Pint-size paradise: Gardening in a small space


Don’t have a big yard? You can garden even in a small space.

Special to the Miami Herald

Just because you live in an apartment, condo or townhome with a small outdoor area doesn’t mean you have to give up gardening. Judith Stocks and Inger Jones didn’t. The two women, one who lives in Plantation, the other in Lighthouse Point, used their imaginations and hard work to turn their small “yards” into pint-sized paradises.

“I realized early on you can have a small space and still have a garden,” says Stocks who, in 1996, moved into her first-floor condominium in Plantation. She started by planting an area by her front door but soon found that anything she put there tended to disappear or get trampled.

So about five years ago, she turned to the screened patio of almost 10-by-30 feet that runs along the back of her unit. “I have some things in the front just to keep it nice but I did the back so it’s a peaceful place for me to go.”

Because the floor is red cement, she brought in a variety of pots and got creative about finding things to hold plants. A red metal baker’s rack, which once held cookbooks in her kitchen, houses potted plants and decorative garden art.

A wire serving cart also is a good place to set plants and two tabletop water features. A large snail shell hangs by a string and is filled with a small philodendron and a tillandsia that grows in air.

“I use all kinds of things to hold my plants; whatever I can find,” she says.

Stocks enjoys searching out plants and garden ornaments at local shops. “I really get to relax when I walk through a nursery,” she says.

She also gets ideas. For example, at Garden Gate in Pompano Beach she noticed that they mix artificial plants in among the live ones to add color and blooms year round. She tried it at home and it’s hard to tell one from the other.

She also bought a small white wrought-iron table and chairs for her garden. The chairs turned out to be uncomfortable so she converted them into planters. She topped their seats with a layer of coconut palm fiber, then covered them with dainty moss that serves as a growing medium for small plants.

She covered the table itself with a floral cloth and surrounded it with three comfy wicker chairs where she enjoys her morning coffee. She has a view of a manmade lake where turtles sun themselves or enjoy the shade of a jacaranda tree. A green canvas umbrella standing over the table adds a touch of whimsy.

Stocks uses a hose to hand water the entire outdoor area about twice a week. “At first I wasn’t watering so the plants did a lot of coughing and then would keel over and die,” she says. “But if you take the time to care for them, they give you a lot back.”

The covered patio gets only indirect light so angel wing begonias, peperomia, philodendron, Swedish ivy, African violets and the colorful fuzzy leaves of a purple passion do well. She also has a number of phalaenopsis orchids but finds they bloom only sporadically. “They have a mind of their own,” she says. Orange birds of paradise, mother-in-law tongues and cat palms grown in pots add green foliage.

She also set a fountain on the ground and filled it with dwarf papyrus. The sound of flowing water adds a peaceful touch to her garden. And at night, a plug-in street lamp with flickering electric bulbs makes the area cozy and romantic.

“I like to come out here; this is my space,” she says.

When it comes to working with small spaces, Inger Jones of Lighthouse Point prides herself on having turned a five-by-10-foot patch in front of her townhome into a nature preserve. In fact she’s won three awards for making it a haven for birds and five different types of butterflies.

“When we downsized from a house to a townhome, I knew there had to be something I could do in a small space,” says Jones who is also a committee of one for landscaping her development’s common areas.

Jones moved into this two-story home in 1987 and a couple of years later joined the local garden club. Here she learned from neighbors what plants survive near the coast and she learned her mantra: “Put the right plant in the right place.”

As we sit in her kitchen, she slowly pulls back the vertical blinds covering the sliding glass door to dramatically reveal the colorful planted area that lets nature come inside.

The postage-stamp garden that sits next to her front door is fenced on two sides. Its wooden pickets shield the garden from the parking lot. Inside the fence, a large air-conditioning unit requires some camouflage. A sprinkler head in the ground make watering easy.

The garden faces north and gets little direct sun so Jones has turned it into a shade garden with a few succulents hung at the top of the fence to maximize the light they receive.

For color, she’s planted bromeliads, caladiums, a red thorn-less crown of thorns, the large leaves of an alocasia and red and yellow kalanchoes.

And for interest she has a crocodile fern with leaves that look scaly like crocodile skin, a devil’s backbone that is aptly named for the crooked way it grows and a moringa tree that’s also known as the miracle tree because every part of it is so nutritious.

When a crape myrtle loses its leaves, a nearby Ming aurelia draws your eye to its intricate foliage. And when the crape myrtle goes to seed, Jones uses the pods as elements in floral designs that she enters in garden club competitions.

A low trellis constructed from green plastic pipe is grown over with native passiflora or corky stem passion vine. Its large lavender flowers attract gulf fritillary and zebra longwing butterflies. Beneath it is a small mosaic-tile-covered chair that welcomes her granddaughter.

“This garden may not be as elaborate as what I used to do when we lived in a house,” she says. “But it lets me enjoy the view.”

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at

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