How to Design Your Small Container Garden

Maybe you live in an apartment or condo like I do, and your gardening space is slim. My balcony is a little bit bigger than a twin-size bed.

Anyone can place a couple of pots next to the door, but if you want to grow a lot of plants in a small space, you need a strategy and a plan.

Even in my small space, I’ve been able to successfully grow citrus trees, flowers, shrubs, herbs, vegetables, and vines. It just takes planning and special arranging to make it all fit together, much like packing everything in the trunk of your car for a road trip, or making everything fit inside your closet.

Designing Your Garden Arrangement

This is how I’ve layered the plants on my balcony garden to take advantage of the sun, with shade plants nestled behind the bigger plants, and flower boxes hanging from the railing.

Even though we do have a lot of plants, we still want room so we can sit and spend time out there, and do fun things like city camping.

Helpful Stuff to Have

1. Pots that are bigger than you think you need. At the store they look huge, but when you get them home they’re just right. Anything can be a pot, as long as it has a drainage hole in the bottom. Don’t wind up with a lot of small pots; it’s a pain to water them frequently enough to keep them from drying out. You can combine a couple of small plants in one big pot.

2. Potting soil. Do not go and dig up some dirt from the ground by your apartment building. It won’t work. Potting soil is designed for drainage. You can also add some compost from the bin.

3. I don’t own any gardening tools. Since I mainly use potting soil, I just use a spoon for digging. One time I borrowed some clippers.

4. Watering cans. You can reuse juice or milk jugs.

5. Trellis or pole. You want to maximize the vertical space. Since we couldn’t drill hooks into the exterior wall, we positioned a tall garden pole on each side of the balcony to support a hanging basket. We attached it to the railing using stainless steel hose clamps, as pictured.

6. Hanging baskets. Suspend them from hooks or you can hang flower boxes over the railing.

7. Twine. Top-heavy plants can easily be knocked over by the wind, so we have our biggest plants tied securely to the balcony railing. Twine can be used to support vegetables and train climbing vines (grocery twist ties are good for that too).

Challenges of a Container Garden

* Water. If you don’t have access to a hose, you’ll be carrying all the water in jugs yourself, and you’ll probably be doing it every day during the summer.

* Pests. Weeds aren’t much of a problem, but you do need to be on the lookout for pests, so you can stop them before they become a problem.

* Choosing plants. It’s hard to go to the garden store and limit yourself when all of the plants and flowers are blooming and gorgeous. We’ll talk about choosing plants for your container garden next time.

We just took our family trip to the garden store this weekend, which is pretty much my favorite spring time tradition, although we’re growing fewer plants this time compared to previous years. Are you planning a garden this year?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Great hints for gardeners! I am fortunate enough to have a massive yard with loads of room for plants… I absolutely agree that the pots that look big at the store are going to look tiny at home, so buy big!

    angelvalerie´s last post…dreaming your dreams…

  2. I have a question – what about the embarassing ‘when you water your plants they ‘pee’ all over your neighbor’s patio downstairs’ problem? I get very nervous about having hanging plants on my deck for that reason.

    Please let me know if I’m missing an easy solution!!

    • I’m not really embarrassed about water drips, but I’ve heard of putting a shower cap on the bottom of a hanging basket to catch the drips when you water. Or maybe you could put a bucket underneath.

      • I place other plants under the hanging plants so the drips water the plants below to minimize water waste!

        Jenn´s last post…Want to Know How to Make Parmesean Crusted Stuffed Chicken?

      • Stephen C Dilley says:

        I might intentionally misunderstand your advice and give the shower caps to the downstairs neighbors, hehehe. Seriously, I have designed a few balcony-scapes and self-watering pots work well in areas where there is not excess rain. Also, planting in as large a container as you can will buy you some time between waterings-keep those plant roots growing into new soil as long as you can- rootbound plats water stress so much faster! Lastly, water holding polymers that absorb water in the soil and release it slowly to plats can help- just don’t allow containers with these polymers in them to dry out or the beads act like a wick and draw water right out of your plants!

  3. We do have a yard, but we’re still using containers as we don’t have a large safe plot of soil to use. This year we decided to do less variety of plants but more of them–we’re just growing tomatoes, peppers, and beans.

    Gardening with kids is just the best–so much fun to see the magic of it through their eyes!


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  4. Ooooh the potential!!! That is such a sweet diagram/plan!!! Thank-you for reminding me about a little upgrade I have been meaning to do… our pot garden at the back door sure could do with a pick me up!!!

    se7en´s last post…Saturday Spot: A Celebratory Dinner and a Snippet on Knysna…

  5. Denise C. says:

    I live in a townhouse, and share a common area of “dirt” with my neighbor.
    She gave me the ok to clean it up, and plant some stuff. I got a hydrangea plant for my birthday, & am adding boxwood shrubs, phlox, & zinnias.

    My kids and I are going to attempt a vegetable garden in our backyard. I’d like to grow peppers (red, yellow or orange), zucchini, tomatoes, & onions. It’s quite ambitious since I really don’t have much of a green thumb. I’m doing a ton of reading about shrubs, flowers & vegetable gardening.

  6. This is great…it makes me wish I lived somewhere with a balcony! I bet your place is darling from the street!

    Michelle´s last post…this is amazing…

  7. Great post Rachel! We do container gardening alongside our raised beds. I love the illustration! :) Anyone ever tried self-watering container?

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  8. I’m hoping to get our garden started this weekend. A rainy Saturday and Sunday this past weekend prevented me from getting my start. I’m itching to get my edible garden going and to do some clipping and cleaning of the lawn. I love this time of year!

    Nicole´s last post…frugalista ~ part 4

  9. Rachel,

    I love your hand drawing and easy guide. We have been gardening for past few years and every year we improve and learn new things, it feels great to eat home grown food, how little it may be.

    I like lot of tips you gave here, anyone can have garden, no matter how small space!

    Zengirl: Heart and Mind´s last post…Link love: Good read around the net

  10. What a lovely post Rachel. I have a small yard that I’d love to make more of and this is really helpful! Thank you

  11. I used to only have a deck to garden with. I used container gardening very similar to what you drew. I had hanging lettuce bowls- very pretty and fun to eat too.
    Now that we have a yard- I am hoping to put in my raised beds very soon [I am pregnant and having a hard time doing it myself] but I still use containers for strawberries [I think strawberries do better in containers] and herbs. I grew some peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and lettuce last year and hope to add artichoke, sunchokes, onions, sprouts, green beans, broccoli/sunflower, summer squash, turnips, greens like Kale, Chard, etc We have blueberry bushes as well, raspberries, and one grafted apple tree.

  12. I love your balcony garden! It is so darling!! I only have my patio for gardening, but it’s really roomy, so there’s plenty of place for plants. My major dilemma is light, though. There is basically a forest behind my apartment which is lovely and cozy and private, but I get filtered sun at best, and not much of it. Any suggestions of things I can grow that don’t need too much light. I have some herbs going, and they are doing okay, but I’d love to have some other edibles.

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  13. I LOVE spring! Last year I took a year off from the garden while I nursed the new baby, but now that she’s becoming a toddler we’ve been back with gusto! We’ve got sugar snap peas that just sprouted, and underneath their trellis we’re planting lettuce that will hopefully be shaded a tad by the time the sun gets strong. Planning on tomatoes and basil, and am eyeing to start some chives in pots. We also planted a small herb garden in the front yard, where we have a small (maybe 4x4ft) section that’s got a holly bush. In the winter it’s where the snow from our driveway goes so we’ll see how it pans out. But we have lavender there from last year, and just added mint (right in the middle of an anthill), rosemary, chives, and chamomile

    Next year we’ll be doing containers on our front porch and back deck, as we only have on small plot that gets enough sunlight and I don’t want to grow the same veggies in it every year. I’m so excited about the garden this year!

  14. We rent, but I can not get enough of the garden. We have 80 garlic plants doing fairly well that we planted last fall. We have three raised beds that are 3′x20′. We are planting radishes, peas, cabbage, lettuce, and onions there. The second wave will probably include fall radishes and cabbage for kraut making.

    I also have a 3′x8′ section of leeks that are just coming up. My perennial herb garden is my favorite. My thyme, sage, and oregano is already thriving and all I’ve had to do this year is weed them :).

    I planted a 25′ row of beets. I dug a potato patch that includes a 3′x18′ section plus a 25′ single row. I have never been more sore or felt more accomplished than I did that day.

    Shannon´s last post…GIVEAWAY: Bio-Kult Probiotic from GAPS Diet

  15. I do not have a green thumb and was able to grow spinach in a container! I grew it from seeds. I would just pick them early, and have baby spinach leaves in my salad! Very yummy and good for you!

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  16. Worn out pantyhose or knee-hi stockings are good support options for tomato & squash plants as they grow. Being stretchy, they support without binding or cutting into the plants.

  17. You’ve given me inspiration; I’ve got a huge yard & have been putting off gardening because our soil is miserable to work with. So I’ve been waiting for the year we can build raised garden beds, but Hubby & I are NOT the type to be able to do something like that on our own. Putting something in a container, though, is much more doable for me, at least right now…thanks!

    Vicki R.´s last post…This & That

  18. Great ideas – I love your workaround for the hanging plant. Thanks for sharing these ideas with us.

  19. Yes! I have started my very first vegetable garden this year! We moved into this house last fall there was already a 6′ x 12′ raised bed in the yard, so I had no excuse. I filled it up. It’s been exciting and fun to watch. The kids love it and we can’t get over the blessing of completely fresh, crispy spinach and lettuce at the table nearly every night. This is FAR more gratifying than I could have imagined. :)

    Katie´s last post…Reusable Produce Bags Tutorial

  20. Love this! I just decided to add a dwarf Meyer Lemon tree in a container on my deck. I can’t wait to get it planted!

  21. Love it! THank you for the inspiration. Would you mind posting a few more pictures of your balcony? the diagram is great but I’d love to see what it really looks like.

    I’ve been container gardening for a couple years now, and your post made me realize how much smarter BIG pots are instead of the million small ones I have now :)

  22. Heather says:

    You can always collect the cold water out of the tap while waiting for hot water to come through to water your pot plants.

  23. impressive! We used to have outdoor space that we used, although a good amount of our stuff died because of the hot sun (in Arizona).

    Here in Chicago, I’ve not had any outdoor space to use. I guess I could try window boxes or something? We don’t have a balcony or space outside our doors (they’re inside anyhow). I’ve never been successful with indoor plants (they get eaten by cats and humans).

    So, what will you do with your plants when you move?
    sarah´s last post…Bittersweet November