How to Grow a Mini-Garden

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A diagram of the garden Huckans planted using succession planting techniques adaptable to a mini-garden.
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An idealized image of a garden with ample space for everything.
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The somewhat more constrained reality of a mini-garden.

“Grow your own food” is a popular theme these days, and plenty of excellent organic-gardening books are available to tell you how. The problem that’s least often covered in these works, however, is the very one that keeps many would-be home farmers from getting started: What if all the land you have is the skimpy yard that surrounds an apartment . . . or a home on a small lot in a village … or a rented farmhouse?

Well, you can do more than you might think with that kind of space … or even with no space that’s actually yours. Every city, for instance, has large amounts of publicly and privately owned wasteland–empty urban renewal sites, vacant lots, unused areas around new apartment houses–much of it so unsightly that those who own or control such property should be glad to have it made beautiful and productive.

I know that you can raise plenty of fresh produce in cramped quarters because–even though I live in a rural village–my own vegetable patch measures only 20′ X 50′. The techniques I use on that bit of ground should be readily adaptable by any urban, village, or farm gardener who has only a shirttail-size plot at his or her disposal.

There’s no question, of course, that my garden is rather small for serious food production . . . so I stretch the land. Sound impossible? Not at all … because stretching can be done in a time as well as in a space sense.

First of all, instead of waiting for the traditional beginning of the garden season (Memorial Day here in upstate New York), I commence in early April or whenever the ground is dry enough to work. Not all crops, however, take kindly to a cool-weather start … so I take advantage of their different preferences by planting less hardy subjects later on between the rows of the early vegetables. By following the principles of “companion” and “succession” cropping, I can extend my land spatially as well as temporally and–in effect–double its productiveness.

To show you what I mean, I’ll explain how I planted last year’s vegetable patch. 

As soon as the snow left the ground I started operations by putting in my peas. Although some organic gardening experts question the wisdom of a late winter or early spring beginning, I’ve had good results whenever I’ve planted this vegetable as early as possible (with the added bonus that the ground is free again in late June for succeeding crops sown between the rows of peas toward the end of May).

Accordingly, five double rows of peas–spaced three feet apart and covering almost two-thirds of the garden–went in during the first week of April. Why double rows? Because I’ve found that they prevent the gaps or “misses” (with the resulting poor pollination and reduced yield) that sometimes occur in traditional single line plantings. The vegetables benefit by a more compact arrangement… and so do I, since I end up with the equivalent of 500 feet of peas.

Part of the remaining third of my garden was devoted to perennials: strawberries, asparagus, raspberries, blackberries, and grapes. In all the leftover space I planted lettuce, Swiss chard, beets, onions, carrots and radishes… all “middle-to-long-season” crops that can safely withstand cool spring weather and an occasional light frost.

Radishes, by the way, don’t rate valuable garden space all to themselves. I use them as a “marker crop” by sowing their seeds mixed in with those of plants like chard and root vegetables which are slow to germinate. The spicy little globes develop very quickly, loosen the soil for their slower companions and show me where each row is … and they’re well out of the way in four or five weeks, before the later arrivals need the room.

When I made my cool-weather planting I put lettuce and Swiss chard in the “clay” corner of the garden … which is unsuitable for root crops. Both these greens do very well without much ground preparation, so I had more time to spend on working the soil and removing stones in the lighter earth where the carrots, onions and beets were to go.

When the first week in May rolled around (since I’m a bit of a gambler) I took a chance on planting and setting out some of the warm-weather crops … not advised in these parts until the last of the month when the danger of frost is over. Nevertheless, I’ve found it worthwhile to start early and plan on covering frost-sensitive plants with large brown-paper bags on evenings when low temperatures are forecast … usually a matter of four or five nights.

Last year my warm-weather planting consisted of tomatoes, eggplants, broccoli, bush beans, pole beans (Kentucky Wonder, which I recommend highly), corn, winter and summer squash, potatoes and green peppers. Where did I put all this? Between the rows of peas, naturally … where they would effectively double my gardening space.

Here, in detail, is how I filled those three-foot aisles: Forty hills of corn were planted between the lines of peas at one end of the garden (in blocks at least four rows wide to ensure effective pollination). Then I set fourteen eight-to-ten-foot poles into the ground about two and a half feet apart and planted eight Kentucky Wonder pole bean seeds in a shallow hill surrounding each support. In addition, a dozen broccoli plants (which thrive in cool weather and could have been planted earlier), eight or nine eggplants, two short rows of bush beans sowed two weeks apart to ensure a continuous supply, a dozen early hybrid tomatoes, three green pepper plants and a row of potatoes all fit in between the files of growing pea vines.

Not bad, but I still wasn’t finished… I went on to plant a Hubbard squash seed in every other interior hill of corn. This late variety (for fall use or winter storage) needs a lot of room for the vines to wander, and not uncommonly produces vegetables that weigh 40-50 pounds each.

Next, in every second hill of corn at the edge of the patch, I started two summer squash seeds (you may prefer straight-neck, crook-neck, or zucchini). Summer squash, as the name suggests, will bear early in the season and–because they grow in bush form rather than wandering–can be planted at the outside of the area without the danger that they’ll take over the rest of the garden.

If you follow this system of succession planting, you needn’t stop even at this point. After your corn is two feet high you may want to experiment by planting two pole bean seeds in alternate hills (the ones in which you didn’t sow squash). If you have enough full sun in your plot the ripening of the corn won’t be hindered, and its stalks will provide support for the climbing beans.

Pole beans, like Swiss chard, like to be picked frequently and respond by increased and prolonged bearing. Toward the end of the summer, when the pods get too large and coarse for cooking, you can let those that remain develop and mature for shelling. Be sure to save the largest and best-looking seeds to plant the following year.

Speaking of experiments, last season’s most dramatic gardening event occurred when I picked my first ripe tomato outdoors on May 16 … about two weeks before most people had even set out their plants. Still, this wasn’t such an extraordinary feat when you know how I did it.

I always start my tomato seeds indoors along in March, in traditional flowerpots. (After trials with peat pots, pellets, and other techniques, I still like the old-fashioned clay container best. Fortunately I rescued a rather large supply from an urban renewal demolition contractor who was about to haul them to a landfill site. Otherwise I’d use coffee cans with drainage holes in the bottoms.)

Last year, however, I thought I’d start a few tomato plants in January in the large, southern bay window which serves as my winter “greenhouse”. By the time I launched the rest in March, those few — already 15 inches high and starting to bloom — were ready to be transplanted to my largest clay pots. Then, when the blossoms set fruit, the plants became insatiable. It was nearly impossible to overwater them, because at this stage the vines must transpire nearly 25 pounds of moisture for each pound of fruit developed.

I started picking vine-ripened tomatoes indoors in April, and — when the plants were set out on May 10 — the earlier ones were already in full production. Hence the drama of May 16. We ate the fresh output of our patch for five months that year (and needn’t have stopped then, because green tomatoes gathered before the first frost can be kept in a cool place for an additional 60 to 90 days. Just how long depends on care in storage). This success encouraged us to start seeds for fall and winter maturity indoors to give us tasty organically grown produce all year.

A note on the outdoor cultivation of this crop: I prefer to set the plants very deep in compost-filled holes and to stake them up to six-foot poles set three feet apart. In areas where sun scald would endanger tomatoes exposed in such a manner, you may decide to let the vines wander on the ground to help shade and protect the fruit. In our climate, though, we have many overcast days and we need all the sun we can get.

Of course the kind of early, overlapping, and interwoven planting I’ve just mentioned isn’t the only key to success in mini-gardening … the plants also must be cared for and fed. During May and June it’s well worth your time to cultivate carefully by hand two or three times, since by getting an early start on the weeds you’ll be saving yourself a lot of harder work later on. When I do this I feel something like the Jolly Green Giant as I tiptoe between the mini-rows, cultivator in hand

You’ll find it much easier to move about and weed your middle-to-late-season crops once the pea vines have been removed. Depending on when you planted, these vegetables will finish bearing somewhere between June 15 and July 15 … about the time their successors start to need extra space. Shred the uprooted plants with a rotary mower and spread them as a nitrogen-rich mulch for leafy crops … or add the ground foliage to your compost pile, where it will speed up the action by supplying extra nitrogen to the decay bacteria.

The compost which nourishes my garden is made in a simple one-compartment New Zealand box (a frame with no top or bottom). I’ve set up a removable panel in front to discourage wandering dogs from nosing around in the buried garbage and manure. Four 2 X 4’s — each four feet long and sunk in the ground to a depth of one foot — and 1″ X 8″ boards nailed horizontally to the uprights with a gap of one inch between planks are all you need to build such a container. The dimensions can be whatever you please. Treatment of the underground parts with a preservative will materially lengthen the bin’s life, since proximity to the organic action of the compost pile would otherwise speed the wood’s decay.

A word about fertilizers other than compost: While I understand, accept, and practice the basic organic gardening method, I must confess to a less than purist approach. I believe that an excellent comparison can be made between chemical fertilizers and drugs: Carefully controlled use of either by people who know what they’re doing may be valid in certain circumstances.

To carry the comparison further, an overdependence on chemical plant food is like an overdependence on dope: Both tend to interfere with proper nutrition and development of the organism. Horticultural addiction is common in this country. Since the late 1840’s, chemical fertilizer salesmen (and, more recently, hucksters of pesticides and herbicides) have been pushers to generations of agricultural junkies who have paid for the privilege of poisoning their land.

At the other extreme we find the unknowledgeable but enthusiastic freak who thinks that organic gardening is nothing more than dumping garbage on the soil. Unfortunately, anyone who planted a crop on land thus heavily loaded with undigested or uncomposted organic material would probably find that most of the available nitrogen was consumed by decay bacteria … and that nitrogen-starved, spindly plants were the result. In addition, he’d run the risk of harvesting vegetables contaminated with certain malevolent bacteria which would have been killed had they been subjected to the heat of the normal composting process.

I myself prefer to avoid both extremes … and, speaking as a moderate, I’m convinced that — if your land is poor to start with — a little 5-10-5 may make the difference between success and failure of your first season’s crop. You can then add organic matter (crop residue, bone meal, finished compost, etc.) in the summer, fall and following spring and correspondingly decrease and phase out the artificial plant food over two or three years.

(By the way — if you plan to use chemical fertilizer at all — you should know that formulas like the one I just mentioned show the proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash in the mixture … always in that order. Thus 5-10-5 contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 5% potash.)

A less controversial chemical is lime, which most organic gardeners accept as a safe, natural, indirect soil treatment. This substance has a gentle catalytic effect in that most vegetables seem to prefer a slightly alkaline condition.

Lime has three common forms, ranging from mild to very caustic. Since you’ll find different opinions about which type is the most beneficial, you should know the characteristics of each before making a decision.

I use the gentlest variety — land lime — which also has the advantage of being very inexpensive … around 75¢ for an 80pound bag. This chemical is basically calcium carbonate (Ca CO3 ) with traces of magnesium carbonate.

If land lime is burned in a kiln, the carbon dioxide is driven off and a more caustic substance remains.

Ca CO3 + heat — >CaO + CO2

The resulting calcium oxide — often called “burnt”, “quick” or “unslaked” lime –i s very unstable and readily combines with available water (or water-filled tissue). This reaction yields calcium hydroxide or “slaked lime”.

CaO + H2O — >Ca (OH)2

The action of these three substances on the soil is described in Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and other standard works, so I won’t launch into my own description here. This short chemistry lesson will at least give you some idea of what to expect from the contents of those bags at the hardware store.

Whatever kind of gardener you’d like to be — die-hard organic or middle-of-the-road — I hope I’ve made the point that successful food-raising doesn’t demand large acreage in either a rural or village setting. If you don’t yet live on as much land as you’d like, you can still have a productive bit of countryside in your back yard and fresh vegetables on your table … plus the satisfaction of providing for part of your own needs.

Which Vegetables?

In a mini-garden designed for maximum
production, it’s important to discover what crops suit you best and
produce most efficiently over an extended season. I’ve learned a lot
from good seed catalogs, which offer very helpful and accurate
descriptions. The few extra cents you pay the professional seedsman is
money well spent.

Experience with varieties also helps me
choose wisely. For several years I wasted my time with Black Seeded
Simpson lettuce, a small pale type that grows close to the ground, gets
covered with dirt after every rainstorm and is a pain in the neck to
wash. I almost gave up on summer leaf lettuce until I discovered the
large Burpee’s Fordhook which grows over a foot high, forms a very loose
head of large tasty foliage and is simple to clean. It’s also rather
slow to “bolt” and produces over a longer season.

Of course, you should consult your own
tastes when you buy seeds. For instance, although I’m only moderately
fond of the underground portion of the beet, I particularly like the
tops and last year planted Burpee’s Lutz, which is widely cultivated by
greens enthusiasts and produces a late crop of roots which keep well for
winter use.

Speaking of greens, I recommend chard
over spinach. I’ve always found that the latter gives a relatively small
yield and goes to seed at the first sign of hot summer weather, whereas
chard grows to a large size and yields substantially more. Frequent
picking of the outer leaves seems only to stimulate further growth,
and–if given sufficient protection–the crop may be gathered until snow
covers the ground. When the plant gets very large, the stalks and ribs
may be cooked like asparagus while the leafy parts are used

Incidentally, you needn’t necessarily do
without a certain vegetable because conditions in your garden aren’t
ideal for it. These limitations can sometimes be overcome. For example,
large spuds can be grown in a heavy clay soil if you lay the seed
potatoes in the bottom of a shallow trench, cover them with only half an
inch of fine earth and fill the remainder of the trough with a straw
mulch. I hear that some Canadian farmers have had good results with this