Gardening 101 – Growing in Small Places


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My Maren-inspired rooftop garden.

My Maren-inspired rooftop garden.

There has been a growing (pun intended!) interest across the United States in home gardening, self-sustainable living and urban farming but what’s a wannabe farmer to do when the thumb just won’t turn that lovely shade of green you need it to?

Maybe you’re interested in planting some herbs in your window sill but they’ve drooped and then died in the past? Or maybe nurturing a couple plotted plants on your fire escape is your thing, even if it is technically illegal (oopsies)? Or perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a backyard or rooftop and you can go all out and plant some veg but don’t really know where to start?

We caught up with Krrb member and gardener extraordinaire, Maren who gave us the one-two on gardening in small spaces. After a long and thorough lesson, we’re ready to impart the knowledge so generously shared with us.

Planting Your Herbs

Young Pepper Plants, ready to be re-potted.

Young Pepper Plants, ready to be re-potted.

If you’re a beginner looking to add some fresh pizazz to your culinary adventures, why don’t you try out a little herb garden in your window sill? If you have a sunny spot, get a window box and some quality potting soil and stop by your local farmers market to grab some seedlings or young plants. Herbs are a great introduction to edible gardening and super thrifty as well. How often do you buy a whole packet of fresh rosemary or basil and never use the whole thing? When you have your own herb garden hanging out in your kitchen, you can snap off just as much as you need for your fantastic meal.

When you choose your herbs at the farmers market, you’ll want to re-plant them and get them adjusted to their new home right away.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Fill your pot or window box 1/4 full of potting soil.
  2. Remove the young plant from the container it came in and gently loosen the roots by removing some of the excess soil from the bottom right before setting it into its new home.
  3. Gently place the plant in the pot and fill around it with more potting soil so it reaches the same height the soil had been originally.
  4. After you’re done putting your young plants into the box or pot, you can water which will help settle the soil around the plant.

Keep in mind that most vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight daily. If the area you’re thinking of planting in is a place that gets less than that, try growing greens instead, since they don’t require as much light. If you get at least that much or more light, try growing tomatoes.


  • Make sure your pot or window box has good drainage – this is the most important aspect for keeping your soil healthy and a plant growing.
  • Be gentle when planting, if you break a stem, start over.
  • When planting, the soil should be moist, not wet and not dry. Most importantly, the soil should not be wet, which would lead to a lack of oxygen around the establishing roots.
  • Use quality potting soil and avoid products with synthetic fertilizers if you plan to grow organic.
  • Feel free to maximize the space in your pot, especially if you yourself are living in a small space, but don’t crowd your plants – they won’t like it! Don’t give them too much room though – planting in pots too large for your plant can lead to over watering and stagnant soil.

Finding Your Herbal Inspiration

Basil, thyme and rosemary admist pepper plants and one ornamental.

In my garden: basil, thyme and rosemary admist pepper plants and one ornamental.

There are tons of things out there to plant, where do you even start? Here are some suggestions along with idiosyncrasies of each plant.

Some ideas:

  • Chives – Chives are easily grown from seed, a perennial herb that will stay growing/green year round in very temperate climates (or possibly indoors with the aid of a grow light during the winter). If you’re growing outside in less temperate conditions, they’ll go dormant over the winter and will/should reemerge in full force the following spring.
  • Mint – Totally prolific, but will take over anything it’s planted near so keep it in its own pot.
  • Rosemary – Rosemary, and anything wooded like a bush is super resilient and may live year round with a seasonal growing period and a dormancy period in the winter. It may even go dormant if planted outdoors if you start out with a plant that’s sturdy and at least a year old.
  • Lavender – Lavender is an evergreen shrub, which needs well drained soil and full sun. It should be planted in its own pot and needs good air circulation. Try topping the soil with a layer of coarse sand after planting. (When covering with a layer of compost, decaying leaves, bark or sand, this is known as applying “mulch.”)
  • Cilantro and Basil – Both herbs love the summer and are easy to grow but they should probably be in their own pots.
  • Thyme – Thyme also likes a sandy soil, so don’t over water (as you shan’t with any of your plants). There are many varieties of thyme and excel in their own pots or planted 12 inches away from other plants.
  • Parsley, Chervil, Oregano and Tarragon – Each of these herbs come in different varieties and are easy to grow. They don’t need tons of light or space and can easily share pots.

Graduating to Small Fruit and Veggies

If your space is a little larger and you have outdoor area for other pots, you could potentially grow some vegetables. I’m seeing fresh salads, grilled vegetable kabobs, pickled and preserves in your future. If you’ve got the gall to branch out (also, pun intended), then why don’t you try some of these easier options.

  • Peppers offer a high yield and are hearty enough for beginners. Try your hand at jalapenos, habaneros, cayenne, cherry bombs and even green and red bell peppers. Since these are such hardy plants, and peppers are great for storing, you’ll find a lot of satisfaction from this crop.
  • Also a cinch are pots of strawberries!
  • Get leafy and greeny with bok choy, kale, swiss chard, mache and micro greens in pots or troughs. Lettuces don’t need as much sun as other veggies, so if you’re low on light, try these.
  • If you have a trellis, try peas or cucumbers.
  • And everyone’s favorite, tomatoes. Pot these or hang them in a bag. Make sure they get a lot of light, and that the soil has good drainage and calcium content.

On The Squirrel Situation…

Gosh Darn Squirrels!

Gosh darn squirrels and their plant killing habits!

If you’re like me, the squirrels will become your mortal enemy in your garden because they like to dig through your plants and pull up your roots. But no fear, most garden centers will sell you some dried coyote urine that keeps those cute nut thieves away from your prized plants. Yep. Coyote urine.

Have Fun!

Look, planting is fun, ok? So don’t get stressed out if it doesn’t work for you the first time because hey—every plant in every season in every place is just different enough to throw your plan out the door. Just remember that growing plants and edibles is just as much fun as eating them so enjoy the process and learn as you go. Slowly but surely, you’ll figure out what works for you.

A Bit About Maren

Maren's lush backyard in Brooklyn.

Maren's lush backyard in Brooklyn.

Maren grew up on the coast in southern California and spent her childhood in the garden along side her parents. In addition to learning from them, Maren is self-taught, and has gained a ton of knowledge through research and trial & error. After leaving Cali, she became an obsessive collector of plotted house plants which she adjusted to for lack of space and sun in contrast to her native sunny State – she had 100 before finally locating to her garden apartment in Brooklyn. When they moved in, the backyard was covered in concrete, Astroturf and weeds taller than her 6’4″ husband. It’s now the home to a variety of shrubs, flowers, vines, trees, ornamentals, and edibles, much of which she started from seed and sapling or propagated from cuttings and root clippings. She also generates her own soil and compost, which we discussed the merits of last week.

Thanks to Maren for help in teaching and editing for this article.

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  • Ashlyine Brooke

    I have seen so many sites but never saw this type of work that has won my heart!!

  • Tiffany Larsen

    These planting techniques prove that anyone can grow plants anywhere, even on rooftops. Only, you have to deal with squirrels if you want to have a rooftop garden. :)

  • OMG, that sounds like enough of a reason to not put the urine on the plants. Urine scented strawberries? Um, no thanks.

    So, I had a ton of cayenne powder and so I dumped (too much) into a spray bottle with water. The bottle got clogged so I abandoned that plan and sprinkled the powder directly on the plants. So far, so good! But really, the recent rain could also be taking care of my furry lil pest. I’m checking up on my Noahs Arc tonight and I’ll let you know!

  • Curious how the hot pepper/water spray idea worked out? I used to use predator urine as well, but it smelled like concentrated wicked badassness and I had to work forever to get the stench out of my gardening clothes afterwards-I may try the pepper idea too! :P

  • Re: coyote urine.

    Went to buy some this weekend and someone on line told me that I could also soak some hot peppers (habaneros or cayenne) with water in a spray bottle and use this to keep the squirrels away. Or dust your plants with the powder of of chile pepper. Just reapply after it rains. The squirrels will come stop coming after some time.

    I plan to try this first and I’ll let yall know how it goes!

  • Omg, that is so me! I’m such a beginner and now I’m growing a farm on my roof! haha. 

  • Good point! I’ve also heard that ivy is bad for buildings, ruins the foundation or something. Does anyone have any advice on this? Is it just a certain type of ivy? Bad for break and wood buildings?

  • Van

    I’ll have to try that coyote urine tip to keep squirrels away from my prized tomatoes!  All excellent tips, another tips I’d like to add for beginners is START SMALL. It’s easy to go seed crazy and end up with more plants than you can take care of! 

  • Jane Plantain

    Roof top garden tip: If your building has ivy growing up its walls – chop that stuff down, squirrels & mice use it as a stairway to heaven (your garden).