Learn how to maximize space and light in your urban garden with this simple garden plan.
By Niki Jabbour
Groundbreaking Food Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2014) by Niki Jabbour is a stellar collection of unique food garden plans from some of the best gardeners and designers in North America. Choose from 73 plans, each with its own theme and detailed illustration. In this excerpt, create a productive garden even in small spaces with limited sunlight.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Groundbreaking Food Gardens.
Kathy Martin is well aware of the challenges many urban gardeners face. Her own kitchen garden is small, at just 250 square feet. As well, she battles encroaching shade cast by two large trees that take away a little more sun each year. She has learned to work around these issues by growing the right plants for her dappled light conditions and relying on space at a local community garden to supplement the edibles she grows in her home garden.
Kathy Martin’s small vegetable garden is immediately recognizable by much of the online gardening community thanks to her popular blog Skippy’s Vegetable Garden, launched in May of 2006 and named after her Portuguese water dog, a faithful garden companion. “My garden was actually just a muddy patch of soil then, but that was the beauty of it, knowing that it had such potential,” she recalls. Through hard work and practical design, she has built it into a beautiful and productive space.
Illustration by Mary Ellen Carsley
24' deep x 32' wide
For 2 Hours Full Sun
1. Peas and lettuce: ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas (first planting), then ‘Oaky Red Splash’, ‘Red Sails’, and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce (second planting)
For 3 Hours Full Sun
3. Beans: ‘Provider’ and ‘Royal Burgundy’ bush
For 4 Hours Full Sun
4. Alpine strawberries
6. Soybeans: ‘Envy’
7. Tomato: ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Sungold’
8. Lemon: ‘Meyer’ (potted)
9. Cucumbers: ‘Diva’, ‘Sooyow Nishiki’, and ‘Sweet Success’
10. Eggplants: ‘Tiger’ and ‘Black King’
11. Kale, spinach, and pak choi: ‘Lacinato’ (Tuscan) and ‘Blue Curled Scotch’ kale; ‘Bloomsdale Longstanding’ spinach
12. Oregano, rosemary, and basil
13. Tomato: ‘Cherokee Purple’
For 5 Hours Full Sun
14. Blueberries: ‘Bluecrop’
15. Beans: ‘Orient Wonder’ yard-long and ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runner
16. Chives and sage
17. Peas, kale, and zinnias: ‘Oregon Giant’ snow peas (first planting), then ‘Lacinato’ (Tuscan) and ‘Blue Curled Scotch’ kale and zinnias (second planting)
20. Apple: ‘Fuji’
21. Mixed annual and perennial flowers
Maximizing space. Kathy’s home garden includes both the 250-square-foot area for her edible plants as well as a spot for a 10- by 10-foot cold frame bed. To organize the plot, she divided it into five manageable raised beds, separated by narrow 2-foot-wide pathways, mulched with hay. The five beds each measure 3 1/2 by 9 feet. Opposite these tidy beds, Kathy has included an area for ornamental and fruiting plants, which add both color to the garden and habitat for birds and beneficial insects.
Extending the season. The 10- by 10-foot cold frame was built by Kathy’s husband, Steve, a few years ago. “I like to fill it with greens that are ready to harvest by November,” says Kathy. “They hold well in the frame, and we eat them as we want them during the winter.” Once that winter harvest is finished, she fills the frame with fresh seedlings in March for more greens in April and May. A 4-foot-wide cobblestone walkway runs down the center of the garden, linking the beds together and providing comfortable access for a wheelbarrow.
Adaptibility to shade. At the beginning, Kathy’s kitchen garden received enough sun to grow a wide variety of edibles, but as the years passed and the surrounding trees grew to shade more of her garden, Kathy has had to alter her plant choices to select for edibles that can still produce with less sun. “I’ve watched the shadows move across my garden and mapped out which parts get more and less light,” she shares. “Most parts of my garden now have 4 hours of midday light, but I do have a small ‘prime’ section that gets 5 to 6 hours of light.” As well, like many small urban spaces, Kathy’s garden is sheltered by nearby homes, creating a microclimate. This gives her an earlier start to the planting season, but also means that she needs to concentrate on heat-loving, shade--tolerant crops. “I’ve found that the best ones are beans, basil and other herbs, cucumbers, and kale,” she says, adding that she also plants tomatoes and eggplants in the ‘prime’ beds with the most sun.
Testing crops. To discover the best crops for her garden, Kathy relies on trial and error, testing a wide range of varieties. For example, because she finds beans grow very well in her small plot, she is always on the lookout for new varieties to test. “I plant pole beans like red runner beans, Chinese pole beans including yard-long and a pale lemony variety that was given to me by a colleague, bush beans, dried beans, and soybeans,” she says. “I have begun saving most of my own bean seeds and sharing them with other gardeners — a process that I am really enjoying.” For gardeners with less room, growing pole beans is an easy way to boost food production as the vertical vines use less ground space than bush-type plants. “I grow them on 8-foot-tall teepees, five plants per pole,” says Kathy.
Cucumbers are another standout crop in Kathy’s small-space garden. “I’ve had great luck with cucumbers in my part-sun beds,” she says, noting that they don’t do well with less than four hours of light. “ ‘Diva’ is my favorite variety, but I also love the blocky white fruits and chartreuse interior of North Carolina pickling cucumbers.” She uses 4-foot-tall lattice trellises to support the scrambling vines, and she plants them at the edge of the garden so they can scale the fence and roam into the yard.
Keeping up with compost. To keep production high in her challenging low-light conditions, Kathy adds generous amounts of compost. “I compost all of my kitchen and yard waste and end up with a very rich compost,” she says. “In spring, I put 2 inches of compost on each bed and then I use liquid fish fertilizer or organic fertilizer during the growing season.”
Because shade and lack of space limited her plant choices, and because she wanted the experience of growing with others, Kathy turned to a local community garden located just a mile away to supplement her home garden. Her 40- by 40-foot plot gives her plenty of sunny garden space for her edible crops and ornamental plants, which include perennials such as asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, and several espaliered pear trees. Having a sunny alternative to her shady home garden has made a world of difference for Kathy. “Growing in full sun and very fertile soil is incredible,” she says. The community garden has also given her the chance to learn many new gardening methods, watch a wide assortment of gardens grow, and connect with the other members. “Sharing the experience of growing food with others — in the community garden, in my home garden, and on the blog — is amazing,” she says.
Excerpted from Groundbreaking Food Gardens by Niki Jabbour, illustration by Mary Ellen Carsley used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Groundbreaking Food Gardens.