The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


Small Space Vegetable Gardening

20180517_200357I’m not a vegetable gardener. I think I have made the clear in the three or four years I have been blogging. I’m into flowers and shrubs.

But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate vegetable gardening or gardens. I’ve tried my hand at tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and peppers and have had a few good results and a fair amount of bad results. The truth is vegetable gardening intimidates me. I’d like to say that I don’t have the right space for a vegetable garden but a recent visit to Italy dispelled that notion. Small space gardening isn’t just for flowers.

20180517_200419I stayed in an apartment in suburban Perugia. One day I locked myself out of the apartment but thought my sister might be in the apartment and could open the door. However, she didn’t answer her cell phone. But I was sure she was in there. So, I walked around to the back of the building to call up to her window and that is when I discovered the garden behind the apartment building next door.


20180517_200524And as luck would have it I got to meet the gentleman who created this lovely space. We had a lively conversation even though he did not speak a word of English and I do not speak Italian. But that did not stop us from discussing his garden.

What immediately struck me was the confined space for this garden and his joy and pride for this small space. It literally butts up to an athletic court. Fennel, table grapes, sage and rosemary grow up against the fence. It is long and narrow, running the length of the apartment building and is terraced. Its depth is probably no more than 10 or 12 feet. And it is abundant with vegetables.

20180517_200349He invited me around the fence where he was proud to show me his insalata, pomadoro, artichokes, beans and, yes, they are for his family only. A cherry tree sits on the edge of the garden. 20180517_20033520180517_200545He pointed out that the garden that abuts his is his neighbor’s. Its small space includes an olive tree. Making the most of his space, the garden extends into the backyard next to the play set for his grandchildren. Or maybe it’s the other way around–the garden extending beyond his yard into the common space by the athletic courts.

Either way, the garden speaks to the ability to grow vegetables in small spaces. And its tidy appearance speaks to the owner’s deep pride in this space.






Lettuce Season is for Sharing

Stevan lettuce2

Rows of lettuce in Stevan’s backyard garden.

“People don’t know where their food comes from.” You’ve heard this, right? As generations become farther removed from the farm, their experience with with food is, shall we say, less direct. Fortunately there’s a resurgence in backyard gardening to close the widening gap from the farm gate to plate. As more gardeners get their hands dirty they not only produce delicious tasting produce, they learn about the risks/rewards associated with growing food…weather, insects, squirrels and rabbits (in my case), fungus, and much more.

Patio tomatoes thrive 15 stories up. Small space gardening is becoming more common.

Salad fixins’ 15 stories up! The balcony of this city apartment provides enough space to grow lettuce, tomatoes and an assortment of herbs.

Society may have moved further from the farm, but today’s gardeners are successfully growing lettuce, tomatoes and other produce in small spaces. My dear friend Chris takes advantage of small-space living and is growing lettuce and tomatoes growing on her apartment balcony 15 stories up.

Stevan, a friend of mine at work, has a backyard garden. And every year he sends me pictures of his lettuce like the one at the start of this post. This year, I joked that he could feed his entire community with the bounty in his backyard. To my surprise the next day Stevan hand-delivered to my desk a delicious Ceasar salad featuring Romaine lettuce picked from his garden that morning. Apparently he and other colleagues have a Ceasar salad lunch day every spring with the bounty from his garden.

I am not the only one he’s sharing his lettuce with however. A nearby child center is also benefitting from Stevan’s love of gardening. What I learned when returning his empty salad bowl is that he and others at work share their love of growing food by helping children at a nearby child center plant their own garden. Stevan may have provided the seed and the know-how, but he’ll be first to tell you this more than just lettuce-sharing. He’ll say he’s the one who benefitted by enjoying the kids’ happy faces and the connections they are making to growing food from seed. Lettuce season may be nearing an end here in St. Louis but I’m sure this is just the beginning of their garden delights.

Stevan UCCC

Planted from seed, the vegetable garden at the University City Children’s Center.

I’m inspired by my friends’ vegetable gardens. Truthfully, growing vegetables intimidates me a bit. Stevan (who grew up on a farm) tells me that you start simply with an easy-to-grow plant. This year I have patio tomatoes that the squirrels seem to be enjoying, as they have been plucked from the vine at just the opportune time. I have grown peppers and I always have some herbs planted. But next year I may have to visit Stevan’s backyard and get some first-hand pointers.

Do you grow vegetables?


Lush Life in San Antonio, TX

Lush may not be the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of gardening in San Antonio. Difficult rocky soil conditions can seem unforgiving to one’s back and the shovel. Summers are very hot and dry; rainfall is cause for celebration. Yet sprawling live oak trees and limestone fences are emblematic in this tough Texas landscape and lend charm to to this Southwest city.

My sister Susan set her roots in San Antonio more than 35 years ago, unfazed by the gardening conditions. As the crow flies, her home is about 800 miles southwest of St. Louis. Driving would would take more than 15 hours, which is why when I sit in her back yard and take in its beauty, it feels like I am worlds away. Because our climates are decidedly varied–she is in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8b and I am in Zone 6a– this makes our small-yard tours all the more enjoyable when we are together. This post, unfortunately, is not a recap of a personal visit, but an an armchair tour for both you and me. As the temperatures rise and the last frost date (March 1) nears in San Antonio, Susan sent me a few photos that show her lush landscape as it awakens.

A tabletop container of succulents.

A tabletop container of succulents. Just to the left of this patio is the fence, dotted with containers of succulents.  The bare trees will soon provide a canopy of shade and provide for an intimate setting in the two seating areas of the yard. The arching branches of the Mexican plum hold hanging baskets.

San Antonio is increasingly drought prone and relies on the Edwards Aquifer as well as the Trinity and Carrizo aquifers for its water. Smart gardeners in this part of the United States focus on conserving resources, most notably water, when selecting plants. In Susan’s small backyard, creative expression is evident through drought-hardy native selections and, increasingly, succulents .A large Mexican plum (“Prunus Mexicana) has arching branches to provide lots of look and plenty of shade. Better yet, this native has inconspicuous flowers and is drought hardy. I have always enjoyed the respite of her backyard, no matter the time of year. There is a laid-back casual style to her yard that immediately puts visitors to ease.

Bare now, the Mexican plum has large, arching branches that provide lots of shade when the days are hot.

Bare now, the Mexican plum has large, arching branches that provide lots of shade when the days are hot.

Back-saving planters are found throughout the yard and help create a casual vibe. I am continually amazed at how Susan’s selections thrive with minimal water, but they were not chosen haphazardly, far from it. For years she has spoken about the expert advice imparted by the “Texas Aggies,” also known as the Texas A&M University extension service. The Aggies have not let her down. Which brings me to a question, Arch City readers, where do you turn to for advice for your growing region? One of my favorite resources is the Missouri Botanical Gardens plant finder.

Broadleaf evergreens are the backbone to the garden and provide color throughout San Antonio’s relatively mild winters. A densely leaved burford holly provides a screen from neighboring yards. The berries will soon be gone, replaced with clusters of springtime white flowers. Asparagus fern grows year-round and like the burford holly produces red berries in the winter. The fine texture of this plant belies its drought tolerance and vigorous nature. Asparagus fern is well established in the garden bed and cascades from hanging baskets. Two seating areas in the yard are surrounded by large trees and convey an intimate feeling. Perfect for those sister-to-sister conversations. A limestone fence also runs across the back of the yard. I love this fence and the plantings she has around it. A small pond is in front of the fence and worth a lengthy stop when we’re touring the yard.

Evergreen shrubs such as this yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) are the backbone of the garden and provide color in the winter months.

Evergreen shrubs such as this yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) are the backbone of the garden and provide color in the winter months.

Burford holly in bloom.

Burford holly (ilex cornuta) makes an evergreen screen from the neighboring yard.

A crape myrtle is to the left of the pond, which is densely planted with sun loving natives.

A crape myrtle is to the left of the pond, which is densely planted with sun loving natives.

With daytime temperatures now averaging in the mid to upper 60s F (18 C), potted cyclamen and primrose provide a nice contrast to enjoy while sipping a sweet tea. Soon the crape myrtle will be in bloom as will the plantings in and around the pond, providing a nice view from the patio and an attractive display against the lovely limestone fence.

Primrose and cyclamen in bloom in February.

Primrose and cyclamen in bloom in February.

These lovelies are treated more as an annual than a perennial in San Antonio due to its hot, hot summers. Before long, heat loving, colorful annuals will take their place. Brightly colored containers and chair cushions also provide color to her garden. By the time I am placing pansies in pots to provide a spot of spring color, Susan’s yard will have transitioned and be in full bloom, her pansies a recent memory.

Small space gardening is full of possibilities. I am inspired by large amount of creativity in the small city yards and suburban yards I have been invited into. I continue to explore the possibilities for my own small yard.

To glimpse another small backyard garden, please visit my June 2014 post “An Urban Garden Oasis.”