Whether it's on a balcony or in a small yard, maximize your food garden's square footage with these small-space gardening tips.
Limited space: It’s a problem many gardeners face. Few of us have as much sunny garden space as we might wish. But don’t despair! Even if you have just a tiny patch of sun and soil, it’s possible to create a beautiful, productive garden. With a little strategizing, you can turn a small backyard—or even a sunny porch, patio or balcony—into a beautiful place to grow vegetables, flowers and herbs. Here are some small-space gardening ideas to help you get the most out of whatever space you have available.
When you want to make every inch of space count, drawing up a specific planting plan is a smart first step. (If you have a truly tiny space, that probably means growing your vegetables in pots and planters. See “Container Gardening Considerations” later in the article.)
Even with a traditional backyard garden where you have a little more room to work with, it’s smart to prioritize. Which crops are at the top of your list and which will you squeeze in only if you have the space? As part of that process, you’ll want to take a close look at how much room each plant requires for healthy growth. Armed with this knowledge, you may choose to grow more plants that require minimal space per plant (salad greens) and fewer plants that sprawl (squash).
If that sounds complicated, the following books and planning tools can make it much simpler.
• Starter Vegetable Gardens by Barbara Pleasant: With this book, all the planning has been done for you, and it’s an inspiring look at how much is possible with even a small space. The book consists of 24 ready-made plans for small vegetable gardens, as well as detailed instructions for planting and estimates on how much you can expect to harvest.
• Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew: Looking for a little more flexibility? This book spells out an easy, efficient method for plotting out your garden. Simply divide your garden into small, manageable squares and follow the guidelines for how much you can plant in each one.
• Mother Earth Living Garden Designer: Our digital tool makes it easy to sketch out your garden plan because all the plant spacing guidelines are built in. If your first sketch doesn’t quite work, just drag and drop until you have the garden that’s perfect for you.
One good way to save space is by exploring vertical gardening. The idea is to coax vining plants to grow upward, rather than letting them spread out and cover the ground. Cucumbers, for example, require much less space when grown on a trellis. Other plants that grow well on trellises include peas, melons, and tomato and bean vines. Be sure you choose varieties of these plants that form vines, not bush varieties, which should be clearly marked on labels of both seeds and plants.
It’s hard to go wrong with vertical gardening. Not only do these support structures save space, they keep fruits and vegetables off the ground and make harvesting easier. And they often make your garden even more beautiful.
You can make trellises out of a variety of materials. Look at hardware, garden or craft stores for wire or plastic mesh to mount on metal stakes, or make simple tripods from bamboo poles. You can also build or buy decorative arches or arbors. For more trellis ideas, check out the wide range of options for sale online. Lee Valley Tools has a great selection.
You can get more out of limited space by making your garden productive for as much of the year as possible. Plan to start your garden early, and fill empty space with new plants as you harvest fast-growing crops. Radishes, for example, are planted early in spring and are ready to harvest after only a few weeks—so even before summer arrives, you can plant a second crop.
You can also extend your gardening season by providing some basic shelter for your plants in cold weather, so that you can plant earlier in the year and continue harvesting later. One option is to cover plants with fabric row covers on cold nights—you should have no trouble finding this product at a garden-supply store. Another possibility is to use low hoops—plastic mounted on wire hoops to form a kind of minigreenhouse.
You can also build a simple cold frame: a basic protective box with a window on top to let in sun. It’s not difficult to build a cold frame with scavenged building materials such as scrap lumber and salvaged windows and doors. Learn more about how to build a cold frame.
If you’ve looked carefully at your available garden space, and realized that you need just a little more room, be sure to consider the following options.
Try shade gardening. Sunny spots are best for most plants, but many can make do in partial shade. Expand your garden by taking a look at those shady spaces and what you can put there. Some shade-friendly options include most greens, some root vegetables and a number of culinary herbs. Learn more about shade gardening in the article 10 Ways to Grow a Shade Garden.
Take down tree limbs. Most of us hate to chop down trees, but it’s worth taking a look at where some strategic pruning might net you more sunny garden space.
Try container gardening. The porch, patio, balcony and rooftop are all great places for container gardening. Look for any place you can squeeze in a sizeable planter, including large containers for the porch, hanging planters or window boxes. You’ll be surprised how much food you can grow. A single strawberry plant can produce two pints of berries, and one tomato plant can easily produce 10 pounds of fruit.
Grow a front-yard garden. If your best garden space is in the front yard, give some thought to putting your vegetable garden there. If you want to make your on-display vegetable plot prettier, consider sneaking some gorgeous fruit plants into your landscaping: Think apple, cherry and pear trees; blueberry bushes; and strawberries as a ground cover. Learn more about edible landscaping in the article Eat Your Yard: How to Design an Edible Landscape.
Join a community garden. Finally, if you need more space and none of the above is working, it may be time to look beyond your own yard. Community gardens are getting more popular all the time, so check around—there may already be one in action near you. Learn more at communitygarden.org.
If you’re looking at gardening on a porch, balcony or patio, you have a wide range of options.
Tabletop gardens: If you were going to have just one big garden bed, wouldn’t it be nice to have it at a comfortable working height? This is an especially good setup for anyone with physical limitations or mobility issues.
Self-watering containers: One of the few drawbacks with container gardening is that plants need to be watered frequently. You can address this problem with self-watering containers, which have an added reservoir of water so the containers don’t dry out so quickly. You can buy ready-made self-watering containers, container conversion kits or try making your own. Find instructions in the article DIY Self-Watering Containers.
Find the perfect product: Check out Gardener’s Supply Company to see a wide selection of both of these types of products, plus raised bed kits, window boxes, and other equipment for patio gardening.
Read all about it: For a great book with lots of specifics on creative container gardening, take a look at Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers by Edward C. Smith.
Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer living in Lawrence, Kansas.
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