You don't need a lot of space to grow fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruits. You don't even need a garden bed. If you have a large container, soil, water, and sun, you can grow some tasty things. Plant breeders know that after taste, home gardeners want a high yield in a small space, so they develop varieties that can grow in a small footprint or even live in containers all year long.
The Small Vegetable Plot
Vegetable gardening used to be the poor relation of ornamental flower gardens. Perennial borders reigned, and large, messy vegetable gardens were hidden in the backyard, usually the domain of the man of the house. Vegetable gardens were about producing food, not beauty.
Now that vegetables have taken a more prominent place on the table, they are gaining more respect in the gardening world. With the increased interest from home gardeners, there has been a surge in the planting of heirloom seeds and the development of new hybrid varieties: colorful novelty vegetables, varieties from around the world, and compact growers.
You don't need a large area to have a vegetable garden. You do need good soil, plenty of sunshine, a water source, and probably a fence. If you think the deer love your hostas, stand back. The entire woodland community is going to enjoy your vegetable garden. If you plant it, they will come.
If you have a small sunny spot in your yard or even on a patio or balcony, you can grow vegetables. Here's how to get started.
When you're deciding where to locate your small garden beds or container gardens, you must consider several basic components. If the location you select can provide adequate sunlight, access to a water source, and has rich, fertile soil, you can grow 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 can survive 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 and some, like tomatoes, will crack open if suddenly plumped up with water after struggling without it for a while. You can't always rely on rain. If you have the means, a drip irrigation system is a definite plus for a vegetable garden. The new component systems are really quite easy to install and cost a lot less than most people think. And you'll save money on water because it goes directly to the plant's roots, and less water is lost to evaporation. Even a simple soaker hose is better than a sprinkler system wets foliage, leaving plants prone to blights and mildews. If you don't want to opt for drip irrigation, locate your vegetable garden near a water spigot. You'll be more likely to water if you don't have to drag the hose or watering can very far.
- Soil: This final consideration is essential. 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 even 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.
How Much Space Does It Take?
Granted, a small vegetable garden might not be sufficient for subsistence farming, but it will be enough to grow great-tasting tomatoes, some beautiful heirloom eggplants and peppers, or a steady supply of leafy greens. If you have limited space, consider the vegetables you can easily purchase fresh in your area and the vegetables you truly love but can't purchase locally.
- Choose compact varieties. If you must have a giant beefsteak tomato or a row of sweet corn, the space for growing other vegetables in your small vegetable garden will be limited. But 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, knowing that you can space things out and see just how many plants you can fit into your garden space. More likely, however, you will do what most gardeners do and squeeze in as many seedlings as you can fit into your garden, and then deal with the crowding later. That's one way to get a large yield from a small space but it is not the best solution. If you are truly short of space, 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 can be ornamental in their own right. As a bonus, flowers also attract pollinators to your vegetable crops.
- Grow vertically. If you do opt to grow a variety of vegetables in your small garden, look for compact varieties and vining crops that can be trained to grow vertically on support structures. 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 cousins.
- 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 producing so much. By planting in succession, you will produce enough food for your family's appetite, and you'll have it all summer, not all at once.
A Downside to a Small Vegetable Garden
Rotating your vegetable crops to grow in different areas of the garden each year reduces fungal diseases and insect pests that overwinter in the soil. However, crop rotation isn't possible in small vegetable gardens. In a small garden, you must be vigilant not to let pest and disease problems become rampant. If a large-scale problem should occur, such as an infestation of squash beetles or septoria leaf spot on tomatoes, seriously consider not growing that crop or crops in the same crop family for at least a year. It will be a sacrifice, but one year without a crop is better than several consecutive years of a disappointing crop.
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.
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 affects how quickly a container dries out. Clay and terra cotta 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 edibles 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 eveb grow some vegetables indoors.
Grow Successful Vegetable Garden. Michigan State University Extension
Soil Basics Part III: Organic Matter, Key to Management. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, 26 Jan. 2017
Edible Landscaping - Companion and Interplanting. National Gardening Association