When you watch The Walking Dead downloads in your cozy little townhouse, do you skip the zombie scenes and hit "pause" to check out Hilltop's garden setup? Maybe your postal carrier resents having to stuff fifteen hobby farming magazines into your apartment's mailbox every month.
You're not alone.
We can't all cash in our 401ks to bug out and buy a half dozen acres in the country, but most of us can grow a productive garden on an urban scale. Doing so lets us become more self-reliant, and even that adorable window-box garden teaches us valuable lessons about growing plants from seed to harvest. We've selected our favorite of the best vegetables to grow in small spaces. And for small-scale gardens, we've got a few quick tips for maximizing even the most minimal space. Most of these veggies do very well in containers, which is handy if you need to pack them up and head for your Uncle Colton's compound in Northern Idaho. (Though if that's your destination, you might be fine if you leave the potatoes at home.)
Make the most out of your garden's space and soil
Standard spacing recommendations help keep air circulated around individual plants, reducing the risk of fungus and disease. Generous spacing ensures the roots get enough oxygen and nutrients. But when you're using containers, raised beds, and fluffy, clean, fertile soil, you can reduce spores and soil-borne plant pathogens far more easily than you can if you're managing a large, in-ground garden. You can also more closely monitor plants for problems.
So what we're pretty much saying is this: Quality over quantity: Give your plants the most nutrition per square inch of soil, and they'll return the favor.
Start by picking up a copy of the late Mel Bartholomew's "All New Square Foot Gardening" (any edition) for his approach to turning small yards into productive gardens, and “The Vegetable Gardener's Container Bible” by Edward C. Smith. Even if you grow your plants directly in the ground, both authors have valuable insight into providing the right nutrients for densely-planted spaces.
Use a high-quality substrate mix
Bartholomew's recipe for square-foot gardening—equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and screened compost—is a good start, but we like half plant-based, half well-composted manure: steer, horse, rabbit, or sheep) for a fluffy, rich, "soil-free" substrate. If you have access to worm castings, throw it into the mix. If you're not a fan of vermiculite, try Perlite; if you're concerned about declining peat bogs, go for coconut coir. These recipes work for raised beds and containers and help amend in-ground planting beds with depleted or compacted soil.
Get a soil tester and adjust for a neutral pH. You might use an all-purpose pelleted plant food once the plants begin flowering, but you should be good to go for a whole season without too much fuss. "Fresh" substrate has few weed seeds, and the light, fluffy texture makes any "weedlings" easy to remove.
Make use of vertical space
If you have a south-facing wall or fence, or a means to create free-standing vertical support, you can expand your gardening area by leaps and bounds. String up support netting for climbing plants, or use hanging containers such as the super tacky but totally effective "Topsy-Turvy"-style inverted plant container. Potted plants require more frequent watering. However, the popularity of "pocket gardens" and wall-mounted planters has put a lot of great products on the market. Additionally, you might decide it's worth the expense and effort to install a drip-irrigation system.
Build raised beds
Plunk a raised bed on that ratty scrap of lawn or patch of compacted dirt! It's easier to cobble together a few untreated boards than it is to excavate and refresh an area of your yard where generations of dogs have done their business, or decades of air pollution "fallout" has permeated the top layers. You'll want to avoid planting your edibles close to the street since those areas have the highest pollutants (heavy metals, asbestos, VOCs) from car brakes and exhaust.
We very strongly suggest you build deeper beds than the six to eight inches recommended by the Square Foot Gardening system. Sixteen inches is best; 18" is better for healthy root growth and the ability to support deep-rooted vegetables. The extra substrate isn't going to bankrupt you, and the expense is worth it.
Staple a high-quality fabric weed barrier to the underside of your beds. We like to put a couple of layers of corrugated cardboard underneath the foundations for an added layer of weed protection and to prevent sharp rocks from puncturing the weed fabric.
Start a pot farm
Not that kind of pot farm, silly. Hit up your local yard sales and grab all the ceramic and plastic pots, wooden planters, and "shabby chic" containers you can find and repurpose. Clean out any debris, and soak or spray them with a 1:9 solution of bleach and water. Set them in the sun to dry. This sanitation process ensures you're not inheriting someone else's plant diseases. (Or other cooties, if you're turning an old toilet into a garden centerpiece.)
Develop a consistent watering system
Crowded plants soak up a lot of water, especially in containers and raised beds. Drip irrigation systems make a huge difference, ensuring your plants get the right amount of water, and that they're irrigated at soil level. Both will reduce the risk of disease, and save you the biggest hassle associated with intensive gardening.
The best vegetables to grow in small spaces
We've gathered up our top picks for tiny gardens based on three main criteria:
- They're easy and fun to grow.
- They pack lots of flavor and nutrition into a small footprint.
- Each is representative of the most common food garden plant types.
We'll also suggest a few plants that pull double-duty as ornamentals. Believe it or not, some neighborhood associations and municipal zoning laws prohibit vegetable gardens on your property, so we're happy to help our customers break the rules using stealth gardening tactics.
You don't need to go underground to grow your own spuds. Grab a few burlap sacks (preferably untreated; indie coffee shops that roast organic beans are your first call) and fill them with clean soil. Cut some slits in the bag (laid flat), slip in some quartered seed potatoes (two eyes per chunk), and water as needed. Once the foliage has died back, rip open the bag and pick out your tater crop! We've also tried the DIY "potato tower" method (explained here by Oregon State University's Extension Service) to encourage higher yields in less space. This is a fun way to get your kids involved.
Beets are fast-maturing, nutritious, multi-purpose veggies. Sauté the greens as you would collards or spinach, and boil, roast, or pickle the roots. These are best grown directly in the ground, but they'll do just fine in raised beds. Look for smaller varieties such as "Bull's Blood" and "Chioggia" for shallower soils; these produce 2" to 3.5" beetroots.
Carrots love deep, loose, well-drained, somewhat sandy soil. Select shorter types for growing in raised beds and containers, or loosen your garden soil about two inches deeper than the variety's estimated length. We like "Paris Market" and "Little Finger" varieties, but if you have deeper soil, you can go "all in" with colorful, flavorful heirloom carrots that taste nothing like the bland veggies at your grocery store.
Beans are full of protein and vitamins, and since they're legumes, they help fix nitrogen in the soil. There are three types of beans: Bush, pole, and runner. The latter two are ideal vegetables for vertical gardens. Train them to grow on tented bamboo stakes, thin wooden lattice supports, or trellis netting. For every vertical stake or string, plant three or four seed beans around the base; as they begin to produce, continuously pick the pods while they're tender to prolong the harvest.
Grow scarlet runner beans for their tender pods or their psychedelic Lima-sized seeds, or for their aesthetic value alone. Their attractive flowers and foliage pass as cottage garden ornamentals. Stick it to your stodgy HOA with a lush, vine-covered arbor that—oops!—just happens to produce food.
Try a mesclun mix for a grab-and-go mashup of sweet, spicy, crunchy greens (and reds!). They grow quickly in cool spring weather, and if you move them to a shadier spot in the summer and practice successive planting, you can have a supply until the first hard frost. We recommend wide, shallow containers—anything deeper than 6" is just a waste of soil. Mesclun is perfect for window boxes, though you can get away with growing them in nursery flats for "microgreens."
You're not limited to the cherry varieties, though the enormous beefsteak types might not be the right choice if you want the best per-plant returns. Select determinate varieties for patio containers and densely-planted raised beds. These are bushier and tidier than indeterminates, which require support and tend to sprawl but do well in inverted hanging containers.
We recommend growing one or two varieties from of each type based on your preference for size, flavor, and specialty use in the kitchen. Indeterminate tomato fruits ripen a few at a time over a longer period, where determinate tomatoes will slowly ramp up to an explosion of deliciously ripe fruits.
Green onions and chives
Green onions and chives are the least space-ravenous of the alliums, so if you want a mild, oniony flavor in your salads, soups, and marinades, either plant is happy to grow in containers and raised beds. We like to keep chives in our kitchen window, shearing off the hollow, quill-shaped leaves whenever we need a little sumthin'-sumthin' in our scrambled eggs or salsa dip. Our little "colony" has been growing continuously for two years!
Bok choy (pak choi)
"Red Choi" and "Toy Choi" are excellent bok choy varieties for containers and small garden plots. Harvested while young, Red Choi is a popular micro-green and the latter is an early-maturing, tiny bundle of flavor and nutrients. Grab bok choy leaves as you need them, or harvest entire heads for stir-fries and steamed veggies.
You had to know we'd recommend kale—also called "leaf cabbage"—for gardeners who want to make every square inch count. Kale is a resilient, productive, and attractive garden green with several textures, colors, and plant sizes available. Provide one to 1.5 cubic feet per plant in your veggie garden or among your landscaping ornamentals. They hold up longer in the fridge than most leafy vegetables, and they freeze well. Have you ever made kale chips? Neither have we! Be our guinea pigs, and let us know if the hype is legit!
Vining cucurbits (melon, squash, cucumbers)
Most melon and squash varieties take up a lot of garden space, but you can train others to climb. Build your trellis from welded wire fence panels, or purchase a product like the Titan Squash Tunnel to support cucumbers, butternut squash, or softball-sized, deliciously-sweet Tigger melons. Foliage-covered, heavy-gauge mesh panel "screens" provide shade for heat-intolerant crops. They're also great for hiding hoses, garbage cans, and recycling bins, and for keeping composting systems out of direct sunlight.
Grow with what you've got
Sometimes, a "survival garden" is what helps you cope with urban living until you have room for chickens, goats, and a garden big enough to feed the Golden Horde. If you plan to hunker down in your current home, you can build out your yard with permanent terraced beds, cascading wall containers, and potted patio gardens.We want to see your micro-garden brag photos! Follow us on social media, and tag us when you post about your experiences. And be sure to let us know if you plan on uploading a video tour of your bunker's aquaponic garden. That's next-level small-space gardening right there, and we'd love to learn more.