Growing a garden is a great way to produce healthy vegetables, herbs, and fruits to enjoy your favorite fresh foods at home. While spacious outdoor gardens produce larger harvests, you don't need a sizable garden bed to grow healthy vegetables in a small space. With the right containers, soil, watering schedule, and sun exposure, it's possible to yield your favorite tasty vegetables in a small footprint.
Ways to Utilize a Small Space
You don't need a large area to have a vegetable garden. Small sunny spots in your yard, patio, or balcony can all be successful locations. Heirloom seeds and the development of new hybrid varieties also offer great options like colorful novelty vegetables, varieties from around the world, and compact plants. Choosing the right location and ideal varieties of your favorite plants will help you maximize your harvest.
Along with providing the proper growing conditions, it's also helpful to consider using a fence. If you think the deer love your hostas, you may be surprised at how your vegetables increase attraction from the other animals in your community. If you plant it, they will come—so utilize a method of protection for your small vegetable garden for the best results.
Vegetable gardens of various shapes and sizes can have successful yields, but most importantly, your garden's layout should ensure your plants can receive the proper nutrients. When you're deciding where to place your garden beds or containers, consider several basic components. To maximize a small vegetable garden, choose a location that can provide adequate sunlight, access to a water source, and rich, fertile soil to grow healthy vegetables.
- Sun: Vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sun each day. Without sun, the fruits will not ripen, and the plants will be stressed. Even if the site is sun-challenged, there are a few vegetables that grow in light shade, such as lettuce and other leafy greens, root vegetables, broccoli, and cole crops.
- Water: Vegetables require regular watering. Otherwise, they will not fill out. Some, like tomatoes, can crack open if suddenly plumped up with water after struggling without it for a while. If you have the means, a drip irrigation system is simple to install and saves water by directly watering the plant's roots (losing less water to evaporation). Even a simple soaker hose is better than a sprinkler system that wets the foliage, which can make plants prone to blights and mildews.
- Soil: Vegetables need a soil rich in organic matter. Fertile soil is important to the growth of all plants, but even more so with vegetables because the taste is affected by the quality of the soil. Soil health is the reason why wine from the same grape variety can vary from region to region and why some areas grow hotter peppers than others.
Types of Small Gardens
Granted, a small vegetable garden might not be sufficient for subsistence farming, but it can provide a few of your favorite options to enjoy at home. Choose vegetables that grow well together in small gardens like great-tasting tomatoes, some beautiful heirloom eggplants and peppers, or a steady supply of leafy greens. If you have limited space, consider which vegetables you can easily purchase fresh in your area and those that you truly love but can't purchase locally.
- Gardens with compact varieties allow you to grow a variety of plants in the same space. If you plant a giant beefsteak tomato or a row of sweet corn, the space for growing other vegetables in your small vegetable garden will be limited. Even then, you can choose varieties that are bred to grow in small spaces. Anything with the words patio, pixie, tiny, compact, baby, or dwarf in the name is a good bet. Just because a plant is bred to be small doesn't mean the fruits will be small or the yield will be less. The labeling for most seeds and seedlings will indicate the mature size of the plant varieties you are selecting, helping you space things out and see just how many plants you can fit.
- Interplanting with flowers is a great way to find space for vegetables with limited room. Many gardeners squeeze in as many seedlings they can, then deal with crowding as the garden grows. Instead, interplant your vegetables with your flowers. There's no rule that says you can't mix the two. It can be a bit harder to harvest, but many vegetables even look ornamental. As a bonus, flowers also attract pollinators to your vegetable crops.
- Grow vegetables vertically to save space in your garden beds. If you opt to grow a variety of vegetables, look for compact varieties and vining crops that can be trained to grow vertically on support structures. For example, pole beans take up less space than bush beans. Vining cucumbers and squash, as aggressive as they can be, actually take up less space than their bush-like relatives.
- Companion planting is often touted for the benefit of reducing pest infestations, but it also serves to conserve space. Shade-tolerant plants benefit from being planted next to taller crops. Basil likes a respite from the hot afternoon sun and does well next to tomatoes. Lettuce will keep producing all summer if shaded by almost any taller plant. Early harvested vegetables, such as spinach, radishes, and peas, can be planted with slower-growing crops such as broccoli or peppers that will not take over the space until the spring-harvested vegetables have been harvested.
- Succession planting is a useful technique for any vegetable garden, large or small, but it is all the more valuable when space is limited. Succession planting means reseeding quick-growing crops every two to three weeks during the growing season. It is especially useful with crops such as beans, zucchini, and lettuce that tend to exhaust themselves when producing too much. By planting in succession, you will produce enough food for your family's appetite (and you'll have it all summer instead of all at once).
Since small vegetable gardens don't leave room for rotating crops, you'll need to utilize other methods to prevent fungal diseases and garden pests that overwinter in the soil. Be vigilant to avoid pests and diseases from becoming rampant. If a large-scale problem should occur (such as an infestation of squash beetles or septoria leaf spot on tomatoes), it's best to stop growing that crop and others in its family for at least a year.
Growing Fruits and Vegetables in Containers
As with ornamental container gardening, vegetable container gardening is a way to control the soil, sun, and growing conditions of your edible plants. It also allows you to fit edible gardening into the smallest spaces by placing the containers on your patio, balcony, front steps, and along the house foundation and driveway. Virtually any fruit, vegetable, or herb can be grown in a container if the container is large enough to accommodate the mature size of the plant.
The ideal depth of your planter box or container will vary depending on which vegetables you choose to grow. Herbs and leafy greens can grow in small containers or hanging baskets. Fruiting plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers work best when planted in 5-gallon containers—or larger, of course. The larger the container, the more soil it contains, and the less often you'll have to water (daily or every other day instead of twice a day). The material used to manufacture the container and the container color also affect how quickly a container dries out. Clay and terracotta containers lose moisture faster, and black containers retain more heat.
You can purchase soil specifically balanced for vegetable container gardening with slow-release fertilizer already mixed in for the most absolute no-fuss garden.
Growing edible plants indoors on a windowsill is an easy, low-space option for plants that are frequently harvested, such as herbs and lettuce. But windowsill gardening isn't just for gardeners with limited space: Any gardener can extend the growing season by potting up some herbs and growing them indoors provided there is sufficient sunlight and water. If an area inside your home receives enough sunlight, you can even grow vegetables indoors.
Soil Basics Part III: Organic Matter, Key to Management. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, 26 Jan. 2017
Grow Successful Vegetable Garden. Michigan State University Extension.
Edible Landscaping - Companion and Interplanting. National Gardening Association.