We’ve all learned a lot over the last few years—maybe the most important thing the pandemic taught us is not to take even the tiniest things for granted. Who would have thought it would have been impossible to find common items like hand sanitizer or cleaning products?  

Even now we’re seeing late repercussions as logistical issues are causing shortages of grocery items including poultry, meat, and produce. We’ve realized that if we want to ensure our healthy food supply, the more we can grow for ourselves (and share with friends and neighbors) the better. Even if you have a postage stamp sized back yard, or only a balcony, there are many ways to grow a lot in a small space.

Container Gardening

If you’re restricted to a balcony or have no unplanted areas left, growing in containers is a simple solution. Plant breeders have developed scaled down versions of most common vegetables and some fruits.

  • Compact “bush” varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, eggplant, squash and even watermelon are readily available. Peppers of any type are generally container adaptable, and'Patio Snacker' Cucumber is bred to perform well in a container usually need no support. Leaf lettuces, greens like mustard or tatsoi, potatoes, short or round carrots, radishes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, citrus and herbs can all be grown in pots of the appropriate size.
  • Small food crops like lettuce and radishes can be grown directly in  a bag of potting mixFor most vegetables, a 3- to 5- gallon pot is sufficient.  Leaf lettuces can be grown in pots as shallow as 6 inches (or right in the bag of potting mix with a few drainage holes added); strawberries can perform well in a 10-12” hanging basket.
  • Dwarf types of blueberries like 'Tophat', and newer varieties of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries such as those from the Bushel and Berry series are great container subjects.  These plants are nicely compact, the average size being about 2-3'.  The series includes strawberries, and even a blueberry that can be grown in a hanging basket.  As these will last from year to year, they may need to be repotted to larger containers as they grow.  Alternatively, they can be grown in successively larger nursery pots heeled into their final pot, with water being applied only to the root zone of the inner pot.  This is a good way to prevent the overwatering than tends to occur when a small plant is planted in a much larger pot.  Depending on your zone, their final home may need to be lined inside with bubble wrap to insulate the roots.  
  • Tomatoes, other than the truly small “micro” varieties, should have a minimum 5-gallon pot.  Smaller pots make it difficult to keep the moisture level constant, and a tomato plant that is alternately too dry or too wet is likely to develop blossom end rot as it cannot efficiently absorb needed calcium. A self-watering container can alleviate this problem.  
  • Self-watering containers, like Crescent Garden’s 'Nest' Raised Planters, make growing in containers a breeze.  With a sturdy stand that raises your planter to a back-saving level, and accessories like trellises to corral your vines, 'Nest' Planters are efficient and convenient.  The three different sizes are attractively designed to enhance your space as well.
  • Crescent Garden offers other types of self-watering planters, all with their patented Tru-Drop system that can keep your plants watered from 2-6 weeks, depending on the type of plants and siting conditions.  The lighter weight and exceptional durability make these the perfect pots for balcony or rooftop gardeners. 
  • Our Amberol Self-Watering Hanging Baskets are generously sized and stable enough to be used as planters without the chains.  The Cup and Saucer planters allow you to easily grow a spring salad mix followed by a summer crop of strawberries. The 18-1/2" basket is ideal for balcony gardeners as it will ensure proper watering for tomato plants and other vegetables, yet is relatively lightweight.
  • Potatoes can be grown in large containers or deep troughs.  Fill the container with 4 to 6 inches of growing medium (good potting soil mixed with 20% of sand can be used), place the seed potato pieces (each one must have at least one eye) 6 to 8 inches apart and cover 3 inches deep.  Once vines are about 7 inches high, cover them up to the top set of leaves with more growing mix, and cover again as they grow until the soil reaches the top of the planter.  You don't want an exceedingly tall container--15" is enough--the potatoes will only form up to about the first foot of stem, so a wider container is better than a very tall one if you want to increase your harvest. The potato vines will flower in the summer and eventually begin to yellow and die back.  This is the time to harvest--just tip the container over and pick out the 'taters!
  • Hayracks hung from your deck rail raise your plants to a convenient level, and can be planted with a variety of crops that change with the season.  Early spring plantings of spinach, radishes, small carrots, lettuce and other greens can be made in smaller racks.  Leaf lettuce, as opposed to head lettuce, will provide a longer supply, as most are "cut-and-come-again" types that can be harvested several times. Larger, deeper racks can house spring crops like broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage.  Once the spring vegetables are harvested, strawberry plants, trailing tomatoes, thyme, or Greek oregano can be used as a spiller in summer plantings, with compact tomato varieties, peppers, chives, parsley and/or dwarf basil as fillers.  When cooler temperatures arrive in fall, summer veggies can be harvested and replanted with cool-weather crops once again.

 Border Column kits with planting baskets increase the amount of  growing space for herbs, vegetables, and strawberries

Vertical Gardening

When you don’t have much room, going up instead of out can be the solution. 

  • The centuries old method, the “3 Sisters,” was used to increase food harvest per square foot. Corn was grown in the center, around which beans would climb and squash would meander.
  • Pallet gardens can be made by stapling weed fabric to the back of a pallet, then filling with potting mix. Strawberries, lettuce, bush beans, herbs and more can be stagger planted within the openings.
  • Food crops like strawberries and leaf lettuce, as well as flowers, can be grown in rows of gutters attached to a wall or fenceIf there’s an empty shed wall or fence, gutters can be attached across the length, in vertical rows 12” to 18” apart. Drill small holes for drainage in the gutters about one foot apart, vertically staggering the holes. Cover the holes with coffee filters or line the gutter with widow screening to prevent soil loss through the holes. The gutters can be planted with strawberries, lettuces, herbs, flowers, or a mix of these.
  • Beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vine crops can be trained up netting or metal trellis, and the ground space saved can be planted with other vegetables. An old folding ladder can be covered with netting for this purpose in a rustic style garden.
  • Use pot rings as guides for tomatoes or vine crops when grown along a fence. They can also provide support for larger squash or small melons, keeping the fruit off the ground.
  • Stacking planters are available that are suitable for strawberries, herbs, and smaller vegetable plants, enabling the planting of 3 to 4 times as many plants in the same space. A similar DIY creation could consist of concrete blocks arranged in a straight or rounded stairstep fashion, with 5 gallon buckets or other planters staggered on the “shelves.”
  • Border column kits with baskets are yet another way to provide an additional level of growing space, whether in containers or in the ground. This would allow a bed of squash or cucumbers to grow under several baskets of strawberries, for instance. Side planting baskets can accommodate lettuces or strawberries around the sides of the basket and upright herbs, small peppers or compact tomato plants in the top. 


Small Space Gardening (Square Foot Gardens): 

Square foot gardening allows you to grow more vegetables in a small spaceThe basis of traditional “square foot gardening” is the 4’ x 4’ x 6” raised bed with a physical grid defining the individual planting spaces.  With the grid dividing the bed into 16 one square foot planting areas, and a proscribed number of plants to be installed per area, this plan maximizes the planting space and allows easy access to all plants from every side.

  • Smaller plants would be placed on the outside with taller subjects in the center. 
  • Orientation should be considered so that taller plants do not shade shorter growers too much, although this can be advantageous to lettuces and others that enjoy relief from the hot afternoon sun.
  • Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and eggplant require one square each; melons and squash are designated one square but must be trellised; leaf lettuce, basil, chard and strawberries go 4 to a square; bush beans, beets, spinach, and peas can be planted 9 per square; 16 plants of radishes, carrots, or green onions are allowed, and so on.  While this may work, such a crowded design will certainly require more maintenance as far as watering and fertilizing.  Also, a depth of 6 inches is not really sufficient for larger plants such as indeterminate tomatoes, which would also require much pruning to be kept in a one-foot space.
  • The general guidelines can be adapted to fit your situation and to raise the aesthetic value.  Increasing the depth to 8 or 12 inches can be beneficial, as can choosing compact varieties of tomatoes and other crops. No larger than the 4’ width is recommended for comfortable access but could certainly be decreased to 1 or 2 feet, and the length could be increased as necessary. The physical grid does not need to be permanent—it could be measured and “drawn” in the soil, created with string line, or marked out on a similar sized piece of weed block fabric with holes made for the individual plants. 
  • Plants that use the same number per square could be intermixed as you please, with flowers like marigolds or nasturtiums replacing some of the vegetables.
  • The beds can be erected on paved areas or existing lawn without the need for digging.  Lining with weed block fabric half-way up the sides is helpful to keep wet soil from leaking under the frame on paved areas.  Grassy areas can be covered with newspaper 10 sheets thick or cardboard, with the growing mix installed directly over top. Growing mix should be used—a mixture of good potting soil, compost, sand and/or pine fines—never use native soil from your garden.  In this way, good drainage is ensured. 


Growing Beautifully

Sometimes, the only available space is in the front yard, where it’s usually considered a breach of neighborhood etiquette to site your veggie garden.  As vegetables and many ornamentals have the same basic requirements (full sun and well-drained soil), a compromise can be made by employing strategies that make the garden as attractive as possible.

  • Instead of the usual harsh rectangular outline or straight rows that just scream ‘VEGETABLE GARDEN,’ try the same flowing shape that you would use for any other landscape bed.  Vary the heights and textures just as you would with other designs. Color can be added with companion flowers that bloom--marigolds are the usual recommendation, but any compact annual can be employed.  Keep plants in groups of 3 to 5, and repeat groupings if space allows to keep the design from looking spotty and to create visual flow. If the bed is wider than 2 feet or so, add an interesting step-stone or two to facilitate access without compacting the soil or requiring uncomfortable bending.Vining vegetables like tomatoes and gourds can be grown on a pergola
  • Choose plants with good disease resistance so that they will stay more attractive.  On vegetable tags and seed packets, letter codes designate resistance, eg. V = verticillium wilt, F = fusarium, T = tobacco mosaic virus. A tag may list the variety name followed by ‘VFT,’ indicating that it is resistant to verticillium, fusarium, and tobacco mosaic virus.  To simplify, the more letters the better where disease resistance is concerned.  Consult this list of disease resistant vegetable varieties from Cornell University, and this list of disease resistance codes from Syngenta Seeds. Note that heirloom varieties, which are often considered tastier, are not endowed with the disease resistance found in modern hybrids.  Hybrids do NOT mean GMO--those are entirely different things.
  • Vining crops may be grown on a beautiful structure to make them more presentable.  Coincidentally, I had a customer call while I was writing this article asking about our Classic Rose Pillars, as she wanted to use them with her tomatoes.  Those are perfect for this task, as the vines can be attached or wound through as they grow and will create attractive focal points in the bed, whether in a traditional raised garden or an artful landscape bed . Tomato cages in the front yard may be a no-no, but no one will complain about a stunning pillar or obelisk
  • In the same vein, peas, beans, cucumbers as well as tomatoes can be grown on a trellis, arch, or pergola.  Choosing varieties with aesthetic appeal like 'Rich Purple Pod' pole beans or Malabar spinach (a tasty faux spinach) will keep everyone happy. Cool weather peas could be grown early, with runner beans or grape tomatoes taking their place after the peas are harvested.  Growing on a small pergola will have the additional advantage of creating a shady spot in which to relax after a busy morning’s gardening.
  • Some vegetable plants are quite lovely when well-grown and healthy and can be sprinkled in amongst your annual and perennial flowers.  Glossy-Eggplant blossoms are showy enough blend the plants into a perennial bedleaved pepper plants have showy flowers and can bear red, lilac, yellow, or orange fruit in blocky or elongated shapes. Smaller, bushier Thai hot peppers are pretty enough to grow simply as an ornamental but will liven up your exotic dishes. Fish pepper has a unique flavor and unusual variegated foliage and fruit.  Eggplants have purple-tinted foliage and stems, and the solid purple, lilac, white or streaked fruit can have the traditional shape or be long and narrow, egg-shaped, or perfectly round. Heat and cold tolerant Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’ is one of the most attractive greens you can grow, and a fascinating and colorful accent in the border.  The light green leaves are supported by intensely hued stems in shades of red, yellow, orange, pink and white.  Large greens like Tuscan kale, mustards, or mizuna add exciting textural contrasts, and can be harvested over a long season if outer leaves only are picked.
  • Leaf lettuce can be combined with flowers and herbs for an attractive plantingLeaf lettuces can be almost lime green, like ‘Simpson Elite,’ burgundy like ‘Red Salad Bowl’ or speckled with red as is ‘Speckles’.  Mesclun mixes usually include varieties with different textures, from fern-like and lacy to thick and deeply veined.  They make a unique early spring border planting when mixed with pansies or violas—the flowers of which can also go in that salad, by the way.  Try one variety edging a walkway or a mixture around your mailbox surrounding peas on a chicken wire wrapped post.
  • There are plenty of edible flowers that can be grown as well—nasturtiums, violas, pineapple sage, scented geraniums, borage, daylilies, calendula, dianthus, cornflower, lemon marigolds, and sunflower to name just a few.  The blossoms of most herbs are edible as well.
  • Culinary herbs are easily grown in the flower bed--‘Siam Queen,’ ‘Red Rubin,’ ‘Dark Opal’ and variegated Greek columnar basil, ‘Icterina’, a yellow and green variegated sage, purple sage, and silver ‘Berggarten’ sage all bear especially striking foliage.  Small plants suitable for edging include ‘Boxwood,’ ‘Minette,’ and purple bush basil, parsley, burnet, sage, and lemon thyme.  Very narrow growing types of basil can find a place in tight spaces--‘Greek Columnar’ in green or variegated, and ‘Emerald Towers,’ an Italian Genovese basil.
  • Other vegetables have showy flowers that will be happy to grow amongst your ornamentals.  The golden yellow blossoms of squash and zucchini are not only pretty, but delicious.  Okra displays soft yellow and burgundy blooms that resemble its mallow family relative, hibiscus.  While most okra plants are in the 5’ to over 8’ range with a similar spread, ‘Baby Bubba’ and ‘Blondy’ are “dwarf” types with a mature height of 3 to 4’, suitable for a border or large container.  All parts of the okra plant are edible, so it makes the most of its space.
  • If you have a need for privacy, whether on a balcony, deck, or in the yard, our The Monet fencing screen provides privacy without taking up much space and is easy to installMonet Fencing Screen will help you create a discreet wall of foliage and flowers. Peas, beans, tomatoes, or a combination with or without bloomers like cardinal vine, moonflower, or black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia) will screen your view in style—and good health! Such a screen can also be used down the center of a square foot garden bed, as described above. 
  • Blueberries are wonderful native landscape plants that are not used as often as they could be. Their delicate white bell-shaped flowers in spring and excellent fall color make them perfectly at home in a shrub border.

Employing these strategies and combining them where possible will make the most of your space and allow for a bountiful harvest.