New cultivars of compact edible plants are released onto the market every year. An increasing number of gardeners have growing space that’s limited to a small area, such as a patio garden, a raised bed, or containers. Because of this, plant breeders and seed companies have dedicated much effort toward increasing the number of pint-sized fruits, veggies, and herbs available to home gardeners, while also paying careful attention to flavor, disease resistance, and productivity.
All the plants on the following list require a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight per day, so select a planting site that receives plenty of sun. You’ll also want to avoid a location near large, established trees with extensive root systems that may out-compete your veggies. (Obviously, this won’t be a factor if you’re growing in containers.) Having your garden near a water source is helpful too, as lugging a hose a great distance is a chore.
The following edible plant profiles are designed to help you determine which petite cultivars are best for your small-scale garden. Though there are many more choices not included on this list, these particular selections have performed well in my own garden over the years. In other words, these cultivars aren’t just cutie-pie plants that are fun to look at; they’re also resistant to common plant pathogens, easy to grow, high yielding, and delicious.
‘Little SnapPea Crunch’ Sugar Snap Pea
(Pisumsativum var. macrocarpon)
Mature dimensions: 28 to 32 inches tall, and 8 to 12 inches wide.
Harvest time: Early summer or late fall.
This edible-podded snap pea produces a plethora of plump, sweet pods on plants that are about a third the height of standard cultivars. Three-inch-long pods follow lovely white flowers. The plants are fairly heat tolerant too.
Peas are a cool-season crop, so sowing very early or late in the season is essential. Sow seeds directly into a garden or container, 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart. Use a pea inoculant to improve growth and germination, especially if you’re growing in containers. ‘Little SnapPea Crunch’ looks great mixed into flower borders, in containers, or in raised beds.
There’s no need to stake this plant, as the compact vines are self-supporting. Pods are ready to harvest when they’re swollen and the peas inside have filled out, about 58 to 60 days after planting.
‘On Deck’ Sweet Corn
(Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa)
Mature dimensions: 4 to 5 feet tall, and 12 to 18 inches wide.
Harvest time: Mid- to late summer.
If you don’t think you have enough room to grow corn, think again. ‘On Deck’ is a sweet, hybrid, bicolor corn bred just for small gardens and containers. Each plant produces 2 to 3 ears that are 7 to 8 inches long. It has a classic corn look, but at half the height of standard cultivars.
Corn is wind-pollinated, so you’ll have to plant this crop in groups of at least 10 plants for decent kernel formation. Plant seeds only after all danger of frost has passed. The soil must be over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or seeds may fail to germinate. Sow them 1 inch deep and 5 inches apart. If you choose to grow ‘On Deck’ in a container, select a large pot that can hold at least 10 to 12 full-grown stalks.
Plants don’t need to be staked, but don’t plant ‘On Deck’ near other corn cultivars, or cross-pollination could occur and cause the kernels to be starchy. Separate cultivars by at least 250 feet; that includes any nearby field corn. The ears are ready to harvest 60 to 65 days after seeding.
‘Patio Snacker’ Cucumber
Mature dimensions: 10 to 12 inches tall, and 2 to 3 feet wide.
Harvest time: Summer through fall.
Once you grow this compact cuke, you’ll be hooked. It’s hard to believe how many 6-inch-long, slender fruits such small plants produce. With very short vines, this hybrid is ideal for pots and tiny backyards. Like other cucumbers, the plants bear separate male and female flowers, but unlike many other cultivars, ‘Patio Snacker’ doesn’t need a lot of pollinators around to produce fruit. The flowers are parthenocarpic, meaning they have the ability to set fruit without insect pollination, making this an excellent choice for urban areas and balcony gardens where pollinators may be in limited supply.
‘Patio Snacker’ cucumbers are ready to harvest just 55 days after planting the seeds. Wait to plant until the soil temperature reaches at least 65 degrees and the danger of frost has passed. Sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep, and space plants 3 feet apart, or plan on one plant per 3-gallon container.
Use a small trellis or fence to support the vines, or let them spill out over the edge of a container. Harvest the cucumbers on a continual basis for more production. Consistent, even moisture is critical for good fruit development with all cucumbers.
‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant
Mature dimensions: 16 to 24 inches tall, with equal spread.
Harvest time: Summer through early fall.
These compact hybrid plants are great for patio pots and urban gardens. Dark-purple, egg-shaped, glossy fruits are 2 to 3 inches long and wide. Their thin skins make them perfect for roasting. Each plant produces many small fruits per cluster. This is a great cultivar for short growing seasons.
Sow seeds indoors under grow lights 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost date, and move plants outdoors when danger of frost has passed. Space the plants at least 18 inches apart, or plan on one plant per 3-gallon container.
The more you harvest, the more fruits this cultivar will set, and picking is easy because the plants are spineless. Compact plants mean no staking is necessary. When ripe, cut the fruits from the plant; don’t tear. ‘Patio Baby’ is ready to harvest just 50 days after transplanting out into the garden.
Mature dimensions: 18 inches tall, and 2 to 2-1/2 feet wide.
Harvest time: Summer through fall.
A favorite zucchini of container gardeners, the deep, glossy, green fruits of ‘Astia’ are best picked when 6 to 7 inches long. The plants are only half the width of other cultivars, and their open habit makes harvesting a snap. ‘Astia’ is resistant to powdery mildew, and it produces fewer than 50 days after planting.
This compact, hybrid zucchini is best started by sowing the seeds directly into the garden or container when the threat of frost has passed and summer weather has arrived. Plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 3 feet apart, or sow one plant per 5-to-8-gallon container.
As with other squash, good pollination is key for ample fruit set. If your zucchini have misshapen ends or fail to grow, it’s a sure sign of poor pollination. Plant this cultivar alongside flowers to increase the number of pollinating insects present. Harvest by cutting the fruits from the vine; don’t pull. Harvest on a daily basis to ensure continual zucchini production.
‘Super Bush’ Tomato
Mature dimensions: 2 to 3 feet tall, and 1 to 2 feet wide.
Harvest time: Summer through fall.
These saladette tomatoes weigh in at 5 to 6 ounces each and fit nicely in the palm of your hand. Their sweet flavor is ready to enjoy about 70 days after the transplants are settled into the garden. This hybrid cultivar produces high yields, and the plant’s dark-green foliage is eye-catchingly attractive.
Sow seeds of ‘Super Bush’ indoors under grow lights about six weeks before the last expected spring frost. Move the seedlings into the garden when frost no longer threatens. Space the plants 3 to 4 feet apart, or plan on one plant per 5-to-8-gallon container. Bury the plants deeply to encourage good root growth, and mulch well with straw or shredded leaves to optimize the soil’s moisture retention.
Because this plant is a heavy producer, use a tomato cage or staking system to keep the vines upright. Regularly prune excessive leaf growth to encourage tomato production.
Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners,” an award-winning radio program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is a regular contributor to multiple national gardening magazines. This is an excerpt from her book Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants (Cool Springs Press.)