Gardening in small spaces (or no space)

By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of pallet-herb-garden and The Wealthy Earth

Think you don’t have enough space for growing vegetables? Not so, says one amateur gardener who has discovered tight spaces often make the best gardens.
I grew up with gardens. Both grandparents had big gardens: rows of corn, tepees of beans, cabbage growing in neat lines, lettuce we’d cover with muslin to protect the tender leaves from frost, tomatoes planted so we’d have a crop from summer to September, sometimes watermelons or pumpkins but always onions and banana peppers.
My dad’s dad, Papaw Bob, would roust me out of bed early on Saturday mornings to help him plant corn. Granny Thelma, my maternal grandmother, had me pick beans and help her prepare them for canning or for drying on homemade racks in the back yard. I’d run and get six ears of corn for dinner or two tomatoes to top our burgers or a bowl of lettuce and green onions for a salad. I’d water and weed and work… I hated every minute of it.
That’s shameful to admit, but as a kid I detested gardening. Weeding was the worst, it was always too hot, something bit or scratched me, there was dirt in my shoe, I got a blister. More than that, I saw a stigma in gardening. It meant we were too ignorant or poor to just go buy an ear of corn in the store when we wanted it.
Was I ever wrong.
I realized how wrong when my wife and I bought our house and decided to grow herbs, flowers and tomatoes. We had no proper plot to till and tend, just a sunny deck and a too shady yard. We used pots, containers and planter boxes I built and turned out a good crop of squash, cucumber, tomatoes, herbs and more than a few bouquets that first summer; winter and spring brought lettuce, arugula and Swiss chard, and I loved every minute of watering and weeding and savored every bite.
As it turned out, gardening in boxes and containers was perfect for us. With limited space and even more limited knowledge (not to mention tools), keeping us literally boxed in meant we had to be selective with what and how we grew. My wife bought a book, All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, and right on the cover it promised to show us how to “grow more in less space!” I read the book, she read the book and we applied some of Bartholomew’s practices to much success.
Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening idea is simple: a 16-square foot garden – 4’x4’ – box filled with a rich soil mix and planted precisely to allow for maximum yield on a minimal footprint. He lays a grid of one-foot squares across the top to keep things organized, and in each square foot you can grow nine bunches of spinach, 16 onions or carrots, four bunches of lettuce or a large plant like cabbage or peppers. (He lays out other plans and includes a reasonably comprehensive index of plants, herbs and flowers and how many will fit in a square foot.)

These principles apply to pots and other containers too, so you’re not stuck with the larger square foot garden that Bartholomew lays out; just estimate the size and plant accordingly. They also apply to smaller segments and different configurations of the square foot garden. You could build a 3’x1’ box to sit on your deck rail; make a 3’x3’ garden that’s just enough for easy maintenance and enough food to augment your farmers market shopping; or you could have a dozen big pots and planters placed around your patio. In short, you’re not limited to Bartholomew’s untreated pine lumber boxes.
Pots and containers of almost any material (avoid pressure treated wood) that you buy or build (think of using cedar or cypress, which are pricier but rot resistant and attractive) would work. You can even discover new uses for old objects. Plant a salad garden in a wicker basket, a collection of herbs in a dozen separate pots of different sizes and shapes, even a series of small buckets hanging from your railing or off a wall. By shopping at a specialty garden shop you can find interesting and unexpected containers to pot up: an old (clean) olive oil can looks sharp with basil growing from it; strawberries do well in a window box; and imagine a few containers with corn stalks towering out of them.
You can also get out-of-the-box creative with planting and go vertical. Not just vertical in terms of building a trellis for beans or cucumbers to climb as they grow, but actual vertical gardens.
Vertical gardens are ideal for tight spaces like urban balconies. On Amazon and at specialty garden shops you can find fabric totes that resemble a shoe organizer that might hang on the back of a closet door (but more attractive). Hang these on the wall, fill with dirt and plant them up with succulents or herbs or flowers and you’ve created a lovely, and likely edible, greenspace of your own.
Head out to an architectural salvage yard or antique shop and look for a large set of storm shutters. When you find them, don’t worry if they’re not fit to keep a storm at bay, you’re going to clean them up, staple weed cloth to the back and the slats, then fill the space between the slats with dirt and start to plant; you’ll never be able to grow a zucchini or tomato in a planter like this, but you can grow trailing or tufting flowers and herbs, even succulents, in a planter like this.
If you’re really tight for room – apartment with no balcony or deep window – you can get something like the Aerogarden, a miniature hydroponic grow kit that lets you have fresh herbs year-round in a space that takes up just a little more room than a toaster oven.
Or you can find a community garden.
Community gardens have risen in popularity in the last decade as urbanites have taken a liking to gardening and found spaces where they can grow vegetables, herbs and fruits in a sort of co-op garden situation. Starting a community garden can be a bit of work, but there are a number of existing gardens, some of which you can discover at your local farmers market or organic food store, others may be members of the American Community Gardening Association, an organization devoted to promoting community through gardening. The website has interactive maps showing the location and contact information of community gardens across the United States.
No matter how you garden – a one-acre plot or one pot on your patio, in a community garden or in your own back yard – there’s plenty you can grow in a small space.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.