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Downsize Your Garden, Not Your Joy of Gardening

7 tips for keeping your new, smaller garden meaningful and blooming beautifully

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Plants, flowers and gardening have always been close to the heart of 88-year-old Mary Anne Pickens. She remembers growing up, running through the trees and plants in her grandparents’ nursery, watching hummingbirds feeding from the flowers and eating fresh asparagus with dinner.

Over the years, anywhere Pickens lived, she made sure to keep plants around her. But it wasn’t until she retired that she was able to take the time to create her dream garden. It included plants that reminded her of her grandparents, plants native to her home in Columbus, Texas, and herbs she used for cooking.

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She enjoyed it for 26 years until making the decision to move to a senior living community. Suddenly she was going from a garden measuring three-quarters of an acre to a 6-by-13-foot patio.

Pickens, a retired teacher now living at the Atria Senior Living Community in Katy, Texas, says it was a “bit of a shock” to downsize her garden by such an extreme amount.  

But there are ways to make your new, smaller, garden space bloom just as bright – and provide as much joy.

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Take a piece of your old garden with you

If you’re not ready to leave it all behind, don’t! Pickens brought along a beloved potted lemon tree, which had been a gift from a friend, to her new digs. Not only does it hold sentimental value but it was a way to kick off her new gardening space.

“That was the first pot on my balcony,” she says, saying she started with just her lemon tree but now it’s hard to even stand out there with all the pots. The other pots hold more edible treats such as Swiss chard, lettuce, bok choy and nasturtiums.

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Cultivate larger plants or trees to fit your new space

You might not have the space for the giant tree you left behind but that doesn’t mean you can’t have smaller versions of the trees and large plants you love.

Consider growing a small elm tree in a fairly large pot, suggests Theresa Rooney, a Hennepin County Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension in St. Paul, Minnesota.

 “You can trim it back every year, so it maybe gets only five feet tall, and it reminds you of the elm tree that you had on the boulevard 40, 50, 60 years ago when you were growing up,” she says.

Video: How to Grow Herbs at Home
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Grow smaller varieties of fruits, vegetables

In just about any size space, you can squeeze in some lettuce plants, green onions, peas and beans. But “people should be more adventurous and courageous, and try some different things,” says R.J. Ruppenthal, author of Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting.

“They won’t all succeed, but you [too often] see a lot of simple stuff, and more things are possible if the conditions are right,” he notes.

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Fruiting vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant — typically need much more room and lots of light, but hybrids get around this with dwarf-sized versions perfect for patios and containers. Also look for space-saving species that grow vertically.

Salad greens, legumes and scallions are easy to grow in containers or small raised beds, says Ruppenthal. Nutrient-dense microgreens, meanwhile, are low-maintenance and grow relatively quickly in tight quarters — even on a windowsill.

“There’s a beauty in having something that’s small and well-tended but also has a little bit of wild to it,” he adds.

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Cultivate your heritage

Rooney also likes an edible garden; she uses nasturtium leaves as a spicy addition to her beverage and the entire flower to garnish salads and vegetables.

She says choosing an edible plant that ties you to your culture is another meaningful move; if your background is Italian, for example, try growing basil for pesto or tomatoes for pasta sauce. 

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Find other spaces to garden

When Pickens noticed a neglected, weed-choked herb bed on the assisted living home property, she asked the executive director if she could take it over and grow herbs for the senior community’s kitchen. She got approval and has grown cilantro, dill, oregano, thyme, rosemary and other herbs ever since.

Last year she planted an artichoke with pretty gray foliage — something she’d never done before. As the vegetable grew, so did interest in it from other residents.

It makes Pickens happy that the fruits of her labor bring joy to others.

“The blooms were gorgeous and everybody was enamored by it,” she says.

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Embrace simplicity

Eight years ago, Page Dickey moved with her husband from a New York City suburb to northwestern Connecticut, where her new gardens are “minimal” compared to the “very intensive three acres — every inch of which was gardened” she tended for 34 years.

“It was really tough for me to give up my old place,” says Dickey, 83, author of Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again. But her husband, Bosco, had turned 80, she was “no spring chicken, and the garden was getting to be too much for us to easily keep up.”

If physical limitations mean even less ability to garden, Dickey recommends tending a pot of pansies or scented geraniums.

“That can bring so much joy, and they still need care, so those gardening instincts can be put to use,” she says.

At some point, Dickey can see herself simplifying even more, particularly with her cutting garden. “I might just throw in some seeds of cosmos and watch them grow,” she says.

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Try, try again – because it’s good for you

Whatever your current garden state, Pickens says not giving up is key – gardening is so good for your mental health. If one plant variety doesn’t work, she says, or one gardening method fails, keep going. Pickens says gardening helps cultivate better mental health because it always invites, and oftentimes requires, a sharp focus.

 “You are pruning or fertilizing or rearranging or repotting — or whatever,” she explains. “You’re not thinking about the fact that you’ve left your house, you’re not thinking about that your good friend died. You’re not thinking about anything else except the task at hand.”

Video: Atlanta’s ‘Garden Man’ Gives Food to Neighbors in Need

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