Starting a Small Garden – a Filipino Gardener’s Experience
A small garden is easier to fill with plants as long as you know how to care for them. This was the biggest mistake I made when I decided to turn our wasteland of a backyard space into a small garden.
Money is definitely a huge factor if you want to turn a dull space into something more inviting. But knowledge of how to care for the plant species you choose is a bigger challenge – for me anyway.
When I started buying plants back in 2012, I just picked up what I like based on their appearance. I’ve always loved variegated plants and plants with colorful, patterned leaves like Coleuses and Aglaonemas. However, even though I often asked the sellers on how to care for the plants I’m buying, I would end up with a sick or dying plant after a few months.
My Small Garden Through the YearsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Understanding the Needs of My Plants
After seven years of gardening, I’ve learned that it takes more than just asking the sellers about how to care for a specific plant. The three basic needs of plants should be properly given to them, otherwise, they will just be surviving instead of thriving.
Light, soil and water are the three basic needs of plants. What I have written below are just for regular backyard plants and not for succulents and cacti (I will write a separate article for these plants later).
Proper potting mix is, to me, the most crucial because I’ve failed so many times using just pure garden soil. Amending it with burnt rice hull and coarse compost is one way to make it more breathable for plants. In 2017, I discovered pumice which is a type of soil amendment that aerates potting mix – making it looser and coarser.
I learned the hard way that the proper way to provide the proper potting mix for plants is to know the type of soil/potting mix they need. If you have a variety of house plants and ornamentals, it is crucial to research or at least ask someone who has the same plants and lives in the same area or same climate (at least) as yours. I won’t elaborate on this for now; but to say the least, it is essential to have a reference which you can replicate in your own small garden. Don’t do it the way I did six years ago, because not knowing the right type of soil or potting medium will eventually damage plants in the long run; not to mention time and money will all go to waste if the plants will just die.
The amount and type of light exposure is another factor in starting and keeping a garden. This is why researching and asking for info are more than helpful. You can combine a variety of plants based on the type of light they require. But if you want to expose them in full sun, it’s ideal to purchase plants that thrive and won't get damaged in full sun exposure. For shade-loving plants, the ideal location would be a windowsill or any shaded spot that receives bright, indirect light during daytime.
Watering plants was also my frustration back then. Then, there’s my mother (and sometimes my dad, too) who happens to water the plants in our garden quite often. It’s a battle I had to win because we’ve killed lots of shrubby and herbaceous plants, and Aglaonemas (Chinese Evergreen plants) because of excessive watering. As they say, doing something in moderation is good – so this is what we do now in order for our plants to stay alive longer.
In the summer months (from March to early June) here in Southern Luzon (Philippines), the days are hot and humid, while nights are quite warm. Watering often during these scorching months will help plants stay hydrated. But doing it excessively, like watering the plants two to three times a day could damage their roots.
Watering in the early morning is what I find quite helpful for the plants as they can withstand the scorching heat throughout the day. If I can’t water in the early morning, I do it around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I also do not water every single day during the summer months especially for our shade plants.
For watering schedule and frequency, I don’t follow a specific regimen or practice. What I usually do is check the soil by sticking in a dry toothpick or thin barbecue stick (around 3-5 inches deep, along the edge of the pot and away from the root area). This helps me determine if the soil is still wet, damp or dry.
Do note that some plants may not show signs of wilt even when the soil is dry. If it’s already a day or two after the last watering, I water the plants to ensure they are rehydrated and will not end up wilted the following day.
The rainy months of June to October means cutting back on watering. I only water the exposed plants after a few days without rain. Sometimes I would also check the soil by dipping a toothpick or bamboo skewer to see if it’s still wet. If the soil is already dry or just cold and damp, that’s when I water the plants.
For plants that are not exposed to rain, I usually water every two days. I also sometimes check the soil just to make sure. It may sound too tedious, but it’s a few minutes worth of my time to randomly check the soil to avoid overwatering and drowning the plants’ roots.
Another helpful thing for an exposed small garden is installing a garden net. I’ve done this a few years ago because many of our plants are turning brown and crunchy under the hot summer sun. I’ve asked a local garden store owner about the idea of shading my plants and how to do it. She advised me to put up a garden net to protect the plants from sunburn.
There are a few types of garden nets in the market, but what we have in our garden is what they call the ‘agro shade net’ or ‘agricultural net’ which is like a denser and heavier version of a mosquito net due to its fine mesh. Another net I used is a regular version which you can find in most garden stores. These have larger squares or grids. I have folded this net in two to make it ‘shadier’ during summer.
Pots and Containers
The choice of pots is really up to you. I use a combination of plastic and clay pots in different sizes, depending on the size of plant it’s used for. I find no huge difference in using plastic and clay pots for our plants, but I just made sure the drainage holes are not blocked so excess water can drain away easily.
For hanging some of my plants, I’ve recycled several PET soda and mineral water bottles with wires and nylon strings. These plastic bottles are great for vertical gardens and as hanging baskets. And of course, drainage holes are a must to drain away excess water.
Plant Size and Available Space Matter
Since I started gardening seriously in 2012, I have encountered many hurdles especially when choosing certain plants.
There was a point that I had to stick with small varieties of plants and shrubs which I thought would thrive in our small backyard garden since it is the ‘exposed area’ of our residence (it is getting enough sunlight from 7am-2pm especially during summer). Here in the Philippines, it is common for homes to have a front or backyard, no matter how small or large the lot size. In our case, we have a shaded windowsill garden (with bright indirect light during daytime) and very small backyard garden with a covered spot for my succulents and cacti.
The challenge is there are plants now that are quite big and still growing like our Philodendron bipinnatifidum, Japanese bamboo, Areca palm and Ti plants which may invade the entire space if they continue to grow and produce offshoots. These plants may not be taking space for now and also there are smaller varieties of plants that occupy the same space, but in an organized manner to prevent over-crowding.
Currently, the space is not yet too crowded or chaotic. I usually prune the bigger container shrubs to keep their size at a minimum. Some of the smaller shrubby plants are pinched at the tips to make them bushier and to keep them under control. There were also times I had to cut back the Ti plants and give away the stable cuttings to some of my friends and relatives to free up some space.
Going Up and Vertical with Small Plants
One of the most vital steps in keeping a small garden under control is to go vertical. In my case, I use racks, wall mounting grid, wires and cables to hang some of the smaller plants like some of my cacti and succulents, Tillandsias and Cryptanthus.
Vertical gardens are great for minimizing or controlling the available space you have, so you can properly add and organize your plants. Vertical gardening has become a trend especially for those who live in small condominiums and apartments. Even for many gardeners with enough spaces within their residences have utilized vertical gardens for their herbs, hanging plants, small succulents and indoor houseplants. The key is to keep the options for plants quite small and manageable, so you can hang and arrange them vertically to optimize the space and have a fuller-looking garden.
In my small backyard garden, I find it best to keep the regular garden plants at a minimum. As much as I want more plants of different varieties and sizes, it is easier to plan and work in the garden with just the right amount of plants to allow a walkway and space for moving around.
If you’re thinking of starting a small garden in your backyard, before the rainy season is the best time to do it. I highly suggest that you do a bit of research about the plants you have in mind or ask a neighbor who owns them, so you get an idea of how to grow and care for them. Another suggestion, which I failed to do prior my gardening adventures, is planning out the placement and layout of your garden before buying your planting materials. Available space is a huge factor here, whether you have a big area or a small one for a possible garden it is better to have a plan than just stuffing your available space with plants.
Finally, I hope this article of my own gardening experience, fails and mistakes included, will be of help to someone who wants to start planting.
© 2019 ChelletL