Very few gardeners seem to think they have a large enough area for their garden. Especially in the winter, when things are being planned… During weeding or harvesting, there might be second thoughts. Still, maximizing use of garden spaces is a common challenge. How it is best done depends on goals. Are you trying to produce food to feed a family of 12 through the winter? Or do you just want fresh vegetables as the weather allows? Is it your dream to grow 8 different kinds of hot peppers? Or maybe you have a few favorite crops that are all you need to be happy? Whatever the case, here are some ideas that can help you with vegetable gardening in small spaces, whatever your definition of small is.
1. Make a list of the basic vegetables that you want to grow and prioritize it. Include notes about whether you want to preserve any or just eat fresh.
2. Research varieties of your desired vegetables for size and productivity. Even though there is a lot of good information in books and seed catalogs, keep in mind that it will depend on your climate, as well as the weather any given year. You might want to interview a few gardeners in your area and compare experiences. I would tell you that Yukon Gold potatoes yield far fewer potatoes per plant than the Rubanks, so if you are short on space and really want to grow some potatoes, Rubanks are more worth your effort unless a few Yukon Golds will really make you happy. Also, be aware of whether a crop occurs all at once and is done, or if a plant will keep producing fruit depending on the weather and if harvest is stimulating new production. For example, most corn is only harvested in a short window of time, however, cucumbers will pretty much keep growing until frost kills them or you stop watering them.
3. Decide which vegetables will potentially give you the most satisfying harvest for the space. A constant harvest of broccoli can be a lot motivational than a one time harvest of onions. But again, it depends on variety. I have grown many different types of broccoli, and have only found one that produces all summer long and well into fall for me, from the original spring planting. That is Arcadia. I also have some bunching onions that are very reliable, but they don’t take up much space. (click on any photo to enlarge)
4. Sometimes pruning can let you grow a variety that might otherwise take up more space than you have to allot it. Depending on the plant, such pruning might actually make it produce more fruit because it is not supporting so much green growth. Tomatoes are an example of this, as is explained in this excellent video.
5. Trellises and staking can help guide and/or contain a plant in vertical spaces, but this can also cause more shade for other plants, so plan accordingly. Such shade might be great for lettuce plants in the heat of summer, at certain times of day in particular, but your pepper plants will be unhappy. Anything that can be guided up or tied to a trellis is a candidate for upward growth. It will need to be attended to regularly, and as soon as the plant is large enough, though. It is difficult to untangle and train plants up a trellis once they have be let to grow at ground level for very long. Some plants or fruits will need extra support, such as melons. Click here to see some simple arches trellises I have. And here to see my dad’s great method for attaching plants to trellises.
6. Take advantage of seasonal planting. Not all plants like the same conditions. In Idaho, peas will usually produce until about mid June. A warm weather crop can be planted fairly close to them, because they will be pulled up just as the warm weather vegetables, like squash or beans, are starting to put on some muscle and filling in that area. When corn is done, you might have time for a fall crop of lettuce or radishes. For a summary of the gardening possibilities in southwest Idaho, click here.
7. Utilize succession planting of a given crop. You probably can’t eat 10 cabbages all at once anyway, and though they store well, why go to the trouble when you can time the harvest a bit. This can be done some by timed plantings of the same variety, or by planting different varieties of the same vegetable that mature in different amounts of time. Lettuce is probably the crop that I do the most succession planting with. I have even had some edible lettuce in the August heat!
8. Mix some edibles in with your landscaping. This can even be done in the front yard so that the neighbors hardly suspect a thing … until they see you out there picking “green” beans from those lovely purple plants with delicate pink flowers. Look up Royal Burgundy or Amethyst green bush beans. These bush beans make a nice row, but other vegetables can be “hidden” among the pretties. Just don’t forget to look out there for your harvest. A squash plant could add a nice touch to a dry, hot corner where other plants struggle. If it is a pumpkin plant, you will be that much closer to decorating the front walk with a fall harvest theme.
9. Try some interplanting. Some plants grow more underground (like carrots or onions) and can do well rather close to plants with more above ground foliage (like tomatoes or broccoli) as long as the green of the root crop is not overgrown by the foliage of the above ground plant. This is also a way to use a trellis, where you can plant the climbing plants pretty close to the ground level plant, as long as the climbing plant grows enough to make it up the trellis before the lower plant takes over the sunlight. A classic example of interplanting is corn and pumpkins, with the pumpkin vines also serving to discourage ground level predators. I wrote more about some of my interplanting experiences here.
10. Plant in beds instead of rows. I usually look at the spacing suggested between plants in a row and apply that to a block planting in a raised bed. This way a lot more can be grown in a 3 x 3 foot space. It helps keep the weeds down, too, when the plants are big enough to “own” the space.”
If you have some of your own tricks for saving space, please feel free to add them in the comments. If you have a particular question, ask and I’ll let you know what I can. Gardening is a hopeful habit, where we all build the data base and hope to inspire each other to enjoy our own little plot of ground.