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The Small Space Vegetable Garden

Updated on April 28, 2010
Many materials can be used to create a raised bed garden. Makes sure that the material will last.
Many materials can be used to create a raised bed garden. Makes sure that the material will last.

Getting the most out of a small space vegetable garden

In tough economic times, people have to come up with strategies in order to get through them. One of these ways is through gardening; but not just any form of gardening. Unfortunately, not too many of us have much in the way of gardening space, so we have to get inventive. There are ways to maximize food from a limited growing space. There are a number of approaches, such as raised bed gardening, companion planting, inverted planting, roof gardening, hanging gardening, vertical gardening, container gardening and composting. Then there is the emerging phenomenon where various cities are offering planting and growing space. Some cities will even allow people to keep live chickens for egg production, which is a change from policies of the recent past, but that is not what we’ll dwell on here beyond mention. As for what to plant, you have to ask yourself a number of questions like the availability of water, what will grow in your climate, your skill and knowledge level concerning plants and what would be cost effective like more expensive vegetables. A versatile gardener will use some of them all. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Raised bed gardening is an ancient technique to increase the depth of a growing space and is especially good for root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and onions. Raised bed gardening requires a small plot of land in which to build and use it. Raised beds also tend to hold heat better and extend growing seasons on both ends due to the action of microbes in the soil, especially if you incorporate composting. Raised bed gardening also allows for easier access to vegetables and for slightly denser planting. To create a raised bed, you are going to need some treated lumber or some other means like bricks to raise the soil level to the top of the bricks or wood. For most applications, raising the level of the soil by about a foot is good. This reduces a lot of stooping while you tend the plot. Do not make the raised bed frame so large that you can’t reach the plants in the center. Some folks even advocate what is called “square foot gardening”, meaning that a growing area is literally a square foot. Bit for most purposes, one can make squares that are about three feet across that will allow access to plants from at least two opposing sides. Comfortable arms reach should be a guide for you as the half measure of who wide the raised bed should be. They can be any length, just as long as the width does not exceed easy reach. Remember, you will have to weed and thin the plots as well. You can divide the garden into several of these and lay stone or brickwork between them to cut down of weed growth at foot level. It is also good to mix in some humus, aged manure, compost and peat moss with the native soil. Remove rocks, glass, metal and other foreign objects you may find while turning over the soil and mixing.

Companion planting is also an ancient technique and serves a number of purposes. It is an adaptation of bio-diversity. As many plants suffer from the ravages of pests and insects, there are natural ways to control these. Carrots and onions grow well together and the pests of each are controlled by the other. Thus carrot flies are repelled by the onion, which it does not like. There are also insect repelling plants that will work well in many companion planting situations. One of the best is marigold. Not only do they add beauty to the small garden, but they ward of virtually all pests. When inspecting your garden, you will notice that most plants will have chew holes in the leaves, but not the marigolds. Another plant for insect repelling is chrysanthemum or mums as most know them. Mums tend to get large though, whereas marigolds will adapt to small spaces better and work well with tomatoes. There are a wide variety of combinations too long to detail here, but a good resource reference is "Companion Planting" by Susan McClure and Sally Roth.

Inverted planting works with the root ball of the plant contained and suspended from a trellis or suspended by a rope or chain from the eve of a south facing roof. Drip feeding irrigation with a water line works well in this situation and several of these items can be hung to produce vegetables and fruit. The stem grows out from the bottom and the plant will trail and grow fruit. You can buy systems ready made, or make them from cleaned plastic containers so that the plant stem emerges from the bottom. Start the seedlings right side up before hanging. Once established, they will do well with minimal attention. Cherry tomatoes and strawberries work well in such an arrangement. The inverted planters can be hung along the south facing eve of the roof, provided of course you live in a ranch type house and not a two story dwelling where such an arrangement would be more difficult.

Roof gardening opens up a large number or possibilities, but you will either have to own your property or get written permission from your landlord. Flat roofs are the best, especially where there is a gentle slope for drainage. Roof gardening should only be done if the building is designed to take the extra load. Many flat roofs are designed to take a heavy snow load, so they are a good bet. Here you have to consider lightness as far as the growing medium is concerned, such as peat moss and vermiculite. As far as containers are concerned, these should be of the type to prevent root growth into the roof. The best route is to place a saucer under the planter. Drainage can be confined to a planter saucer, which is alright if it overflows, but it helps to keep roots in check. Other containers can be used, such as a child’s wading pool as an extra large planter. But for the wading pool, you can use one that leaks and is destined to the garbage, or you can poke drainage holes in a new one. Roof planting can be irrigated with a drip irrigation system which is run from a water source below. You will need a ladder to go to the garden to weed it and collect produce. Being on the roof exposes your veggies and fruit to bird pests, so you will need to consider bird netting to keep them from pulling up seedlings and eating your strawberries. Also consider bamboo stakes on which to suspend bird netting and twine to support climbers like peas and pole beans. Composting and soil turning can be done in situ. As in any gardening, crop rotation and soil renewal is a must.

Mulching the surface of the soil will help retain water and control weeds, both of which are a must in a confined growing space. Mulch can be things like dried straw or leaves. These sit on top of the soil around the plants and prevent weeds from growing and stealing soil nutrients and space, causing your desired plants to become stunted and unproductive. Check and weed your containers frequently where needed. A weed seedling is much easier to pull up than a mature established weed. Learn to distinguish between desirable seedlings and weed seedlings so you don’t pull up the wrong ones. One of the best ways to do this is to start seeds in peat pellets in a covered “mini greenhouse” growing space where you can observe and learn about your veggies and how they appear as youngsters.

Hanging gardening baskets work best for strawberries, cherry tomatoes and spices like parsley and basil. Hanging gardens can be grown year round inside in south facing windows. They also work well for starting seedling before spring for slow growing veggies like tomatoes that are a hot weather crop. When the temperature is warm enough, these can be transferred outside to finish off their season. When transferring outside, do it in stages. Plants like people will get sunburned and they need to build up protection against UV radiation like people. Unfortunately, windows block UV radiation, so the plants will have to be hardened gradually outside

Container gardening is conditioned on a number of premises. If you're growing on a roof, you need to use lightweight containers. For indoor sun rooms, just about anything can be used as a container as long as it is leak proof. People have used all sorts of things like buckets, bathtubs, aquariums and whatever else makes a good makeshift planter. Containers are by nature limited in the root space and therefore, the larger the plant, the larger the container needed. Usually one plant is grown in one container unless you grow plants like chives or parsley. Due to the limits of containers, you will need to water more frequently. On hot days, this is especially true.

Vertical growing is a trend that seems to be gaining In popularity. The basic idea is the creative use of vertical south facing wall space to create tears of planters mounted one over another. Just be careful not to place vertically mounted plants to close over the growing space height of plants below. You may need to build shelving for creating two or three growing levels. Create a drainage system so that dust and dirt don't rain down on plants below, even in a heavy rain.

Seasonal growing is another consideration. Some crops are biannual and thus will winter over, being available even in the depths of winter. Such crops are collards, such as cabbage and brussel sprouts. Carrots, celery and snow peas also winter over and can be harvested in the deep of winter. Snow peas can be planted and harvested by June as they mature early. So can parsley and other herbs. Strawberries will mature from May to July depending on the year and growing season.

For effective composting, you need worms. Worms will eat anything organic and create worm castings which will be an excellent source of nutrition for your crops year by year. Organic material consists or vegetable cuttings, coffee grounds (excellent), leaves and stems from last season’s growth and from the seasons end leaves form trees. All of it is valid and will help tremendously, especially for organic growing. Many places offer pre-made composting bins of various sizes and this will likely serve your needs best.

Growing seasons vary from plant to plant, so do some research for as to what is best for your area and applications. Tomatoes, peppers and zucchini all love heat and tomatoes especially need a long hot growing season. Other plants favor cool conditions like potatoes lettuce, spinach, radishes and snow peas. They do well in short growing seasons or in cool weather. During this era of global warming and confused weather, you need to be aware of patterns covering years at a stretch and to watch nature for the beginnings of growing seasons. Over the last few years, these have varied by as much as two months in some regions. Springs have been either very early or very late and it can only be understood in the context of local nature. This means you should have some familiarity with local conditions and when plants of various kinds start to grow, signaling the beginning of the warming trend. Hot loving plants can be started indoors in a well lit area, or under a cold frame outdoors that gives some protection from late frosts.

Many cities today offer limited growing space on a first come first serve basis and often have waiting lists. But if you need food now, this is not going to work for you if you're on a wait list. But it does indicate that there is move away from the old standard where the only other option is guerrilla gardening. The only problem with gardening in the open is the susceptibility of your work being taken for someone else's table. Guerrilla gardening gets around this by planting so much in waste land, there was enough for others with some left over for your own use.

Livestock in the city used to be banned because of disease risks and considerations. But there has been a turn around within the last couple of years. People are now allowed to have a couple of chickens for egg production. Chickens in the city have to be controlled and this means fencing. You will also have to get whole grains and chicken feed. The manure from chickens can be added to compost to help future crops.

Of all the considerations that you think of, the availability of water is paramount. Some situations like roof and container gardening will demand more water. You will have to rig up a hose of some sort with an irrigation system so that your plants don't dry out. On the other hand, you don't want to over water, so you will have to judge the situation accordingly. Depending on the garden and its location, this can either be self correcting or one where drainage will help. In other situations, you will have to closely monitor water levels.

What will grow best in limited space are crops like strawberries, snow peas, parsley, Nantes carrots, celery, leaf lettuce, spinach, radishes, cherry tomatoes and the like. If you live in a cool area, don’t even consider corn as it won’t even set ears and will take a lot of soil nutrients for no return. Corn also needs a lot of growing space. You'll need to consider what grows best in your area and what gives the best return for limited space.

Skill and knowledge level for growing in a small space means that for people who are starting out fresh, something easy like pre-planted strawberries and cherry tomatoes are a good idea. With growing experience you'll learn what grows best in whatever circumstance you find yourself using.

Whatever course you take, it should be cost effective. That means that your crop should not wind up being more expensive than the same type for sale in the nearest store. Initial outlays may mean that the first crop is expensive, but consider that this is being done for the long run for as long as you are able to grow crops.

Tips for small space gardening.


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