Home & Garden

Prepping your patio: tips on getting your outdoor container garden started

Gardening isn’t only for the suburbs.

People with little outdoor space to spare — especially those living in the heart of the city — can cultivate a thriving natural spot by using container gardening, and add a splash of color and some sustenance to their lives along the way.

Angela Pratt, owner of the Plant Foundry in Oak Park, says the biggest factor to consider when planning a patio garden is natural light. Is the patio or balcony flooded in light most of the day? Is it always shaded? Natural light will make a big difference in your plant selection.

In general, “a patio is a very protected situation, so you can pretty much plant anything,” Pratt said. “You can have a lot of fun with patio gardens and edible plants and succulents ...”

No backyard? No problem. Here are some suggestions for sprucing up any patio.

Instead of planting out, plant up

With limited space, wall-mounted planters work wonders.

“Go vertical,” Pratt suggests. Trellising upward, hanging baskets or other planters from windowsills, using pocket planters and stackable plant containers are all creative ways to make the most out of a small entryway or balcony.

Wally Gro, a Missouri-based company, specializes in wall-mounted planters, helping people create “living walls” with limited space. According to its website, the company believes a “lack of flat land should never be a barrier to experiencing the healthful benefits of growing your own food.”

And wall-planters aren’t limited in that regard — they can support edible greens and flowers.

Excellent plants for beginners include Sansevieria (snake plant), Epipremnum (pothos), peace lilies, and dracaena, according to Wally Gro’s website. Fall favorites include asters, chrysanthemums and rainbow chard.

Tulips, daffodils, wildflowers, flowering sweet peas, and saffron crocus — the expensive spice used in rice dishes — are also seasonally appropriate, Pratt said.

Looking for more ideas? The UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners of Sacramento release a calendar every year with a planting schedule, and this year’s happens to include information on gardening in small spaces. It can be ordered online (sacmg.ucanr.edu) and at local nurseries and special events for $10.

Eat up!

Though the season is already well underway, there is still time to plant an edible fall garden, Pratt said.

Good choices include dwarf peas (i.e., Tom Thumb), collards and kales, lettuces and broccoli. There are plenty of shade-loving herbs, like mints and sages, tarragon and thyme, which can be used to flavor holiday dishes. Edible flower varieties can add color to any space and flavor to salads, she said, recommending pansies, violas and nasturtiums.

Those with larger patio spaces may want to consider growing espaliered fruit trees, which are trained to grow flat up against a wall or fence. “It’s a perfect screen” when living in close quarters, Pratt said, and the fruits are still full-size. You can plant pear, pomegranate, dwarf fig, dwarf mulberry, blueberry, and dwarf citrus, such as mandarin and lemon, any time of year.

Venture into the exotic

For Daniel Pfarr, it’s all about the orchid. The Sacramento State plant collections manager enjoys exploring the exotic, rather than tending to more typical patio plants, like begonia. His outdoor orchid collection is made up mainly of Australian dendrobiums and Neofinetia falcata, also known as wind orchids. The latter were so esteemed in Japan 400 years ago that only those of the ruling class were permitted to own them, according to the American Orchid Society, and were often covered with screens to protect them from contamination during viewings.

Both of these types of orchid are “really good candidates for year-round patio” growing, Pfarr said. Plus they are easy to care for in compact situations, and tolerant of the 100-plus degree heat waves that hit the Sacramento Valley.

They’re similar to succulents and cacti — also a significant part of Pfarr’s garden — in that they like to dry between waterings. During the fall and winter, he waters his wind orchids and dendrobiums about once every two weeks or twice every three weeks, depending on the how the season is shaping up and how the plants are responding.

Start out simple

When it comes to low-maintenance options, it doesn’t get much simpler than succulents and cacti. Now that the rainier months are hopefully on the way, it’s important to protect the plants from flooding and sitting in water. Again, this has to do with the amount of cover a particular patio has, as well as weather conditions and positioning.

For beginners, echeverias and sempervivums are a good place to start, according to a previous Sacramento Bee article. Cold-hearty options include Aloe arborescens, some echeverias and sedums, Pratt added.

When it comes to the drought-tolerant plant, drainage holes are essential, Pfarr said. Those interested in cultivating these gardens should use cactus and succulent mixes, or soil that will drain and dry quickly to help prevent roots from rotting. Pfarr also recommends avoiding glazed pots, which hinder the ability of the water in the soul to evaporate.

“I see people that use (pots without drainage holes) all the time,” he said. “Usually, they have less healthy plants.”

Succulents that are being over-watered will have yellowing, translucent, swollen leaves, according to Utah-based succulent gardener Cassidy Tuttle, who teaches online courses via her business Succulents and Sunshine. Those that are thirsty will have limp, dull, wrinkled leaves.

“When in doubt, wait before watering,” she writes on her website. Most succulents can go three days (and even a week or more) without watering.