The restrictions and the freedoms that come with container gardening in a small space
It is a futile and unpleasant trait, but I cannot help but envy the family who live on the opposite side of my street. They are keen gardeners and theirs is a mature garden with a teeming and seemingly irrepressible mind of its own that thrives in the shade cast by towering Eucalypts and Zizyphus. Smaller trees, shrubs and vines erupt from behind their garden wall and then escape, Triffid-like, out into the adjacent sikka and pavement with little regard for paving and pedestrians alike.
While my neighbour’s garden blurs boundaries, mine is a plot with very definite physical constraints. Long, thin and completely paved, my outside space lacks the beds and borders in which plants and trees can thrive and take root. It is also hot and exposed, benefiting only from the shade cast by the building. Whether I like it or not, my need to build a garden using only pots, containers and the limits of my time, money and imagination is enforced; however, rather than seeing this as a setback I’m choosing to accentuate the positive instead.
With enough space, pots the right size, and the ability to provide sufficient water and food, there is little that cannot be grown in containers. If you consider that most of the roof gardens and podia in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are actually oversized container gardens that have been perched over hotels and underground car parks, you’ll soon understand the scope and freedom that container gardening can bring.
While most of us might not have the space for the kind of 2m deep pot that a happy date palm requires, they can be grown just as easily in containers above ground as they are in tree pits below it. Take a careful look at the palms in the middle of the hotel pool the next time you swim by. As ever, your choice of containers, their location and size should be determined by decisions about the type of plants you want to use and the overall effect that you want to create. Unless you’re planning to use small, slow-growing feature plants like cacti or succulents, it’s probably best to avoid small containers as these will restrict root growth and dry out very quickly.This in turn makes near constant watering necessary, introducing you to a cycle of over-watering and wilting that invariably ends with the premature death of the plant. For the same reason it’s important to choose your containers at the same time as you buy your plants and to transplant them as soon as possible.
Buying pots and containers can often be an extremely expensive business but it really needn’t be. One of my favourite plots in London is an edible community garden run by women from the local Bangladeshi community in Bethnal Green in the East End. To save money, containers are collected at home and recycled. Most once contained the oils, spices, rice and ghee and they give the place a unique identity and charm that simply couldn’t be created with planters bought off the shelf. In my garden here I now grow Aloe vera in old peanut tins as both a form of recycling and small memento of home.
Although they are attractive, pots made of a porous materials such as terracotta will dry out more quickly than those that are glazed, and will actively remove much-needed moisture from the media surrounding the root ball. Dark or metal containers have a tendency to soak up the heat while those made from cheap plastics are prone to fade and become brittle when exposed to the sun’s UV rays. Wooden planters can also soon deteriorate as they swing between the extreme dampness and dryness of regular irrigation regimes.
If you break the plant/container decision-making process down into simple steps it is possible to end up with the right plant, in the right pot in the right place. On my ground floor I wanted plants that would afford privacy by climbing quickly over the trellis on my windows while thriving in hot, direct sun. Once I’d established a list of suitable plants, how large they would grow and how much water they would need, the size of container was dictated for me.
Though it might not supply me with trees or with shade, the sikka that runs alongside my garden has proved an invaluable source of builder’s rubble, rocks and ballast material that I’ve used as the necessary drainage layer in the bottom of all my containers. I still have very few stylish pots in my garden. Rather, my aim is to follow my inspirational neighbours and eventually to blur my strict boundaries with a riotous profusion of plants instead.
This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi