Grit Blogs > The Creative Vegetable Gardener

Small Space Gardens Produce Big Yields

My late husband, Duane, and I wrote vegetable garden books, including The Postage Stamp Garden Book; California Vegetable Patch; Small Space, Big Yields; The Postage Stamp Kitchen Garden Book; The Vegetable Factory, The Vegetable Gardeners Sourcebook, and more.  Duane, in 1976, pioneered the French Intensive Biodynamic small space garden era with The Postage Stamp Garden book.  Over the years our garden books have one thing in common, small gardens using the French Intensive Biodynamic Gardening method.   Using intensive methods, you can, for instance, grow as many carrots in 1 square foot as you can in a 12-foot row in a conventional garden.  Properly handled, a 24-square-foot bed (5 by 5 feet) will produce a minimum of 200 pounds of vegetables.  The smallest beds I recommend are 4 x 4 feet, the largest, 10 by 10 feet (although they can be bigger).  I also recommend raised bed gardens.  Regardless of which size you choose, your postage stamp garden will produce a tremendous amount of vegetables, and after the initial preparation, require little extra work, even less if you add a drip system to do the watering.

Where to Locate Your Garden 

  • Place your garden where it gets at least six hours of direct sun a day, since most vegetables need that much.
  • Keep your garden bed at least 20 feet from shallow-rooted trees such as elms, maples, and poplars.  Not only will the foliage of these trees block the sun, but their roots will compete for water and nutrients.  Generally, tree roots takd food from the soil in a circle whose radius is the tree’s widest-reaching branches, and plants usually do poorly within this area.
  • Keep your garden out of depressions where standing water collects and away from downspouts where the force from a sudden rain can wash out your plants.
  • Try to situate your garden near a water outlet.  This eliminates having to drag a hose long distances.  Also, try to place your garden as near to your tool storage as possible.

How to Design Your Small Space Intensive Garden  

The following are planning rules that will help you obtain maximum results.

  1. Plant tall vegetables on the north end of your garden to avoid shading the smaller crops, and plant the other vegetables in descending order of size down toward the south end of the garden.
  2. Forget about planting in rows.  In an intensive postage stamp garden you scatter the seeds, to use all the space in your garden, and then thin out the seedlings (the small plants) as they come up.  If you set out seedlings rather than seeds, space them without concern for straight rows.  The mature plants should just touch one another on all sides.
  3. If your plot is large—say 10 by 10 feet or even 8 by 8 feet—you can plant different types of vegetables in separate squares or rectangles.  In plots more than 5 or 6 feet wide, you’ll need a pathway in order to reach all your plants.  However, if the plot is narrow or small, simply block out irregular groups of vegetables and fill in the spaces any way you wish.
  4. For root vegetables (such as carrots and beets), leafy vegetables (such as lettuce and spinach), and corn you need a special plan.  The areas chosen for each of these vegetables should be subdivided into thirds or fourths, and each subsection should be seeded or planted a week to ten days apart.  In this way you get continual harvests—as one subsection stops bearing mature vegetables, another begins.  This is not so with, for example, tomatoes and cucumbers, which bear from the same plant over a long period of time.  After you’ve harvested a subsection of leafy or root vegetables, you can replant that subsection.  This way your garden will produce everywhere all the time.
  5. Use the air space above your garden as much as possible.  That is, train tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vines and trailing plants to grow up trellises, fences, or poles, so that they won’t run all over your garden bed, crowding out the other plants.  The better you get at vertical growing, the more things you’ll be able to pack into your intensive postage stamp garden.
  6. Don’t limit yourself necessarily to vegetables.  Flowers and herbs will give you fragrance and color.  Veteran gardeners know herbs and some flowers have a tremendous beneficial effect on garden health.  You can even plant edible flowers, such as nasturtiums.

9 x 9 garden

  9 x 9 bed 

 10 x 7 bed   

10 x 7 intensive bed

Consider Raised Beds 

There is something that sparks the imagination with these beds.  They’re neat, clean, and easy to handle.  You can walk all the way around them, you can thin the plants without getting dirty, and you can have as many as you want in any arrangement you like.  If you’re handy with building things all you have to do is measure out the size you want, such as 4-by-4-foot space, prepare the soil, then frame the space with 2-by-4 inch planks and nail the corners together.  If you prefer something that is easy to construct and looks great, check into pre-made raised beds.  These are all-in-one complete kits with easy to assemble instructions.  There are a number of sizes to choose from at  

 4 x 4 raised bed

4 x 4 raised bed - Photo courtesy of Earth Easy

  8 x 8 raised bed

8 x 8 raised bed  - Photo courtesy Earth Easy

 More raised beds

Naturalyard beds - Photo courtesy of Earth Easy

Getting Your Soil Ready 

For any size garden bed you choose I highly recommend buying a rototiller.  In subsequent years the soil will be loose, and you can spade it up if you like.  In any case, here is the procedure:

  1. Rototill your bed at least 1 foot deep.
  2. If you have clay soil, use a spade or spading fork to turn sand and compost into the soil until your bed consists of 1/3 compost, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 original soil.

For sandy soils, turn compost into your bed until you have 1/3 to ½ compost, the rest original soil.  For in-between soils, just estimate how much you’ll need of one thing or another in order to end up with a mixture that contains at least 1/3 compost that is loose and fairly fine and that has good air space and is easy to work.  You can purchase sand from most building supply or garden centers.

  1.  Level the bed with a rake.
  2. Spread a 2-inch layer of rotted manure (or compost) over the entire bed.  Add blood meal (4 pounds per 50 square feet), and a small dose of wood ash (e pounds per 50 square feet).   Using a rake, turn this into the top portion of the soil, and rake the topsoil to a light texture. 

Most garden centers sell an organic fertilizer that contains these ingredients, making the job easier.  Just buy this fertilizer and spread it in your garden. 

How Far Apart to Set Plants 

            When planting vegetables in an intensive postage stamp garden, space the plants a little closer than generally recommended on seed packets or on instructions for seedlings.  Corn, for instance, does quite well planted 8 inches apart as opposed to the 12 inches usually recommended for conventional gardens.

Intensive Plant Spacing in Inches 

Vegetable                  Spacing                                  Vegetable                  Spacing 

Asparagus                   12                                            Leeks                            3

Bean, fava                     4                                            Lettuce, head              10

Bean, lima (pole)         10                                            Lettuce, leaf                  6

Bean, lima (bush)          8                                            Muskmelon                  12

Bean, snap (pole)          6                                            Okra                            16

Bean, snap (bush)         4                                            Onions, bunching          2

Beets                             3                                            Onions                         3-4

Broccoli                       15                                            Parsnip                          4

Brussels sprouts         15                                            Peas                            2-3

Cabbage, Chinese      10                                            Peppers                       12-24

Cabbage                     14                                            Potatoes                      4-10

Carrot                            2                                            Pumpkins                    12-18

Cauliflower                  15                                            Radishes                       2

Celeriac                         8                                            Rutabaga                      6

Celery                            6                                            Shallot                           2

Collards                       12                                            Spinach, New Zealand 10

Corn                              8                                            Spinach                         4

Cucumbers                    6                                            Squash, summer         12

Eggplant                      24                                            Squash, winter            12-24

Garlic                             3                                            Swiss chard                   6

Kale                               8                                            Tomatoes                    18

Kohlrabi                         6                                            Turnips                          3

                                                                                    Watermelon                 12-18

It isn’t necessary to buy compact plants for small space gardens, unless you want to.  Normal varieties grow just fine.  However, if you want to grow melons of any kind try using space-saving varieties.

For a complete list of vegetable varieties visit:

Have fun with designing your garden beds.  Experiment!

© Copyright 2013 by Karen Newcomb