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Vegetable Gardening in a Small Space

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Blanching Celery Plants

It's often better to start small and keep things handy. You can always add more.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

You don't need a farm to grow fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits. You don't really even need a garden. Plant breeders know that after taste, home gardeners want a high yield in a small space, so they've been developing more varieties that can grow in a small foot print or even live in containers all year long.


The Small Vegetable Plot

Vegetable gardening used to be the poor relation of ornamental flower gardens. Perennial borders reigned and vegetable gardens were hidden in the back yard, usually the domain of the man of the house. Vegetable gardens were about producing food, not beauty.

Now that vegetables have taken a more prominent place on the table, they are gaining more respect in the gardening world. And with the increased interest from home gardeners, there has been a surge in the development of new varieties: colorful novelty vegetables, heirlooms, ethnic varieties and compact growers.

You don't need a large area to have a vegetable garden. You do need good soil, plenty of sunshine, a water source and probably a fence. If you think the deer love your Hostas, the entire woodland community is going to enjoy your vegetable garden. If you plant it, they will come.


Siting Considerations

Sun: Vegetables need a good 6 or more hours of sun each day. Without sun, the fruits will not ripen and the plants will be stressed. There are a few vegetables that can survive in light shade, lettuce and other greens, broccoli and cole crops, but if you can't provide sun, you might want to reconsider having a vegetable garden.

Water: Vegetables also require regular watering. Without regular water, vegetables will not fill out and some, like tomatoes, will crack open if suddenly plumped up with water after struggling without for awhile.

You can't always rely on rain. If you have the means, a drip irrigation system is a definite plus for a vegetable garden. The new component systems are really quite easy to install and cost a lot less than most people think. And you'll save money on water, because it goes directly to the plant's roots. Less is lost to evaporation.

If you don't want to opt for drip irrigation, try and site your vegetable garden near a water spigot. You'll be more likely to water if you don't have to drag the hose out.

Soil: The final consideration is essential. Vegetables need a soil rich in organic matter. Soil is important to the growth of all plants, but more so with vegetables, because even taste is affected by the quality of the soil. That's part of why wine from the same grape variety can vary from region to region and why some areas grow hotter peppers than others.

If you can provide these three basics: sun, water and great soil, you can vegetable garden.


How Much Space Does it Take

Granted, a small space vegetable garden may not be enough for subsistence farming, but it will be enough to grow great tasting tomatoes, some beautiful heirloom eggplants or an endless supply of cutting greens. If you have limited space, consider what vegetables you can purchase fresh in your area already and what vegetables you truly love and/or miss.

Compact Varieties: If you must have a beefsteak tomato or a row of sweet corn, the variety in your small space vegetable garden will be limited. But you can choose varieties that are bred to grow in small spaces. Anything with the words patio, pixie, tiny, baby or dwarf in their name is a good bet. Just because a plant is bred to be small doesn't mean the fruits will be small or the yield will be less.

Most seeds and seedlings will tell you the mature size of the plants you are selecting. Knowing that, you can space things out and see how much you can fit into your space. More likely however, you will do what most gardeners do and squeeze in as many seedlings as you can fit into your garden and deal with the crowding later. That's one way to get a large yield from a small space.

If you are truly short of space, interplant your vegetables with your flowers. There's no rule that says you can't mix the two. It can be a bit harder to harvest, but many vegetables are quite ornamental in their own right.

Growing Up: If you do opt for a variety of vegetables in your garden, I would recommend the compact varieties and also vining crops that can be trained up on supports. Pole beans take up less space than bush beans. Vining cucumbers and squash, as aggressive as they can be, actually take up less area than their bush cousins.

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