By thinking “outside the row,” you can maximize food production in whatever space you have.
Small-Space Tactic #1: Discover New Places to Grow Food
Take a fresh look at your yard. There are very likely places you could add edibles you hadn’t noticed before. Do you have a patch of grass that no one uses? Save yourself some mowing and convert it to food. It doesn’t have to be a vegetable patch (though it can be). You could replant that area with a fruit tree or berries or put in an herb spiral if you’d rather.
I’m a fan of ‘sheet mulching’, a method that allows you to convert a section your yard for gardening without digging or tilling. You simply lay down sheets of cardboard and cover them with materials like leaves, compost, soil and mulch, and let nature do the rest. After some heavy machinery unfortunately compacted our soil, laying cardboard with mulch over the area allowed the worms and soil microbes to work their wonders, and after a season or two, the formerly dry, sterile soil was rich and teeming with life again.
Are there empty places in your flower beds where you could tuck in some herbs or a pretty eggplant? Or spots where you can add pots or planters for greens, herbs, or smaller plants like peppers? Window boxes can grow more than flowers, and look beautiful with an array of herbs or chili peppers that will add flavor and nutrition to your next meal.
Small-Space Tactic #2: Think Vertically
Some sprawling crops, like squashes, cucumbers and melons, can be trained to grow up a fence or support, saving you valuable garden real estate that can go to additional crops. Poles and tree branches can be made into bean and cucumber ‘teepees’, freeing up space for other plants.
Other vining crops can be added as landscaping, including gorgeous scarlet runner beans on your arbor or fence, or grape vines that can add shade as well as fruit to your yard. We enjoy the cool, shade, and privacy of our Bluebell grape vines growing up our screened-in porch long before we sample their tasty berries. Grapes can be trained to grow up sturdier fruit trees as well.
Small-Space Tactic #3: Garden Intensively
An engineer by training, Mel Bartholomew pioneered a method of small space gardening called Square Foot Gardening,
which uses a rich soil mix and succession planting to use space as efficiently as possible. First, space is conserved by abandoning traditional row methods and planting much closer together than rows permit. Mel even advises interplanting some crops, like fast-growing radishes, around the edges of slower-growing plants like peppers. Second, when one crop is done, rather than leaving the soil bare, you add a good dose of compost and plant your next crop, so every bit of space you have is in use as much as possible throughout the growing season.
For instance, when your early-season greens are past their prime, you dig them up and sow your carrot seeds or put in your tomato transplants. Once carrots are harvested in summer, you’re ready to put in your cool-season crops, like kale and spinach. It takes a bit of planning (and a good composter), but Mel’s books do a great job of helping even newbie gardeners map out their season. It’s astounding what one little garden box can yield when you use these methods!
Raised beds offer advantages for small-plot gardening as well. By retaining your valuable fertilized soil in a contained space, there is little weed incursion that might otherwise steal nutrients from the bed. Raised garden beds also lessen erosion, improve drainage, deter weeds and pests, and reduce back strain for the gardener. A raised bed also provides a sturdy structure to which you can secure a trellis that effectively doubles the growing potential of the bed. An attractive raised bed can be the centerpiece of a small yard.
Elevated planters are another alternative for small-space gardening, and are ideally suited to patios, decks and balconies. A planter has many of the advantages as a raised bed, but planters have bottoms. And ‘elevated’ planters have legs as well, which makes them very convenient for gardeners with tired backs. Because of the weight of the soil, these planters are smaller than most raised beds, 3’ x 3’ is a typical size. Larger models, like the VegTrug, are heavily constructed to support the added weight and provide some serious growing space for small areas.
Planters with soil depths of 8” or more are well suited for intensive ‘greens’ gardens. Models with deeper soil depths will enable you to grow more crop varieties and have higher yields. The challenge with gardening in planters is moisture control. Excess moisture drains through the planter bottom, and on hot days the soil can dry out and wilt a crop within hours. The way to prevent this is to keep the plants well mulched, and keep an eye on the soil moisture level.
Another growing method called permaculture also aims for efficiency but achieves it by mimicking patterns found in nature. Underplanting trees with fruiting shrubs and edible groundcovers, for example, maximizes the amount of food your space can produce and also makes the most of available water. This method also seeks to minimize other inputs by planting mutually beneficial species (like nitrogen fixers or pest-repelling plants) together. Flowers below your fruit tree can attract pollinators or other beneficial insects that can increase your yields.
Small-Space Tactic #4: Extend Your Growing Season
Using cold frames, hoops, or cloches can help you get your plants in earlier and keep them going longer to enjoy more delicious food from your garden. These small lightweight structures ensure more successful germination, new sprouts and seedlings are protected from late frosts, spring hailstorms and cold rains, and they can be moved from bed to bed as your planting schedule advances. A cloche or cold frame also protects new seedlings from birds, mice and small critters that may walk over your garden beds.
The only concern with these small enclosures is that they must be tended closely to ensure steady temperatures. Once the sun comes out they heat up quickly and you’ll need to open the flap or vent. And in the evening you need to go out and close the vents to keep out the night chill. If you have the space, a greenhouse is more forgiving in this regard, and gives you a jump on the season while protecting your plants from unpredictable weather.
Small-Space Tactic #5: Think Small When Choosing What to Plant
If you don’t have a lot of space, you need to pay attention to the growth habit of the plants you select. You’ll want to be sure to get plants that don’t sprawl too much, which means “dwarf” trees and “compact,” “bush,” or “patio” varieties of things like tomatoes and zucchini.
But don’t think smaller plants mean meager harvests. Sure, you’ll likely get less fruit off a dwarf tree than a standard, but your family will still enjoy hundreds of pounds of delicious home-grown apples or peaches over the years you have your tree. A well-tended bush zucchini or a patio tomato will produce a significant amount of fabulous food.
Some urban gardeners have managed to grow several tons of fruits and vegetables in tiny urban plots using space-saving growing techniques. How much more food could your yard be producing?