A Small-Space Flower Garden in ChicagoWho says you need a ton of space to have a thriving flower garden that gives back? Bethany Bey shows us how it’s done on a small rooftop garden.
Using grow bags, pots, and raised beds, Bethany Bey has created a bountiful rooftop garden at her home in Chicago, IL. Photo by: Bethany Bey
After living in Chicago for about 10 years, Bethany Bey had resigned to the belief that she wouldn’t have a “real” garden until she moved into a place with a backyard. The urge to get her hands in the dirt was always in the back of her mind, though, growing up having helped her mom and grandfather tend to their gardens. But in 2020, when Bethany and her husband moved into their place with a rooftop patio, her thinking changed: Even though she didn’t have a backyard, she could put a raised bed up there and grow a few things. Why not?
Fast-forward to the present: Using containers, grow bags, and raised beds, Bethany has transformed that 340-square foot space from a rooftop patio into an abundant garden, bursting with colorful homegrown flowers and even food.
Aside from some background gardening knowledge, which she acquired from dabbling in gardening with her mom and grandfather, Bethany is purely self-taught. Since planting that first raised bed, she has consumed hundreds of videos and online articles, ever on a quest to learn more about the art of container gardening. Earlier this year, Bethany signed up for an online horticulture education program. “I wanted to get a more formal education to understand the why and how behind what I’m doing,” says Bethany.
Fortunately for those who know her or live in her proximity, this passion is something she willingly shares with others. In summer, when her plants are producing copious amounts of flowers, Bethany creates what she calls “sidewalk bouquets,” which she sets out on the sidewalk in front of her home for passersby to take for free.
She also enjoys growing tall plants that peek over the top of the wall around her rooftop garden. “I like to think that people walking by might see them peeking over the edge and be inspired to grow something too,” Bethany says. On her Instagram page (@chicagogardener) and YouTube channel (ChicagoGardener) she shares pictures, videos, and ideas with those following her garden journey.
Here, after having the chance to talk with Bethany, we share eight tips for anyone who wants a prolific flower garden of their own—in a garden of any size.
1. Pack in Plants
In the raised bed against her patio wall that sits among plantings of zinnias, salvia, and other vibrant blooms, Bethany has several varieties of gomphrena, planted tightly together, putting on a lovely display of light pink and fuchsia. Photo by: Bethany Bey
When spacing plants, Bethany has found that she can typically shave off a few inches from the recommended distance suggested on plant labels. “Typically, I’ve found that things perform just as well, but there are times when I realized I should have followed instructions!” says Bethany, who is up for experimentation when it comes to gardening.
For the most part, she shares that she is able to put plants closer together as long as she pays close attention to their needs—pruning them if they look like they’re going to start overlapping, and staking the ones that need help staying upright. “Recently, I planted two indeterminate tomatoes close together and pruned them where they overlapped,” says Bethany. “They both did great, and their production didn’t suffer at all.
2. Be Selective About What You Grow
After a few years of tending to this space, Bethany knows what grows well here—and she also knows what she likes. Here, some of her favorite flowers thrive: several varieties of zinnias, two types of Supertunia, and pink and white Superbena® Pink Cashmere™ verbena. Photo by: Bethany Bey
When Bethany first started gardening, her mindset was similar to that of many gardeners: “I wanted to grow everything,” she says. Over the years, though, Bethany has taken notes on which foods and flowers perform best in her garden. “I began choosing more plants that I know have done well and are going to produce the most in the space I have.”
For food, Bethany opts for crops such as peas, green beans, and cherry tomatoes. “These give a ton of output on just one plant,” she says, noting that pumpkins, melons, and the like don’t produce much when you consider the amount of space they take up.
For flowers, Bethany selects plants she can cut from and then they keep producing such as zinnias, gomphrena, and dahlias. “I used to grow sunflowers, but many of them only produce one bloom,” Bethany says. “Even though I love them and they’re so pretty, I can use that space for something that’s going give me blooms all summer long.”
3. Invest in Self-Watering Pots
When asked if she recommends self-watering pots, Bethany answers with a definitive “Yes!” Currently, the home gardener has about four of them and notes that she wants more. Self-watering pots are valued for their ability to keep soil at a consistent level of moisture. Bethany can attest to this, noting that during summer, she can rely on a self-watering pot to keep her plants sufficiently watered for about a week.
Her favorite self-watering pots? Aqua Pots by Proven Winners. “These are the best I’ve seen,” says Bethany. “A lot of times the self-watering pots aren’t pretty, but these are.” She prefers the AquaPot Lite line because their lighter weight means she can carry them up to her balcony garden without too much hassle.
4. Get Creative with Plant Placement
Rather than placing all plants in pots on the ground, Bethany looks for ways to elevate them. Here, Bethany’s flower cart from DeerPark ironworks adds interest, topped by a morning glory vine. Photo by: Bethany Bey
“I’m always looking for anything I can use to put a plant somewhere that I couldn’t put a plant before,” says Bethany. After seeing railscapes from Plant Trap, she knew she had to give those a try to add some flowers in front of her home. Railscapes attach to your existing fence, giving you a spot to place a pot so it appears to float on your fence. “I can’t really plant anything in the ground in that space, so using those on the front railing gives me a way to add plants,” says Bethany.
For her balcony garden, Bethany added a flower cart from DeerPark ironworks. The 3- by 4-foot metal flower cart gives Bethany a spot to grow a morning glory vine. In addition to providing a spot to trellis plants, it also adds height to the garden, making the space more visually interesting.
5. Stick to Large Pots
Lately, Bethany is opting for pots larger than 8 inches out on her patio. Because they hold more soil, it takes longer for them to dry out. Photo by: Bethany Bey
In addition to wanting to add more self-watering pots to her container repertoire, Bethany is also slowly doing away with small pots and transitioning to larger ones. Why? “If I have a pot that’s 8 inches, it dries out quickly,” says Bethany. “If I have a large pot, though, even if it’s not self-watering, I can be gone for the weekend and not worry about it as long as I give it a good soak before I leave.”
6. Give Yourself Easy Access to Plants
By putting large containers on caddies, Bethany can easily move them to different locations or prune all around the plant with ease. Photo by: Bethany Bey
Especially in a small space, it can be difficult to plan out a pathway so you can easily access everything in your garden once your plants are full-grown. Every year Bethany observes and takes note of small adjustments she can make so plants are more easily accessible. This year, one small tweak Bethany made was putting some containers on a caddy with wheels. This allows her to turn them easily in order to harvest and prune all around the plant with ease—a small addition Bethany describes as “game changing.”
7. Situate Seating Areas Strategically
Bethany’s patio furniture is positioned to take in the beauty of all the vibrant blooms while also taking advantage of the view of Chicago beyond. Photo by: Bethany Bey
Intentionally seeking out ways to enjoy the garden is an aspect of gardening that is sometimes neglected, but it’s so important to take the time to soak up the fruits of your labor. Bethany recommends placing your seating areas so they face your favorite views. “I’d had my patio furniture in the same place every year and suddenly realized that my chairs were facing away from the flowers and towards the wall of our house,” says Bethany. After making that realization, she moved some containers around so she could situate her chair in the ideal location—looking out at her blooming garden and the pretty city views beyond.
8. Incorporate the Indoors
To create a spot for hanging flowers for drying, Bethany bought three champagne gold curtain rods and installed them on a wall inside her home. Photo by: Bethany Bey
With limited planting spaces outdoors, it makes sense that Bethany would also use the inside of her home to include plants—but she’s very strategic when it comes to adding anything into her space. “I want things that are pretty, but I also want them to be functional,” says Bethany. Last year, she began drying some of the many flowers her patio garden was producing, and hung them from her ceiling. Though she liked the way it looked, she wanted to figure out something more permanent. That’s when she decided to purchase three curtain rods that she hung on her walls. “Even when there aren’t flowers on them, they still look pretty,” Bethany says. “When it’s covered in flowers, it looks even prettier. A functional piece of art.”
Bethany Recommends: Plants for Prolific Blooms
Here are a few of Bethany’s favorite reliable plants that give her flowers all spring through the end of summer.
- Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum® by Proven Winners. “These are full of color all season long, so they look beautiful from the time you plant them until the time you pull them,” says Bethany. “I pick them up the weekend before Mother’s Day to make sure I get as many as I need because they go quickly after that!”
- Zinnias. “I love that zinnias offer so much variety. I really like the Benary’s Giant zinnias because they have longer stems, so they get super tall and add height to the garden. They also come in lots of different colors.”
- Gomphrena. “I love how tall gomphrena get! They also come in so many different colors, and I get as many as possible.”
- Dahlias. “Though I love all dahlias, I prefer the dinnerplate variety because they're gigantic. They also get taller than other dahlias at around 4 to 5 feet. I like when they peek over the top of my rooftop wall, and I hope that passersby see them. I put them in grow bags so I can move them around if I need to.”
More From Bethany
Here are several more inspiring photos from Bethany and her garden.
When Bethany learned about With Love, Chicago, a non-profit organization who leaves surprise bouquets for people to find around the city, she was inspired. “I always have more flowers than I can use, so I began making my own bouquets and leaving them in front of my house for people to take,” says Bethany. She’s found that they go quickly, and she’s even received thank you cards for the bouquets. “I love how something small and unexpected can change someone’s day.” Photo by: Bethany Bey
With plants always on her mind, it’s no surprise that Bethany has found creative ways to uniquely incorporate them into her home. “When I find something that looks pretty, I like to figure out how I can turn it into something I can use for plants.” On the wall above a thriving ZZ plant is a candelabra that Bethany has transformed into a plant propagation station. Photo by: Bethany Bey
Regarding color, Bethany’s approach is “color chaos.” “I love having as many colors as possible in the garden,” she says. For Bethany, one of the benefits of using so many different colors is to be able to make lots of bouquets with different looks. Though she won’t rule out any color in particular, she does stay away from pastels because she finds they “get lost” among other colors. Photo by: Bethany Bey
Although Bethany doesn’t typically opt for a specific color scheme, she did stick to pinks and whites in her shade container border. From left to right: Tiny Quick Fire® panicle hydrangea offers pale pink and white blooms all summer long. Heart to Heart® ‘White Star’ caladium has green-lined creamy white foliage with rosy veining. Further up the border, Heart to Heart® Va Va Violet™ caladiums’ showy pink and green mottled foliage brings out the pinks in the other plants, including polka-dot plants. Photo by: Bethany Bey