets or carrots or whatever, but you’re harvesting them at about two inches. What happens is that you have this intense flavor of whatever it is that you’re growing, and you can grow a mix of herbs or spicy greens that have a lot of mustards in them, or lettuces. It’s a really fun project to do in the kitchen. You plant them super thick so it grows like a carpet. It’s a microfield of greens.”

According to Millard, microgreens are more nutrient-dense than traditional vegetables and their intense flavors are best used as a condiment.

“Pick what seems exciting to you,” she said. “You want a good baby step first to build your confidence. Herbs are a great choice, and if you buy them as starts and transfer them, it’s not cheating. It’s a really fun project to do in the kitchen.”

Water-saving gardens

There are countless ways to make your outdoor garden colorful and drought-resistant, according to Pam Penick, author of “The Water-saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden with a Lot Less Water.”

A garden can passively or actively save water, Penick said.

“A (passive) water-saving garden is one that’s well-suited not just to the climate that you live in but the vagaries of that climate," she said. "Your average day may be quite nice, but maybe every few years you get hit with a drought or a flood. A water-wise garden is prepared for those swings in weather, or survives for quite a while without needing the sprinklers turned on every day. You want to acknowledge the climate that you live in.”

For a more active approach, gardeners can use water-collection methods such as using graywater or setting up rain barrels.

“When you garden in those kind of conditions, you can give up or you can find a way to still have a beautiful garden,” Penick said. “There really are a lot of options.”

Because water-saving gardens are all about plant choice and embracing native climate, Penick suggests talking to and buying from local nurseries that are familiar with the specifics of each region.

“Get out of the big-box store nurseries, which often sell the same exact plants to the whole country,” she said. “There are also online nurseries.”

When Penick moved from North Carolina to Austin, Texas, she realized the climate change would require significant alterations to the traditional garden she was accustomed.

“Before we had even unpacked, I had already plotted the demise of both lawns, front and back,” she said.

Though bold, the move gave her many opportunities to get to know her neighbors and set a water-conscious example.

“(A lawn is) the default ground cover," Penick said. "It’s cheap and everyone knows what to do with it; that’s why it’s popular. A lot of people in the West may have brought their aesthetic with them from the wetter, eastern side of the country, and they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, or they don’t know what else there is. As you look around, it gives you this open sense of possibility.”

A lawn doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, she said. Portions of a traditional lawn can be replaced with native plants to cut down on the average inch per week of water that a lawn requires.

Other water-saving techniques found in Penick’s book include using a bucket to collect shower water while it is warming up, or collecting the condensate from an air conditioning unit for use in the garden.

“In this day and age, with so many water shortages, many question whether gardening is worth it,” Penick said. “Is it selfish to have a garden? I say no, it’s good for the environment, it helps cool our cities, it’s beautifying. There are so many reasons to garden; you just need to be smart about how you do it.”

Hydroponic gardens

Hydroponic gardens, or soilless systems in which plants are fed by nutrients added to water, can flourish indoors or outdoors, said Michael Caron, horticulturist for Utah State University.

“One of the benefits is that you have total control over all of the plant influences,” he said. “It gives you that flexibility, but it also is the shovel that will bury you. If you don’t get the nutrient or salt content right, that control comes back to kill you because you haven’t nailed everything just right. Those systems aren’t forgiving.”

But just because the system requires exact control doesn’t mean hydroponic plants can’t flourish at home. The high amount of control is the reason many large greenhouses around the world use the technique to grow produce consistently.

“Normally the best way to get into it is to find starter kits. There are lots of online retailers that sell the kit with troughs or trays,” Caron said. “They float the plant in those, and then they come with the right amount of solution and instructions on how to change it out; it’s pretty basic.”

Plants such as lettuces and herbs, especially basil, are ideal starter plants for hydroponic gardening. Strawberries are another common hydroponic plant, but those require more experience to succeed.

“Gardening, for me, is as much about the therapy as it is improving sustainability,” Caron said. “It’s the therapeutic aspect. I really do think that’s the biggest reason that people garden; it’s the therapy that comes from working with plants, working outside, from feeling the sun on your neck.”

Don’t give up

Gardening takes practice and patience, Millard said.

“I loved cooking for so long and I had really gotten into healthy foods, but something about growing really intimidated me,” she said. “I failed. I decided to get some transplants from the farmer’s market, and I didn’t read anything about how to take care of them or transplant them properly — I just put them in a raised bed in my garden and thought they would thrive. Lack of watering and putting them in the wrong place just doomed them. And I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’”

Her advice: Don’t be afraid to fail.

“You have to just think of it as a fun adventure,” Millard said.



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