11 small garden ideas if you actually have a green thumb

Spark joy with beautiful and functional small garden ideas

Watering can and herbs on a green background
(Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez / Future)

The second the sun comes out, you probably want to spend less time chilling on the couch and more time lounging outside. If you've just moved in, you're probably itching to improve your rented outdoor space, except for the fact that it's about the size of a shoe box. Don't ghost your balcony or tiny patio just yet though. We have a good chunk of small garden ideas will help you rethink your itty bitty plot and get so much more out of it. 

Even the smallest courtyards and balconies have the potential to become luscious gardens that you can hide from your responsibilities in — it just takes a little creativity. We know first-hand. Everyone on team Real Homes is a small-space expert, and we're all a little too familiar with tiny outdoor spaces.

From planting tips to innovative layouts, we've rounded up super smart garden ideas to help you perfect your outdoor space that's a li'l short on square footage.

1. Maximize vertical space with a DIY shelving unit

Plants on shelves on a balcony

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you live in an apartment with a balcony, vertical gardens are great for making the most of this space. You can purchase shelves or a plant stand (like this one from Amazon). Or you can DIY something yourself with old pallets or wood planks. Add a few hooks at the top and hang some hanging baskets for more variety. Making use of vertical space is one of the best options if you're figuring out how to make a small garden look bigger.

2. Make the most of community gardens

A white picket fence built around a vegetable garden

(Image credit: J Montgomery Designs)

You've got zero outdoor space but your apartment complex has granted you access to a garden bed. Make the most of it! This neat small garden was created by J Montgomery Designs and provides plenty of inspiration for decorating the planter you've been designated. Use it to grow herbs that you can snip and bring into your kitchen or just plant some flowers that'll make you smile every time you walk by.

3. Grow things in raised beds on wheels

Maxine Brady transformed her small garden into a Moroccan-inspired haven

(Image credit: Fiona Walker-Arnott)

Too little room for a permanent raised bed in your garden? You can make yours mobile by fitting wheels at the bottom. This is a really good solution for gardens that are so small that you'd only be able to access a fixed raised bed only on side. Caster wheels can be bought on Amazon and fitted to a container of your choice on a DIY basis. 

4. Make a raised bed a centerpiece in a small yard

A small backyard with a raised garden bed in the center

(Image credit: Nature's Realm)

Yes, you can still have a vegetable garden in a small backyard, but you'll have to be clever about how you design it. Houston-based Nature's Realm painted a box and gave it the limelight, which is a great way to draw attention to an area rather than the fact that your outdoor space is super tiny. You can also create a small balcony garden if you're living in a place without a yard. Get that vegetable patch going!

5. Grow veggies in containers you have

Ikea hack: plastic container with plants inside

(Image credit: Ikea)

No, you don't need a giant greenhouse to garden in your apartment! And you don't have to invest in expensive planters either. Here the Samla Box from IKEA was used and is pretty cheap. Amazon also has plenty of plastic storage bins you can repurpose. You could just easily upcycle something you already have at home, too.

6. Include a li'l planting station

Growing herbs in a small space

(Image credit: Thommy Bengtsson x Ikea)

Designate a part of your outdoor space for planting and caring for your leafy friends. Or if you don't have the space, use the square footage to squeeze in a herb garden station on a covered patio or balcony. You'll be so distracted by its cuteness that you'll forget how tiny the space is.

7. Contain invasive crops

Pots with Tomato Plants and Mint in Garden

(Image credit: M.Sobreira / Alamy Stock Photo)

If you've ever tried to learn how to grow mint, you'll know that it will take over your whole garden if you don't contain it. Avoid an invasion in your small garden by researching those pesky invasive crops and keep 'em in pots.

8. Create a container display with herbs

small garden: plant pots by Lagoon

(Image credit: Lagoon)

We see you, home chefs. Leave behind the wilty bags at the grocery store and plant your own herbs in different-sized containers on a balcony or patio. They'll taste better, you'll feel accomplished, and your friends will be mega impressed by your fancy culinary and gardening skills.

9. Get a mini greenhouse

A small garden with little greenhouse in the city

(Image credit: L Feddes / Getty)

Think that greenhouses are for large gardens only? Think again. There are plenty of DIY greenhouse ideas that are perfect for small spaces, some suitable for even the tiniest of spaces. And even the most compact greenhouse will make a huge difference to what you can grow if you live in an area with cold winters. 

10. DIY a little herb garden

Vegetable beds in repurposed old guttering

(Image credit: martinwimmer / Getty)

Not all crops need lots of soil in order to survive and thrive. Many herbs and even lettuces will grow perfectly well in narrow and shallow troughs. If you're down for a little DIY action, pull inspo from this project that repurposed old gutters. Recycled empty containers can also be drilled or glued onto a frame for a cool vertical garden.

11. Don't forget the flowers

Herb, vegetables, and flower garden

(Image credit: fotolinchen / Getty)

Finally, a garden can and should include flowers in all different colors and formations. They're not just for decorative backyard spaces or fancy large gardens! Get some wildflower seeds for an empty patch or just dot some of your favorite flowers in between the veggie beds. They'll add color and attract pollinators. 

How do you layout a small garden?

The best way to layout your small garden mostly depends on how small your outdoor space is, and what you're growing in it. Planting vertically is your friend, even if it's a vegetable garden. Don't be afraid of filling it with a variety of decorative touches and different areas as a busy space looks and feels more spacious than an empty one. Consider water features (like a mini fountain) to add more interest and keep your space biodiverse for wildlife. Then add a few chairs, loungers, or a small dining set to make the most of outdoor living.

How do you brighten up a small garden?

Choose flowers and plants with plenty of color to brighten up your garden area. If you're more minimalist, white blooms are another great way to lighten a space. If your balcony or garden is pretty shaded or closed in, avoid tall and super voluminous plants. These will block out more sunlight and make the area feel more closed in.

Melissa Epifano
Former Global Editor in Chief

Hi, I'm former editor of Real Homes. I cut my teeth in New York City, covering fashion and beauty but eventually made my way into the world of homes. I've spent several years writing and editing for The Spruce, Apartment Therapy, Forbes, MyDomaine, People, InStyle, Real Simple, Lonny and more. I track trends like it's a competitive sport but am equally excited about covering products and style ideas that stand the test of time.

With contributions from