You don't need more than a strip of soil, a balcony or a windowsill to green your urban home, says Latha Anantharaman

If I had the space, I would have a garden, some city-dwellers say. On the other hand, a true plant fiend raises a riot of colour in sunshades, windowsills and cracked buckets, topped with a robust pumpkin patch on her corrugated roof.

Small gardening is not all about labour-intensive bonsais. Many of our favourite garden species are shrubs and small trees, and they often flower better in the tight root area and plentiful reflected sunlight of cities. And the exquisite shape and colour of leaves on many small plants, which would be lost in a large garden, show up beautifully in a balcony or windowsill.

Even in a strip of soil along a sunny compound wall, there is room for compact fruit trees such as pomegranate, lemon or drumstick, and for frangipani, bottle-brush, and other small ornamental trees.

Room for blooms

Hibiscus, bougainvillea, duranta, allamanda, oleander and other flowering shrubs can be pruned close or left to grow large, depending on your space. A slow-growing and compact shrub like ixora seldom even needs pruning. Miniature varieties of ixora and Tabernaemontana divaricata (nandiavattai) fit in very tight spaces. Jasmine, clitoria, jacquemontia, quisqualis (Rangoon creeper) and other climbers trellised over a doorway or gate give you lavish fragrance and bloom for the small ground area they take up. If your garden is too shaded for flowers, grow plants that have a dramatic shape or eye-catching leaves, like crotons with curly and streaked leaves or purple-leafed tradescantia.

Herbs at the window

A simple kitchen garden can start with curry leaf and coriander in a sunny window or balcony. Also try basil, Coleus aromaticus (karpooravalli), fenugreek, mustard, tulsi and lemon grass, which are tastiest when freshly plucked. Plant them in polybags if you don't want to fuss with pots. Greens and herbs are easiest to grow, but if you have enough sun and space move on to Solanum nigrum (manathakkali), chillies, tomatoes, and other uncomplicated vegetables. Ginger and turmeric will grow even in the shade. On a balcony, you can get denser vegetation by growing plants vertically. Draw climbers and trailers upward using a moss stick, or support them on a mesh of jute strings to form a curtain. Use branched plant stands and hanging pots to make use of the height. Some plants give you extra greenery, like Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant), which puts out “babies” on trailing stems. Grow more than one plant in a pot. A plant with a long stem and a crown of leaves will happily share space with a trailing plant or ground creeper. If only some parts of your balcony get sun, rotate the plants weekly.

No-pot greenery

In a tiny flat, forget the soil and grow plants in water. Most people grow just “money plants” or philodendron in bottles but syngonium (arrowhead plant), coleus, and a wide variety of other species grow quite lush without soil. Trial and error is the best way to raise them. Take a cutting from any plant you like. Fill pebbles in a container, anchor the cutting in them, and add water. If it doesn't root, try a greener or more woody cutting, or try another species. If the leaves get sparse, move it into the sun. If they go brown, find a cooler and moister spot. Keep mosquitoes out of the water with a square of mesh.

A small garden gives joy even to those who once lived on green acres. When you grow plants in an intimate space, you do your own staking, tying, and watering. You observe their seasons and moods with a newly awakened eye. Best of all, you don't just look out on a pretty garden, you make it happen.

Eco-friendly gardening

If you must pave part of your garden, leave gaps for water to soak into the soil

Channel kitchen and bath water to your trees and shrubs

Water rationally for a healthy garden rather than a squelching marsh

Instead of replacing plants every season, grow mostly perennials

Never replace soil. Nourish itregularly. Dig a small hole every day to bury your kitchen and garden waste. Within a week, insects and worms will draw its nutrients into the soil