VIBRANT: Creating a festive fall bowl is a great way to introduce color into a balcony garden. (Photo courtesy Armstrong Garden Centers)
VIBRANT: Creating a festive fall bowl is a great way to introduce color into a balcony garden. (Photo courtesy Armstrong Garden Centers)
VIBRANT: Creating a festive fall bowl is a great way to introduce color into a balcony garden. (Photo courtesy Armstrong Garden Centers)

There’s something really lovely about a garden in Santa Monica that sits above things, those special rooftop or balcony gardens where you’re comforted by the quiet of green, but can glance out and keep an eye on life’s activities below.

Equally special, but in a different way, are tiny, enclosed “secret” gardens created in the small outdoor spaces of condominiums and townhouses. They may only provide space for a bistro table and chair, but can be lush, verdant enclosures of green where one can sip a quiet coffee.

Yes, you can garden on a balcony, on a rooftop, or in the leftover space of a townhouse. It can be rewarding and fulfilling. In some ways, it’s easier than having a full-fledged garden. Many of the typical struggles are minimized, like weeding, pest control and covering those bare patches of ground.

Other things come to the fore, however, like the importance of regular watering and feeding and a greater expenditure on pottery. But think of the money and time you’re saving as compared to a “real” garden.

What small-space and backyard gardening have in common is a need to curate. Regular gardens are rarely good examples of this important art and suffer because of it. But you have to curate a small garden. And that’s a good thing.

Here are some simple, small garden tips to inspire and guide you. There’s no better time to start a garden than during autumn. Warm, temperate air and gentle rains (we hope) create the perfect conditions for plants to become established. So start now.

First, think lush. Nothing’s more pitiful than a few lonely, struggling plants left out on a sunny ledge to fend for themselves. They’d jump if they could. Think big. Big pots or containers, large plants, trailing plants, mounding plants, and a few vertical ones, too. Don’t feel limited because there’s little (or no) ground. Buy more pots. More is better in a small garden.

Limit your plant palette, however. Fewer kinds of plants, but more of them. Keep them mainly green, with a few jolts of color.

Think good soil. Those roots have only a small space to wander. Use organic potting soil and add some organic starter fertilizer. (With organic, you don’t have to worry about burning roots.) Spend some money on quality pots. They’ll last a lifetime, and will create visual interest.

Consider light. Small-space gardens tend to be at the extremes — lots of shade or frying. Match your plants with your light.

Last, water and feed regularly. Always water deeply and thoroughly, until water runs out the bottom, then let the soil surface go dry to the touch. A secret tip from the pros: double feed plants in containers. Feed with a time-release fertilizer like Osmocote. And fertilize monthly with an organic liquid or granular fertilizer.

Finally, ruthlessly get rid of plants that aren’t happy. Plant’s lives are shorter in confined spaces, and the extreme conditions and restrictions mean certain plants need to be replaced often. Don’t feel guilty when tossing a plant. Put it in the green recycling bin where it can continue to “live.”


Create a festive fall bowl


Use the “thriller, filler, spiller” formula: one upright plant (thriller), two mounding plants (fillers), and three trailing plants (spillers). For a festive autumnal bowl, choose an ornamental grass (burgundy tones would be nice), some orange gerbera daisies, and some terracotta calibrachoas to trail.

Place the ornamental grass in the center and group the others around, with the calibrachoas near the pot edges. For shade, use a red cordyline at the center, crotons to fill and variegated gold ivy to spill. Tuck some small pumpkins or gourds in and around. Instant fall.



Arnulfo Bahena, CCNP, is the manager for Armstrong Garden Centers located at 3226 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. E-mail him your gardening questions to or call (310) 829-6766. Visit Armstrong Garden Centers online at


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