Small-Space Gardening

Growing food in small spaces can be fun and productive — you just need a little sunshine and some imagination.

| February/March 2012

My first experiment in small-space gardening was in Brussels, Belgium, on a rooftop with no guardrails. While my official goal was container-grown tomatoes, my unofficial one was to avoid becoming human gazpacho on the pavement five floors below. Now, 15 years later, I’m still practicing my small-scale growing skills, this time in the safety of a 10-by-10-foot plot in the suburbs of Maine. I’ve learned that no space is too small for growing food. Whether your garden consists of a window box in the city or an acre in the country, you can still benefit from applying the techniques of small-space gardening.

Soil Is No Small Matter

All successful gardening endeavors, big or small, start with fertile soil. If you have a large plot, you can get away with having less-fertile soil by planting more and spacing out your crops. In a small space, however, that approach simply doesn’t work. When I was preparing my front yard garden back in 2008, I remember sifting my sandy soil through my fingers and realizing I had to improve it. I added lots of organic compost along with a little lime and bone meal, and I add more organic matter each year.

The ideal soil type for growing most crops is loam, the rich halfway point between clay and sandy soils. If you’re not sure which soil type you have, hold some in the palm of your hand, wet it and try to make a ball. If it forms a tight, hard wad, then you have lots of clay in your soil. If you can’t form a ball, you have sand. If the ball forms but pretty easily breaks apart, you probably have loam. No matter which type you have, you can improve both your soil’s structure and fertility by working compost into the top layer each year. Those with really limited space can take heart in knowing there are effective composting options suitable for even the smallest of spaces (see “Micro-Composting,” near the end of this article).

Get Intense

Fertile soil that retains nutrients and water is one of the keys to success with “intensive planting,” which is a fancy way of saying planting a lot in a little area. America’s intensive-growing tradition has two fathers: John Jeavons and Mel Bartholomew. In his classic 1974 book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, Jeavons introduced Americans to French intensive-gardening techniques, notably deep soil preparation through double-dug beds and intensive crop-planting patterns. Seven years later, Bartholomew offered a new way to think about these patterns in a classic book of his own, Square Foot Gardening.

Instead of rows, Jeavons and Bartholomew suggest planting in tightly spaced geometric patterns that will allow the crops to create a “living mulch” of foliage as they mature. This living mulch performs two of the main tasks that regular old dead mulch does: keeping the soil moist and suppressing weeds.

In order to create this effect, however, you need to know how much space to give each plant. Mel Bartholomew’s brilliantly simple tactic is to set a 1-by-1-foot grid onto a garden space and plant crops into the grid. Large crops such as broccoli, peppers and cabbage require a whole square, whereas small ones such as carrots and radishes can be planted 16 to a square.

2/6/2015 8:55:16 AM

When it comes to squirrels and chipmunks, I scatter moth balls around.The critters don't like them.

Spencer Johnston
3/13/2012 1:41:36 AM

very cool article. it serves me well, as I'm looking for options anxiously with 2 dozen little sprouts of various varieties of veggies. I'm do you deter squirrels in your container garden? They're a real problem (urban in nature) for me (or inevitably will be). Is this right, or will they not even be interested? thanks

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