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Alternative Vegetable Gardening

Updated on February 13, 2015

Do You Grow a Vegetable Garden

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Seedlings becoming hardened off outdoors
Seedlings becoming hardened off outdoors | Source

Growing Vegetables Without a Garden

Not everyone has the luxury of a huge backyard with a large, beautiful garden. If you live in the city, or somewhere else where growing a large garden isn't practical, don't despair. Productive gardens can be grown almost anywhere! The key to a good vegetable 'garden' is finding a sunny location, using the right dirt, and watering regularly.

Starting Seedlings

Starting your own seedlings has many benefits and is easy to do. All that is required is containers, seed starting soil and a warm sunny place to set the containers after the seeds are planted. Artificial lighting is ideal because you can control the timing and brightness, but a sunny windowsill will work too. Many commercial plant containers are available and are relatively inexpensive to purchase. Any small containers, such as single serve pudding or yoghurt cups would also work. Just be sure to poke a few holes in the bottom to excess water can drain. Once you've chosen your containers, fill them with a soilless seed starting medium. Using actual soil from outside isn’t a good idea because it will probably contain organisms that will be harmful to your new seeds. Once the containers are filled with dirt, water them, ideally with a mist sprayer, until they’re damp. Plant your chosen seeds and cover the containers with commercially available covers or plastic wrap to give the plants a humid environment. Place the containers in a warm, bright location and wait for your seeds to grow!

Some seeds sprout quickly, others take awhile. The seed package should specify the average days to germination. Seeds leaves push through the dirt first. The true leaves follow a short time later. Once the leaves are touching the cover of the container, remove the covers.

Seedlings need to be hardened off before being planted in the garden. This is done by placing them outside for short periods of time. Start in a sheltered spot and work up to a full sun location. Once the plants are suitably hardened off, you can transplant them to your chosen location.

Direct Planting

Some seeds are best direct planted. This includes things like lettuce, peas, carrots, beans, and the vine crops. Vine crops can be planted indoors as well, but they need to be grown in peat pots as they do not handle transplanting well.

Prepare a level seedbed by raking an area of the garden smooth. Mark the row you wish to plant, then plant the seeds and cover them with dirt. Water the area well, but be sure to use a watering can or hose with a gentle spray so you don't wash the seeds up.

Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening was developed by Mel Bartholomew in the early 1980s. It is basically a raised bed filled with very good dirt. An ideal size for a square foot garden is 4'x4' but any dimensions, 12" high can be used. It's important that you don't compact the soil in a square foot garden, so it should be small enough that you can reach all the plants from the outside. A square foot garden can be placed almost anywhere. The location should get at least six hours of sun daily, as most vegetables love the sun.

The frame should be constructed of 2"x6" cedar or pressure treated lumber. Once the frame is constructed and filled with dirt, square foot sections are marked off with string. One type of vegetable is planted in each square. If it's a small sized plant, such as carrots or radishes, multiple plants can be planted in the square. Check the seed package for the proper distance to space seeds.

Straw Bale Gardening

The Straw Bale Gardening method was developed by Joel Karsten, who wrote about it in his book, 'Straw Bale Gardens', which is available from

A straw bale is used as a container for plants. The first step in the process is to 'condition' the bale for planting. This means keeping it well saturated with lukewarm water, and sprinkling it with a high nitrogen fertilizer to help the interior of the bale start to decompose into compost that will feed the plants. It takes approximately 12 days to properly condition the bales for planting. If the bale isn't conditioned, the plants will starve because it requires a lot of nitrogen to decompose the bale.

Once the bale has been conditioned, plants can be positioned in the bale by spreading the straw with a trowel and filling the resulting hole with good potting soil. The plant can be planted in this space. As with any seedling, lots of water is important for the early part of the plant's life. Almost anything can be planted in a straw bale, but started seedlings tend to thrive better.

When I started my own Straw Bale Garden experiment, I didn’t have high nitrogen fertilizer, so I sprinkled my bale with chicken manure from my backyard chicken coop. The chicken manure was high in nitrogen and served the purpose. I was also in a hurry to get the bale growing plants, because I was doing the experiment for a local fair, and as usual, didn’t allow myself enough time to get the project done.

I bought the tomato seedlings from an end of spring season clearance sale at a local garden center. They were a bit leggy, due to it being almost early summer when I bought them, but they were already hardened off. After conditioning the bale for about a week, I made a couple of trenches in the bale, filled them with good compost from my regular vegetable garden, then planted the seedlings.

Despite my rush in getting things ready, the plants did surprisingly well. We managed to load the bale (which was wet, heavy and at risk of falling apart) onto a piece of plywood for transport to the fair. It stayed in a rather dark barn for the duration of the weekend, and grew a few unexpected mushrooms. The unusual process intrigued a lot of people.

We had to tie some new strings around the bale to get it home, because it’s original strings were weakened because of the decomposition going on in the bale, but it managed to stay intact for the ride back to the farm and the tomato plants quickly recovered from the weekend in the dark.

I made a ‘manure tea’ by putting a shovel full of composted sheep manure into an old pail and adding water until was liquid and used that to ‘feed’ the bale several times over the summer. In the end, we did harvest several small tomatoes from the plants. This was a labour intensive approach to gardening, but surprisingly effective. I plan to try it again sometime when I have more time to properly condition the bale before planting. I think that would help produce a larger crop because the plants won’t have to compete with the decomposition of the bale for nutrients.

Container Gardening

Container Gardening is a popular way to grow flowers on patios and porches, but it's also great way to grow vegetables in limited space.

Large pots are ideal because they don't require as much watering and allow plenty of space for the plant's roots to grow. Be sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. If it's a large enough pot, a layer of rocks on the bottom will help with drainage as well.

Make sure to fill the pot with excellent quality potting soil and to fertilize regularly since the plant is totally relying on you for nutrients. You can use a commercial fertilizer, or you can use a manure or compost tea which is ideal for vegetables as you won't have to worry about chemical residues on your food. As with other types of gardening, a sunny location is usually a must, but that depends on the type of plant you want to grow. As with square foot gardening, check the seed package to see how far apart the seeds must be planted so you know how many you can put in your container.

Maximizing a Small Garden

If you have an normal garden in your yard, but want to increase the yields and minimize the work, consider Dick Raymond's 'Wide Row' method. His book, 'The Joy of Gardening' is available from It is a wealth of information about vegetable gardening. His Wide Row method allows you to grow a lot in a small space because you prepare a seedbed that is the width of whatever rake you use, then broadcast seeds onto the area, just like planting grass! Plants grow very close together, choke out the weeds and help support each other. This is ideal for lettuce, peas, carrots and onions, along with a multitude of other crops.

When it comes to gardening, don't be afraid to think outside the box and try something different. Maybe you'll be the next gardening pioneer!


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    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      3 years ago from USA

      We have been researching straw bale gardening for some time, especially for potatoes. Glad to read about someone who has tried it.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      I found the bale planting of special interest, and I am eager to read the sequel (the fully "conditioned" bale results.) We are coming up on the new gardening season here in Utah County, Utah, where we will be doomed or blessed to have an early blossoming of our fruit trees this year due to a long period of abnormally warm days.

      Gardening fever is setting in!


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