Growing in Small Spaces part 1

Shelves on a balcony

Growing in a small space tests even the greenest of fingers. Part of the problem could be the light or lack of it. Another problem with growing in a small space could be the lack of any available soil! I had this problem in a maisonette I once lived in and found the easiest way to cram a lot of plants into a small space is to grow them in pots on weather-proof garden shelves.

False Economy

Cheap(ish) plastic garden shelving can now be bought from major retailers. However, in my experience these are a false economy as they only have a limited life span – the plastic doesn’t seem to hold up to extremes in temperature and in time they become brittle and start to break.  This is no doubt a ploy by the manufacturers to get us to invest in a new set when they start to deteriorate!

Small Space and small budget

For a very similar price you can buy metal shelving units or if you are a regular visitor to a recycling centre/tip/dump, like me, you may come across metal shelving units for as little as £2 ($3 US, $3.40 AUS). The shelves should allow some air circulation and water to drip down from one tray to the next. Mine contain large perforations (a number of holes punched at regular intervals) but slated shelving should also do the trick.  The shelves also need either tying in place and/or weighed down by placing heavy objects on the bottom shelf.  Clay pots full of soil are sometimes adequate or if the bottom shelf is used for storing heavy items such as bags of potting compost.

Plastic covering

Using UV stable plastic covering on your shelves is a perfect way to avoid seedling becoming etiolated (long and leggy) as they reach for the sun on a windowsill.  I’ve found (again) the cheaper shelving units with plastic covering to have a short life span as the zips break and they tend to shrink.  Finding scrap clear plastic from damaged poly-tunnels or again at recycling centres can be a cost effective way to cover your shelving.

As I don’t currently have a plastic covering for my shelving, I use them early in the season to harden off my seedlings slowly swapping them for pot grown summer crops in the warmer months (tomatoes, summer salads, herbs) and winter salads (rocket, mini iceberg lettuces, land-cress) later in the year.

South facing?

If the shelves are south facing all the crops should get enough sunlight but it might be worth placing tall sun-loving plants on the top shelf (tomatoes, aubergines etc) and shade tolerant plants such as lettuce, parsley and salad greens lower down.  You may find that lower plants do struggle a little but you can always move them up and down in much the same way you would a Sunday roast in the oven.

Article written by Dave Hamilton. Dave has now left Selfsufficientish but you can catch up with him on or on twitter @davewildish

10 Comments on Growing in Small Spaces part 1

  1. Excellent idea! Ive used plastic-covered shelving as a mini greenhouse to start plants, but have luckily not been so short on space as to need them for growing on.

    Great idea.

  2. This looks like an excellent way to expand my garden with my limited balcony space. I just might try it after I find some more shelves (and where to put my books when I “steal” the metal bookshelf).

  3. Thanks for the comments, yes Andy this is my new place, I think I’ve already told you that on the phone now 🙂
    Ordella – I used old wine crates as bookshelves, you can get them from upmarket off-licences for free. That might be a way to free up your metal bookshelf

  4. I am in the US. I tried clicking on the article about Prince Charles and farming. The article is not there. Do you have another link to it? I really want to read it. Thanks.

  5. I’ve learned this year that you can grow some very nice vegetables in pots! But I didn’t have much luck with them (esp. lettuce) until I used the “subirrigation” type pots, which I made myself out of old plastics. Add some chipped bisqueware, charcoal, and fish fertilizer and the plants are very happy!

    My growing space right now is somewhat bigger, but the pots can be used on a balcony too. Right now my lettuce plants are in a wheelbarrow, but earlier in the year they were standalone. See:

  6. I have been growing in pots for YEARS but have never thought of shelving, how i didn’t think of it i do not know! Fantastic idea!

    I grow in anything from old yogurt pots, to buckets, to wooden and fruit and veg boxes free from my local market stall holder!

    I line windowsills with small pots and grow lettuces, have tomatoes in hanging baskets, herbs in an old mixing bowl, potatoes in a bucket, strawberries in hanging baskets, and peas climbing up the net curtain!!

    Anything is possible!

  7. have butchered a few old ikea slat bookshelves to tilt back giving each shelf less shade. like mini stadium stands. good results for potted herbs and seedlings in the winter here in valencia.

Comments are closed.