Gardening Tips for Small Spaces

Whether in a garden constructed from wooden planks, in a pot in the backyard, or planted directly into a bag of soil, growing herbs and veggies is possible even in a small, personal space.

Basket of fresh vegetables

Mary Lou Shaw is a wealth of information on how and when to plant vegetables of all varieties in whatever space you have available.

Photo by Fotolia /k2photostudio

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Mary Lou Shaw is a former physician, current homesteader, who has seen the consequences of unhealthy eating firsthand. These experiences have shown her the difference that good eating habits can make. And the easiest way to eat healthy? Grow your own ingredients. While processed foods put people at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, farming, gardening, and eating food that only travels yards to the table promotes a return to a healthy lifestyle where you are directly involved in the creation of your meals and assured of their quality. In her book Growing Local Food, Dr. Shaw discusses her personal change to homegrown ingredients, how she’s found success on the farm and in the garden—from planting seeds to food preservation—and tips for how you can do the same. In her book are dozens of original recipes to browse, too, a great place to start searching for uses for your fresh ingredients. Healthy eating has to begin somewhere. Whether on an acre of land or in a garden box, it could begin with you.

Groceries from Your Own Backyard

I’ve heard people in town and suburbs say they don’t have room for a garden. Plants do need sun, good soil, water and drainage, but they don’t necessarily need a lot of room. Here are three suggestions for growing food in small spaces:

Container planting:

Do a mental tour of your yard. Do you have a patio or driveway area that gets sunshine at least six hours a day? Visualize the front yard too, because vegetables can be as attractive as shrubs or flowers.

Now imagine what containers you could use. I like clay pots, but large ones might be too heavy to be practical. Plastic containers are attractive and can last for years. To make deep pots lighter yet, you could place Styrofoam packing-peanuts and peat moss at the bottom portion of your pots.

Before filling the containers, make sure they have adequate drainage. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to drill a few more holes in the bottom. Next mix equal parts of compost, perlite and peat moss to put in the pots. When planting time comes, your pots will be ready for seeds or small plants.

Vegetables that can be sown directly into containers include kale, garlic, potatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers and carrots. Of all these, carrots will need the deepest container.

Plant a salad-mix early: Lettuce, radishes, onions and peas do well in the spring. Herbs can also share space for an aromatic container. Place chives, basil, marjoram, thyme, parsley and sage together. Keep pinching and using them as they grow so they don’t become too crowded.

If the only sunny area around your home is lawn, and you don’t feel like breaking sod this spring, why not plant directly into bags of good quality top soil? I admit that large, plastic bags don’t sound like attractive containers, but it’s a practical way to make an instant garden. Place the bags of soil flat wherever you want a garden bed. Next, poke drainage holes in the bottom side and cut a large rectangle from the side which has become the top. You can now plant your seeds or seedlings directly in the bag. If using several bags, mulch the paths between with straw or woodchips. When your vegetables are flourishing in July, this arrangement makes an attractive and manageable garden.

Square Foot Gardening:

Besides planting in bags of soil, there’s another way to create gardens on lawns without doing major soil excavation. You can put down heavy-duty landscape cloth and build a raised bed on top of it. Honest—this can be done without a lot of tools or construction know-how.

Begin by purchasing landscape cloth that is heavy enough to prevent grass and weeds from penetrating it. You’ll also need four-foot lengths of one-by-four or one-by-six wood. The final items to purchase are screws to connect the wood at right angles. The wood should NOT be treated because you don’t want chemicals in your food.

To construct your new garden:

1. Place the cloth in an area that gets sunshine six to eight hours a day
2. Place the wood on edge to create a square
3. Screw the corners together
4. Fill with the compost, perlite and peat-moss mixture

The “square-foot” concept is now created by dividing the soil surface into 16 easy-to-manage, one-foot squares. The dividers can be anything from discarded venetian blinds to wood. Each square-foot will “house” a various number of plants—one to 16 plants, depending on how far apart the seed packages tell you to put the seeds. A tomato or cabbage gets one section, but beet or turnip seeds can be thinned to every four inches. Rather than in rows, it’s attractive to plant lettuce or chard densely in its square foot—and then thin it as it grows. As you harvest one section, plant something else there.

The idea of a four-by-four raised bed is to allow you to reach within without stepping on the soil. For children, the dimensions should be three-by-three feet. In any garden, try to not to step on soil where plants will grow.

Edible Landscape:

If you have sunny spaces that would benefit from landscaping, consider landscaping with vegetables. Don’t picture something plain and ugly—if it’s part of your landscape, it has to look good! You could incorporate an arbor or trellis for tomatoes and a tipi for string beans. The ground cover can be basil, zucchini, chard, collards and bell peppers. The author, Rosalind Creasy, found that the produce from her 100-square-foot “landscaping” was worth $975.18 in a single summer.

I like the concept of pots, bags or square-foot-gardening for a couple reasons. First, most anyone can begin gardening without needing a lot of land, equipment or muscles. Just as important, these methods allow us to start small. If we plant too much the first year, the weeds and even produce can overwhelm us in July. By beginning small, you can plan how to enlarge your garden as you harvest wonderful food this coming summer.

For more from Mary Lou Shaw, check out another excerpt "Eating Your Curds and Whey", or take a look at delicious sample recipes from her kitchen, Shepherd's Pie Recipe and Sweet Potato Soup Recipe.


Reprinted with permission from Growing Local Foodby Mary Lou Shaw, published by Carlisle Press, 2012.