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Grace Neal, garden designer and plant enthusiast at Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas, tends to a hanging basket of African daisies, violas and pansies. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
ColumnsJano's Garden

Think smaller this spring

One of my favorite gardens was one I created in a tiny alleyway in the yard of a three-story apartment building in Cold Spring, New York, over 20 years ago. I had moved from my first house with a substantial yard, and it was not a happy time for gardening.

But two young men who lived in the basement apartment of the building were keen to fix up the backyard so we could all enjoy it.

Dave, the group’s builder, created a lattice fence, built a wooden box filled with soil, and asked for planting suggestions. I researched my favorite vegetable plants, and we came up with a vertical garden that surprised us all!

After planting Kentucky pole beans, sugar snap peas and a tall, lanky Tiny Tim tomato plant, we were all elated when the seeds began to sprout.

Dave knocked on my door in the morning with something in his hand.

“A bean, a bean! We got our first bean!” Although this was not a showcase-raised bed garden, we had three lovely vegetables to call our own. In the evening, we sat in our lawn chairs, admiring our success at creating an “Alleyway Garden.”

Grow your salad

If you want fresh greens from your patio or balcony, you can create your own container garden with various pots or window boxes. Be certain that your choice has drainage holes and sufficient depth and width.

Greens in deep, rounded five-gallon containers allow the leaves to stretch out, and vegetables such as beets and radishes can utilize the depth to grow deep and throw their leafy green tops.

On the other hand, rows of leaf lettuce, kale and spinach will flourish in a 24” x 36” window box.

For pole beans, cucumbers, and peas, choose a narrow 12” x 48” window box 8 inches deep. You can add a small trellis to encourage the veggies to climb upward.

Light purple African daisies, left, mulitcolored violas and pansies, center and right, explode with color from hanging baskets at Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas. These spring flowers instantly brighten a porch or patio and take up very little space. Photos by Jordan P. Ingram

Totally tomatoes

Many gardeners have tried to grow tomatoes on their patio or balcony, but not always with great success.

The key to success is full sun. Without full sun, you might as well buy tomatoes at the farmer’s market. Try the Patio Hybrid Tomato, Tiny Tim or Yellow Peach Cherry varieties.

Be certain you choose a large pot for tomatoes or peppers, such as a five-gallon plastic or terra cotta. Use a container garden mix found in garden centers, such as Jiffy-Mix or Pro-Mix, and dampen the soil before planting.

Remember to hold off buying your tomatoes until late April. They need three to four months of consistent temperatures of 65-85 degrees. This is why I constantly preach to my students not to buy tomatoes in March. They are usually sold with buds that have been forced into early bloom in a greenhouse in another state..

An early tomato might show buds that are open, but they might be hit by a cold snap and simply fall off. At this point, since the process has been rushed, they will not re-gain their growth cycle.

Herb garden         

Since most herbs do not require a tremendous amount of sun and will not produce flowers or fruit, they can be placed in your partial shade area.

Use window boxes or wooden containers described above for vegetables and fill them with potting mix. Dampen soil before planting and choose your favorite herbs and spices.

The key would be to find three or four that grow at the same rate and spread in width and height. You can also choose herbs that suit your cooking style, such as:

Mediterranean Herbs: If you cook in the style of Mediterranean cooking, you will want to pair dishes with Herbs de Provence, such as rosemary, thyme, and lavender.

Italian Herb Box: Do you make homemade pizza, pasta and tomato sauce? If so, fill your box with a selection of basil, oregano and rosemary. Look for a small bay leaf plant, which will last for years if maintained properly.

Tea Time: To augment your tea collection, look for lemon balm, lavender and peppermint.


When making your own container flower garden, remember that all flowers have their own habits! Just like humans, they can be finicky, some will grow tall, others stay short, and many spread their wings until you clip them back!

Start with the longest window box you can find, which could be plastic, terra cotta or a wooden container. 

Be certain each container has proper drainage. This formula also works for deep terra cotta or ceramic containers.

Talavera pottery is a tin-glazed earthenware produced in Mexican cities of Puebla, Atlixco, Cholula and Tecali using a technique dating back to the 16th century in Talavera de la Reina, Spain. These handmade planters, pots and decorative pieces at Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas serve as colorful bases for plants or art pieces in and outside the garden. Photos by Jordan P. Ingram

Listen to experts

The first job I had in the horticulture business was at a small but thriving family-owned nursery in Cooperstown, New York. I learned quickly how to produce the perfect window box filled with annuals.

According to owner Mary Leonard, “Start in the middle, with your tallest plant. Moving outward, place two medium-sized flowers on either side, leaving room for the trailing or mounding plant such as alyssum, trailing geranium, or Mandeville, which will fill in the end of the box.”

In a paint-by-number sequence, you follow a no-fail plan that works with annuals or herbs.

Window boxes

Tall plants – Spikes, Thunbergia, Cup and Saucer;

Medium – Osteopernum (Daisy), Bacopa, Pansy, Begonia;

Long and trailing – Allysum, Ivy, Trailing Geranium, Million Bells Petunia

Any of these plants can be trained to grow upward with bamboo stakes for a taller look.

Many gardeners choose to decorate their small spaces by themselves, but let’s face it, sometimes the nurseries do a better job. 

On a recent visit to Anderson’s La Costa Nursery, we saw a wide selection of hanging baskets with an ever-changing assortment of annuals.

Our guide, Grace Neal, showed us various baskets with colorful pansies, thunbergia, bacopa and scaveola.

Visit their garden center, which is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., located at 400 La Costa Ave, Encinitas; (760)753-3153.

Jano Nightingale is a Master Gardener and horticulturist and teaches at the Carlsbad Senior Center. Contact her at [email protected].

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