How can we measure sun and plant a garden in our urban patio?
March 31, 2012 11:04 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to determine how much sun our back patio gets? And what's the best way to plant an urban garden on a concrete back patio?

Our concrete back patio is about 8'x16'. It's closed in on three sides by two- and three-story houses. Fortunately, I think, the one side that is open is the south-facing side, but UNfortunately, there is a 6' high fence and a dead tree. How can we best determine whether we get enough sun for a garden, vegetable or flower? We can't put anything expensive out to measure for fear that it might get stolen, but we're open to all ideas.

We'd like to have room for seating, so a huge set up wouldn't be right for us. We're considering a pallet garden or two, like so. Could we put herbs in there instead of flowers? What about tomatoes or cucumbers, what are the best planters for them?

Any and all advice about urban gardening (on concrete, no soil!) is welcome. Thanks in advance.
posted by two lights above the sea to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Raised planting boxes maybe? The plants you want will vary widely with your climate. If your in Texas and only have a couple hours of sunlight, thats very dissimilar to Chicago.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 11:10 AM on March 31, 2012

How can we best determine whether we get enough sun for a garden, vegetable or flower?

When you sit back there do you think you could get a suntan? Is it bright? If it is shady for most of the day, I would rethink herbs and tomatoes.

I would put out one or two basil plants, or marigolds, and test. Both are inexpensive. Most herbs need a lot of sun.

I would think that most herbs would do fine in the pallet. Rosemary, basil, oregano, chives, and cilantro are easy to grow.

You can grow tomatoes in pots most definitely. Any old pot with drainage -- plastic or clay. Plastic and glazed pots retain moisture better than unglazed terracotta. Unglazed terracotta is fine but watch them because the soil dries out quicker. Cucumbers are vines but you can choose to grow the bush type and grow in pots as well. Peppers are another easy plant to grow in containers.
posted by Fairchild at 11:27 AM on March 31, 2012

Where you are is the first place to start. The only sure way to know how much sun you get in your patio is to watch it for a year, taking notes. But in the meantime, the real question is heat. I'm in the Pacific Northwest, so I would say Absolutely Not to trying tomatoes, cukes, melons. But if you're in Alabama, I don't know -- maybe they're fantastic in your locality. Asking at a local nursery will help; even more help available if there's a neighbor with a lush garden even in winter who's willing to answer questions.

When we moved into our house the entire back was concrete; the previous owners had just nailed 2x4's together and filled the resulting box shapes with dirt. They had gorgeous lavender plants, because they love dry soil, and our micro climate in the back yard provided enough heat. Shallow rooters like lettuce, spinach, basil, green onions are possible at least part of the year almost everywhere.

You can also use large plastic containers with a few holes in the bottom to grow things. You have to keep them watered, but it's not much of an investment, and you can experiment. The only way to really know is to try stuff out.

Have fun!
posted by kestralwing at 11:33 AM on March 31, 2012

I've raised decent tomatoes, raspberries and a bunch of greens and herbs in a 12 x 10 fenced space similar to yours despite getting only a few hours of sun a day.

What helped me find the sunniest spots was taking photos every hour on the hour, allowing me to map out roughly how many hours of direct sun each spot got. I repeated this for one day each month from May to September, as the sun will change its height in the sky with the seasons.

So while you;re documenting the sun patters, line your plants that really need sun (anything that flowers, basically, plus root veggies like carrots) up against the north side (away from the 6 foot fence on the south side where the sun comes in). The northwest or northeast corners may also work pretty well, but it depends on the obstacles and where your house doors are.

Greens don't need as much sun, so try lettuces, spinach, choi, chard, kale and the like in your semi-sunny areas. Try this list for ideas.

Treat this summer as a learning experience. Put your test plants in some reasonably large pots. They don't have to be expensive: I grow my tomatoes in old recycling bins (I put a thick layer of gravel in the bottom so they wouldn't get soggy from over-watering.) Keeping the plants in individual pots also let you move them to better spots as you learn more about the sun and shade patters of your yard.

Once you have an idea of what will grow where, then try permanent planters. If the north wall works, try a 2 story staggered planter so you can use as much of the vertical space as possible, or use appropriately sized pots and planters on a set of two bookshelves, tall in the back and medium in the front (you can call it a mullet if you like).

Good luck!
posted by maudlin at 11:35 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, geographical location does make a difference. I'm in Toronto and still get tomatoes from my tiny yard, so miracles can happen. Have you checked out your hardiness zone?
posted by maudlin at 11:37 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I gardened in containers for a few years before getting a permanent patch of soil, and what really works best, especially for inclement spaces, is to start small and see what works for a year (cf. maudlin's comment above). If your sunniest spot is along a fence, growing vertical is a good idea, but I wouldn't start with a pallet garden (those small pockets will be more unforgiving of bad soil, not enough sun, or infrequent watering than placing plants in larger pots). Instead, why not get some self watering containers (e.g. these), place them along the fence, staple some chicken wire or galvanized mesh to the fence itself, and grow pole beans or scarlet runner beans up the fence in the back of the container, with flowers or herbs in the front of the container? Dual purpose, conserves space.
posted by Wavelet at 12:13 PM on March 31, 2012

We're in Philadelphia.
posted by two lights above the sea at 12:47 PM on March 31, 2012

I cannot tell you if it is accurate but this exists.
posted by Morrigan at 4:02 PM on March 31, 2012

Philadelphia! I just googled you, and your average temperature in July is the mid-80's, and May through September you're in the 70's. I'll bet you can successfully grow anything you want to try. Your garden seems pretty shady, so there may be some plants that are truly sun-loving that won't be happy. But with those buildings on 3 sides, you should have a lovely warm micro-climate to work with.

!! But don't let things dry out!! Plants in containers dry out really quickly; twice a day on the hot days is not too much. (But of course always stick your finger in the soil to be sure.)

If you decide to grow tomatoes in containers, use some sort of framework so they don't just sprawl over the edge. And use the red paper under the plants -- it really does make a big difference. You can get both cheaply in most garden stores and garden departments of big box stores.

Maudlin's advice is great, and I second every bit of it. In fact, it's inspired to me to get off the computer and start doing some serious plant dreaming. (Can't actually do anything in the garden, since it's pouring rain and 41 degrees outside. Spring is the cruelest season in the Pacific Northwest.)
posted by kestralwing at 5:05 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also! Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but we do get a thin layer of mildew (I think) on our concrete. What do that mean to you folks?
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:16 PM on March 31, 2012

Mildew or moss? Kind of slimy, or when you look very closely little tiny plant parts? Mildew/mold is not good for you, and should be cleaned off. There are thousands of web sites dedicated to that very subject. In either case, my guess -- and only a guess -- is that there is both a pretty serious lack of sunlight back there (sunlight is the best way to get rid of mildew permanently) and not much air circulation. I can't imagine that will hurt your growing plants; greenhouses can get pretty stuffy.
posted by kestralwing at 8:48 PM on March 31, 2012

It's VERY green, not slippery, but not usually what I think moss looks like. I just looked up "mildew on concrete" and the the results were darker in color than what our mildew/moss whatever looks like. I can take a picture tomorrow.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:59 PM on March 31, 2012

I can't imagine that will hurt your growing plants; greenhouses can get pretty stuffy.

All the greenhouses I have worked in have circulation systems for this reason. Poor circulation is a huge cause of fungal diseases in plants, especially in hot and wet environments. I agree that if you truly have mildew growing on your patio it's unlikely that you can grow tomatoes an herbs- mildew does not grow in sunlight. If it is green it's not mildew, it's a chlorophyll based organism and not a fungus, so you may have less of a shade problem in that case, but probably still not enough for the average tomato. Still there's no harm in trying because sometimes moss on a patio in winter can disappear by summer as the sun/shade patterns change.

The idea to take a photo every hour is a good one, if you aren't sure how sun moves through your space. Part shade plants will do fine with morning sun; hot afternoon sun may scorch them. Full sun plants that normally require 8 hours a day might get enough heat and sun against a south facing wall to do fine with fewer hours. I probably wouldn't put a pallet planter on a south facing wall unless I was filling it with pretty tough plants, but you might do just fine with Mediterranean herbs that like heat, like rosemary, thyme, and lavender. Less so with chives, parsley, and basil. For tomatoes, I plant mine in 15 gallon nursery cans which are a perfect size for them. Cucumbers will grow in them as well, just make or buy a little trellis for them to climb on. Some nurseries may even give you them for free if people return them.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:15 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a close up

Here's from far away

Definitely green.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:48 PM on April 1, 2012

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