Karen Newcomb provides tips and tricks for planning and growing a productive vegetable garden with minimal space in The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden (Ten Speed Press, 2015). Tiny plots that require little upkeep are ideal for today’s lifestyles, and they can still be tremendously productive. For example, a 5 by 5-foot bed will produce a minimum of 200 pounds of vegetables—even a container garden can be a very effective way to grow your own vegetables. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Planning Your Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden.”
If you like growing vegetables, there are few things more fun than planning the garden for next season. The best wintertime garden dreamers draw up dozens of illustrations of what their next garden is going to look like. I suggest that you do it, too. After all, things always go better with a plan. A good plan keeps your mistakes to a minimum by giving you some idea in advance of where to put your garden, what to plant in it, how much space to allocate, and what shape it should be.
Where to Put Your Postage Stamp Garden
The first thing to do in planning your garden, of course, is to decide where to put it. Your plants don't really care where they grow as long as you give them a lot of tender loving care—that is, good fertile soil, enough water, and whatever heat and daylight they need.
The main rule to consider is this: Most vegetables need minimally about six hours of direct sunlight. As long as your garden receives this minimum amount of direct sunlight every day, you can put your garden almost anywhere. Warm-weather vegetables (tomatoes, squash, peppers) can never get too much sun. Cool-weather vegetables (lettuce, greens, cabbage) will tolerate a little shade.
In addition, there are a few other placement considerations. Keep your garden bed at least 20 feet away from shallow-rooted trees like elms, maples, and poplars. Not only will the foliage of these trees block out the sun, but also their roots will compete for water and nutrients. Generally, tree roots take food from the soil in a circle as wide as the tree’s farthest-reaching branches, and plants usually do poorly within this circle.
Don’t put your garden in a low area that will collect standing water or near a downspout, where the force from a sudden rain can wash out some of your plants. Yet do try to place your garden near a water outlet. By doing so, you will eliminate having to drag a hose long distances. Also, try to place your garden as near the tool storage area as possible.
If possible, locate your vegetable garden next to an existing fence at the north end of your property, so that you can grow vining vegetables such as peas and cucumbers up against it. If you have a very large patio, or all the sunniest spots in your garden are paved over or occupied by existing flower beds, never fear. You can still plant a container garden or a flower bed vegetable garden. Who says that you have to grow a formal vegetable garden? Nobody, right? Not only can you mix vegetables with flowers in any flower bed, but doing so can also produce great quantities of vegetables. Here is some advice
for “vegetablizing” your flower beds:
1. Plant vines such as cucumbers and small melons against back fences or walls. Plant beanstalks against a wall or stake them. Plantings like this give your garden an especially lush look.
2. Use leaf lettuce and Swiss chard as flower bed edging or borders. Grow head lettuce just behind the edging.
3. Plant root crops in small groups scattered throughout the flower bed.
4. Plant cabbage in a conspicuous spot where you’re looking for a show-off.
5. Plant corn in a sunny corner. A 4 by 6-foot plot with plants 10 inches apart will produce a good crop.
6. Use attractive vegetable plants such as peppers, rhubarb, and artichokes as ornamentals to complement other plants.
What to Plant in Your Postage Stamp Garden
Before you rush out and plant a garden, spend a little time thinking about how you cook and how your family eats. Do you like salads, pasta, or hearty chowders and stews? If you don’t care much for turnips, yet love tomatoes and use them in almost everything, then eliminate all turnips in the planning stage, even if they are easy to grow. Try new recipes that call for unfamiliar vegetables, and use a notebook to keep track of the vegetable varieties you’ve enjoyed.
After you make your choices, you can then select the number of plants you need by checking the Number of Plants Per Person table. If you enjoy canning or freezing vegetables, you can increase the number of plants recommended in the table to produce extra for preserving.
Other things that will influence your choice of plants are the size of your garden, the size of the plants, and how much you will use companion planting, intercropping, succession planting, and catch cropping techniques.
To decide which herbs you’ll need, look at the jars of dried herbs you already have in your kitchen. These are probably the ones you’ll eventually want in your garden. I do not recommend that you plant everything the first year. Start with two or three herbs in your first garden, and add to them as you go along. You will also need to decide whether you want to plant herbs in with the vegetables or to have separate beds for them. Many herbs are perennial and don’t need to be replanted from year to year, and keeping them separate means that you won’t have to dig around them when replanting your annual vegetables.
Finally, garden catalogs and websites are good inspiration for deciding what to plant. There are numerous vegetable, flower, and herb companies with unique personalities and a seed selection you’ll never find on the seed racks. Many of the printed seed catalogs offer planting tips, and some even have recipes. Before you start your garden, I suggest you send for some catalogs. This is one of my favorite preplanning chores every year. It will give you a chance to find new and different varieties that you really want to try.
Other Plants to Consider
In addition to vegetables, it’s always nice to plant flowers in your postage stamp garden. Edible flowers, for example, can be used to add color and taste to salads. Some flowers repel harmful insects and nematodes or provide other beneficial effects for vegetables and some attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other helpful insects to the garden to pollinate and protect your vegetables.
Some edible flowers to consider are cornflower or bachelor’s button, primrose, daisy, day lily, lavender, pansies and violas, rose, sunflower, and violet. Many herbs also produce edible flowers, including anise hyssop, borage, chervil, chives, orange bergamot, oregano, marjoram, sage, savory, and thyme. The edible flower petals of calendula are used in ales and for food coloring. These plants also make a colorful ornamental that brightens the corner of any garden. In warm areas, they will bloom and be available all winter long.
Many cooks feel that nasturtiums are an essential part of their garden. Nasturtiums are often used in salads to add a peppery taste and color. They are also used as a garnish on many other dishes. Fastidious cooks like them because of the variety of colors they can add. Creamsicle has petals with a swirled pastel that highlights a deep red throat. Peach Melba has yellow petals accented with raspberry, Moonlight has pale yellow blossoms, and Sungold has deep butter-yellow petals. You can select from 1-foot compact types to 6-foot climbing/trailing varieties. Plant after all danger of frost has passed. Nasturtiums thrive when their roots are cool and moist. Plants that get too much water have large leaves but few flowers.
Plants That Attract Butterflies
Butterflies seem to add magic to the garden, especially when a swallowtail or a painted lady lights on a nearby flower. Butterfly gardens need plenty of flowers for nectar and food plants for caterpillars. Most caterpillars confine themselves to one plant family or one specific plant. Some butterfly plants are bee balm, coreopsis, morning glory, verbena, and zinnia. Shrubs such as the butterfly bush, fruit trees, mock orange, and spirea also attract butterflies. Most seed catalogs have butterfly garden seeds.
Plants That Attract Hummingbirds
Birds make a garden come alive, but at certain times of the year, they can also eat everything as soon as it pops out of the ground. As a result, when you plant early in the spring—when birds seem to be the hungriest—you have to plant most crops under row covers. If you are a bird lover, concentrate on hummingbirds: they make for good natural insect control because they regularly pick off insects. They also gather nectar from flowers with their needlelike bills and long tongues. To attract them you might want to set out one or two hummingbird feeders or add their favorite plants to your garden. Some suggestions are columbine, coral bells, sage, fuchsia, monkey flower, gilia, honeysuckle, or butterfly bush.
Attracting Orchard Mason Bees
Presently, there is a pollination crisis due to colony collapse disorder (CDC), a serious and mysterious phenomenon that has caused the widespread death of honeybees. Orchard mason bees help fill the void. Unlike the honeybee, orchard mason bees are native to North America, do not dwell in hives, and are not affected by CDC. They are small black bees that do not harm humans or pets.
When the weather warms up in early spring, the orchard mason bees emerge from their holes. After they mate, the females begin to make their nests and gather pollen and nectar from the spring blossoms. Gardeners can attract orchard mason bees not only by planting flowers such as English lavender, aster, black- eyed Susan, sunflower, zinnia, purple coneflower, goldenrod, and flowering herbs, but also by making their own nesting blocks out of untreated pieces of ponderosa pine or Douglas fir measuring 1 or 2 feet long, 4 inches wide, and 6 inches deep. Simply drill a number of 1/2-inch-deep holes 3/4 inch apart in the blocks and hang them around the garden. Alternatively, mason bee nesting block kits are available through seed suppliers.
Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden
It is a good idea to attract insects to your garden that prey on vegetable pests, pollinate plants, and build soil. Ladybugs, for example, the age-old symbol of good luck, are familiar to most gardeners with their spotted bright orange-red hemispherical shell. A ladybug eats two-and-a-half times its own weight a day in aphids, mealybugs, moth eggs, and spider mites. Ladybugs can be found on most flowering vegetables and herbs. The adult praying mantis consumes huge quantities of beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. The young praying mantis eats aphids, flies, and other small insects. They, too, are drawn to flowering herbs and flowers. There are some nectar-loving beneficial insects like lacewings (sometimes known as stinkbugs), which are fragile-looking light-green insects. The adult is mainly a nectar lover, but the larvae (known as aphid lions) have a gluttonous appetite for aphids, mealybugs, mites, leafhoppers, thrips, and other insects.
To help attract these and other useful bugs to your garden, start with a 10-gallon plastic tub, which you can find at hardware stores. If the tub does not already have a hole in the bottom, drill a few to provide drainage. Fill the tub with a mixture of planting soil and compost. Now, include six to eight of these plants, which are rich in pollen and nectar: nicotonia, autumn sage, lemon queen, catmint, blue daze, verbena, silver thyme, lavender, cosmos, nasturtium, and trailing rosemary. Water several times a week and feed with fish emulsion or any organic feed on a weekly basis. Place this tub next to your vegetable plot to invite the good bugs to visit and stay for a while.
What Size to Make Your Garden
Most people are short on time. If you have a job and children, you may only have an hour or two a week to spend in the garden. The less time you have to spend gardening, the smaller you need to make your garden. You may know someone who rushed out and planted the entire backyard in plants, then wound up spending every spare moment just keeping up with it. If you are concerned about time and don’t know what a good size is to start with, a single 4 by 4-foot garden is ideal. Planting in containers is also an option for busy gardeners. The good news is that with the postage stamp method, even a 4 by 4-foot garden or a few containers can produce a large amount of food.
Also, consider that the larger the garden, the more expensive it will most likely be. Gardening can be extremely expensive, or it can cost practically nothing. You can, for instance, buy garden compost or make your own. You can buy
$42 pruners or a pair for $6, pay $48 for pliant pants or garden in a pair of old jeans. You may want to splurge on kneeling pads, a garden vest, and other gardening accessories—the choice belongs to you.
It pays to start small, spend a modest amount the first year, and then decide how much you can afford and want to spend on your garden as you go along.
How to Arrange the Plants in Your Postage Stamp Garden
By proper placement of individual vegetables in your postage stamp garden, you can produce extremely large quantities of vegetables in an extremely small space. The following are postage stamp planning guidelines that will help you obtain maximum results.
1. 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 pathways 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.
2. 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.
3. Plant vines (cucumbers, melons, peas, squash) against a fence or support at the north end of your garden. Smaller vertical supports can be used within the interior of the garden. 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 postage stamp garden.
4. Forget about planting in rows. In a postage stamp garden you scatter the seeds across the bed 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. Make sure you space all major plants properly on your plan. Winter squash, for instance, requires at least 12 inches between plant centers (if grown up a fence). This means that if you have a 5 by 5-foot garden, you can plant six squash across the north end to grow up the vertical support frame.
5. 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. That way your garden will produce everywhere all the time.
6. Major vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants should be surrounded by secondary vegetables or herbs, such as green onions and bush beans. Plant vegetables that mature quickly between those that mature more slowly. For instance, plant radishes in the same space in which you have transplanted tomatoes. Harvest the radishes four to five weeks before the tomato vines takeover the space. You can also use this same space underneath the grown tomatoes as a microclimate for radishes in warm weather to ensure a continuous supply of radishes long after they stop growing in the regular garden.
7. Remember to include flowers and herbs in every garden. Certain plants can repel or attract insects. Borage, for instance, can attract bees, while marigolds are said to keep bean beetles away from snap beans and to repel nematodes. Garlic and chives may repel aphids. I urge you to put herbs and flowers among the vegetables when you have the space.
Putting Your Postage Stamp Garden Plan on Paper
In the next few pages, various plans are given for some postage stamp gardens. The plans are intended as guidelines or possibilities only and should be modified by your own experience to fit your needs. For one thing, you needn’t limit yourself to conventional rectangles. Choose almost any shape for your garden that you wish—square, rectangular, triangular, circular, kidney-shaped—you name it. Give vegetables water, the right amount of sun, and good soil, and away they grow. The shape of the garden generally doesn’t mean a thing to them.
Begin by putting your garden plan on paper, even if it is a small garden. Some gardeners draw this plan to scale (for example, making 1/4 inch equal 1 foot), which allows them to allocate space accurately. Others simply draw a rough sketch and go from there. I like to use graph paper because it enables me to see at a glance how much space I have. I’ve also been known to go to my garden and start marking off the beds with string or chalk. With a 5-foot bed, I let each square equal 2 inches, and with a 10-foot bed, 4 inches. Graphing allows you to easily plant in small groups. You can count the number of plants, or even seeds, that you are going to use.
If you prefer to make your plan online, there is a website that allows you to design your garden: PlanGarden. In addition, some of the seed catalogs offer garden planners.
Reprinted with permission from The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, by Karen Newcomb, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Illustrations copyright © 2015 Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC.