People are more excited than ever these days to experiment with growing their own food and reaping the rewards of an edible garden. But what if you don’t have a huge amount of space? Are your dreams of a bountiful harvest coming from your own little plot unrealistic? Thankfully, that's not the case — there are actually a bunch of ways to produce a wide variety of edibles in small spaces.
The first step is to take a good look at your space and assess what resources you have available. Light and water access are the two biggest requirements of a food garden. Most food crops require a large amount of sunlight, something that small spaces sometimes lack. However, there are some crops that thrive in lower-light conditions. Regular water access is also key to healthy crops and should be considered when you're configuring a food garden. As long as you can access water and provide proper drainage, a happy food garden is in your future!
Let's look at some options for growing edibles in small spaces.
1. Container gardening. Whether they're pots of herbs or troughs full of greens and root crops, containers work well to maximize small spaces. Prefab containers come in numerous shapes, sizes and materials.
It’s worth noting that not all containers are created equal. If you live in an area that has cold winter weather, it’s important to select containers that can deal with fluctuations in temperature. Steer clear of terra-cotta, as it can crack and dry out roots; look for the many emerging polycarbonate and fiberglass options instead. They will cost you more initially, but they are built to last, and you won’t have any nasty surprises in the winter.
2. Raised vegetable beds. If you have a bit more room, a raised vegetable bed is a great way to grow crops. Aside from having the functional benefit of providing easier access to the plants, raised beds improve the drainage and aeration of the soil and allow the bed to warm more quickly in the spring, so you can plant earlier. Raised beds can be built out of anything, as long as the material doesn’t contain chemicals that can leach into the soil. Use cedar or hardwood lumber instead of a pressure-treated material for a long-lasting, chemical-free bed.
3. Square-foot gardening. This simple method of organizing crops works best in a raised bed and will maximize the surface area of your garden to produce large yields of crops. It entails dividing the soil area into 1-square-foot cells, using twine, wood or wire affixed in a grid format to the top of the raised bed.
Different crops of vegetables can then be planted in each cell. When a crop is harvested, a different crop is replanted in the cell. This rotation of crops ensures that nutrients aren’t exhausted from the soil, and plants benefit from companion plantings that promote healthy growth and pest resistance.
4. Berry patches for shady spots. Although most berries require full sun, blueberries will actually produce fruit in very little light. They also don’t mind being planted in containers, as long as the soil is on the acidic side. This is something that’s easy to regulate by adding peat or an acidic medium to the soil at the beginning of spring.
5. Grow potatoes in sacks. A great way to grow potatoes is in old coffee sacks. Most coffee roasters will be happy to part with some sacks for you to use for this purpose, and it’s easy to set up a row of potato sacks that will provide you with a pantry full of spuds. Start with a sack rolled down two-thirds of the way and fill the bottom with soil. Place seed potatoes inside and cover them with soil.
As the potato plants grow, roll up the sides of the sack until the sack is fully upright. When the potatoes are ready to harvest (the leaves have turned yellow), lift the sides of the sack, and the potatoes and soil will fall out the bottom. The bottom rots out of the sack soon after initial planting, so make sure not to move the sack before you’re ready to harvest.
6. Espaliered fruit trees. The demand to produce tree fruit in small spaces has initiated a boom in specialty grafted fruit trees, allowing you to produce a hefty reserve of fruit within a small horizontal area. Nurseries have trees with several varieties grafted onto the same rootstock, allowing for cross-pollination and a fascinating display of different growth rates and fruit production on each individual branch.
Using the age-old technique of espaliering trees — in which branches are trained to a structure (to provide support when the trees are laden down with fruit) and tips are pruned to maintain a compact size — it is possible to have a flourishing fruit orchard on your patio. Make sure that the container you choose is large enough to be topped with fresh compost every year (fruit trees are big feeders, so you must provide fertile soil to aid fruit production) and that you locate it in a site where there is adequate sun exposure.