Gardener’s Mailbag: Gardening in Small Spaces – Vegetable Gardens

Blaine from Windham asks: “I want a vegetable garden, but I’ve only got about a 10′ x 3′ space. What can I do with that?”

The curse of suburbia is tiny backyards, which are often used as neighborhood soccer fields or baseball diamonds, so there is sometimes no room for serious gardening. I am an apartment dweller myself, and as such, do not really have space or freedom for a “real” garden. My landlord was nice enough a few years ago to let me put in a 8′ x 4′ garden box, for which I am most grateful, and every year I am amazed at the crop I can get out of that 32 square feet (some of which is taken up by daylilies!).

The first step is deciding exactly what it is that you want to grow. Make a ‘dream’ list, and then realize that you will probably not be able to grow everything on that list, at least to start with. You can do a lot in a little space, thanks to the versatile nature of most vegetables, but careful planning is a must. For small spaces, a raised bed works wonderfully. The soil heats up quicker in the spring, and it’s a little bit easier to work on, as you don’t have to lean down quite as far. A box 12″ high, filled with good soil to about 2″ of the top edge is perfect for growing most veggies, with some herbs tucked into corners here and there. Loam mixed with some compost or manure is perfect for producing enough different veggies for a family to eat all summer long. Good drainage is essential; a box full of saturated soil will grow nothing but rotten roots. In building the box itself, if you decide to go with wood, do not use pressure-treated lumber. The chemicals used in pressure treating have gotten a lot less nasty, but there’s no reason to take chances. A nice 2″ cedar board will last for many, many years. I used regular ol’ 1″ x 12″ pine for my little plot, and it’s held up for far longer than I expected it would. You of course can also plant directly into the ground; a 2″ top-dressing of compost or aged manure tilled into your topsoil will add plenty of good organic matter for the growing season.

After your garden space has been sized and filled in with nice new composted loam, the layout and spacing in a small garden needs to be considered. The temptation is always strong to cram dozens of little tiny plants in at the beginning of the year, possibly thinking ‘oh, they can’t grow that much, there’s plenty of space!’, and realizing halfway through June that the beans and tomatoes are fighting each other for space, and the cucumbers are threatening to take over the neighbor’s lawn… The May vegetable garden may appear rather empty, but by June, everything will find its own space. Consider what each plant’s needs are; most veggies need full sun, but some of the early crops like lettuce benefit from shade during the hottest part of the day. If you can provide this, you will have a longer harvest time. Look for dwarf varieties of veggies as well; shorter vines do not necessarily mean less produce!

Root vegetables are prime candidates for the small scale garden. Radishes especially are good, as they have a relatively quick time from seed to maturity, so multiple crops can be planted in the same space over a season. Chard and other leafy green vegetables can be eaten at ‘baby’ stage, and often will ‘bolt’ if left too long, so seeding a row every other week or so will guarantee plenty of greens throughout the summer. Another benefit to gardening in a raised bed is the amount of control one has over the type of soil in a particular area. To get the prize-winning carrots you’ve always dreamed of, you need a fine, relatively sandy soil, free of rocks. In a small bed, you can create a ‘carrot area’ or ‘root veg area’, and blend your own soil, without having to till the entire plot.

Going vertical is key to high production in a small space. Plants like peas and beans are typically grown trellised, but other vining plants such as cucumbers and summer squash can be grown upright as well. Be sure the trellis you use is strong enough to support a heavy load; cucumbers are not to be underestimated. Trellising these plants and spacing them properly will not only provide shade to cool-loving crops like lettuce and spinach, it will also make the produce much easier to access, and the threat of rotting on the ground is all but eliminated. Getting the vines off the ground also gives the benefit of good air movement around the plants, which cuts down dramatically on disease and pest problems.

If you are in a place where there is simply no space at all to garden in-ground, many veggies will also grow quite happily in pots, as long as they receive adequate water and the occasional dose of fertilizer. Some varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans have been developed specifically for pot culture. Veggies grown in pots should not be grown in regular garden soil; it is far too heavy and dense. Garden soil can be mixed with potting soil or peat moss in a 1:1 ratio, and that will add enough fluff so the pots are not compacted over the summer. There are also several different ‘organic’ potting soils on the market that work very well. Same rules apply for potted gardens as small spaces; going vertical is a fine way to maximize your limited space! I am looking forward to another year in my little garden box off the back patio; I’ve tried a few different plants this year, moved some others around to see how the spacing will work now that I’ve added more perennial herbs that I need to work around. I’m sure I’ll still have a zillion cucumbers that will need to be made into pickles in the middle of August, though!