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Making the most of limited space

by Timber Press on January 13, 2015

in Gardening

A little imagination can bring an edible garden to even the most unlikely nooks and spaces. Image: Derek St. Romaine

A little imagination can bring an edible garden to even the most unlikely nooks and spaces. Image: Derek St. Romaine

Andrea Bellamy outlines the basics of creating abundant and attractive Small-Space Vegetable Gardens.

When you want to grow food in a small space, every square inch of soil has to work extra hard. Experienced small-space gardeners use a number of techniques to get the most from their gardens. Practicing succession planting, vertical growing, and winter gardening, for example, allow you to harvest more food over a longer season. Learn the basics, then put them into practice in your garden.

Succession Planting
Succession planting is a technique that produces a series of crops from a single plot or container. For example, you might start early in the spring with arugula or radishes—cold-tolerant crops that mature quickly. Next you could sow main-season edibles such as beans, cucumbers, or tomatoes. Then, in late summer as these are being harvested, you could plant another cool-season crop such as endive or kale for fall or winter harvest.

The idea is to not let valuable garden space sit idle, and to be ready to plant something new whenever a space opens up. In fact, you can often interplant your new crop while still harvesting the last. Just time it so there will be enough space when the new crop starts to need more elbow room. You can also sow seeds at the same time you plant seedlings of the same type; the transplants will give you a jump on the next harvest.

The term succession planting is also used to describe planting the same edible in one- to three-week intervals, depending on how long it takes the particular type of vegetable to reach maturity. Also known as succession sowing, this technique extends the harvest period and avoids a glut of one particular crop. Fast-maturing crops are great candidates: arugula, beans, beets, carrots, lettuce and salad greens, radishes, scallions, and spinach.

Interplanting a variety of complementary edibles gives this raised bed visual appeal and improved pest resistance. Image: Verdura Gardens

Interplanting a variety of complementary edibles gives this raised bed visual appeal and improved pest resistance. Image: Verdura Gardens

Interplanting
Maximize your yields by planting together crops that grow at different rates (or root depths). For example, sow quick-growing lettuces alongside your tomato seedlings; you will harvest several salads before your tomatoes even start to ripen. As your tomatoes grow, they will provide shade to keep your greens from bolting in the heat. Many companion planting principles can be applied to interplanting; don’t be afraid to combine the two.

Cut-and-Come-Again Crops
When harvesting loose-leaf lettuces and other greens, just remove a few of the outer leaves; the plant will continue to produce new leaves. (Bonus: because you’re just taking a few of the leaves at a time, you won’t be left with an empty pot.) Some types of greens, notably mesclun, can be cut off right at the stem when they are seedlings. They will regrow, and you can repeat the process two or three times throughout the season. Arugula, Chinese cabbage, chard, chervil, chicory, collard greens, cress, dandelion, endive, escarole, kale, leaf lettuces, mizuna, and mustard are good cut-and-come-again candidates.

Pole beans are a natural for growing up instead of out. Image: Shutterstock/smereka

Pole beans are a natural for growing up instead of out. Image: Shutterstock/smereka

Vertical Gardening
While the square footage of your outdoor space may be small, you can maximize growing room by thinking creatively about how you use the vertical space available to you. Grow anything you can up stakes, teepees, trellises, or arbors—vertical gardening makes the most of valuable garden space and packs a great visual punch. Think of trellises or screens as living walls in your garden house—decorate with green! The usual suspects include peas, pole beans, tomatoes, berries, kiwis, and grapes, but cucumbers, squash, and melons can also be trained upward on sturdy supports.

Also consider growing not just up, but on your walls. A wide variety of wall-mounted planters are available, from simple, narrow plastic or wooden containers to selfwatering polypropylene pockets that can be used en masse for a green wall effect. Green wall systems, once available only to the trade, are increasingly accessible for the home gardener—usually in the form of a DIY kit. Choose shallow-rooted crops such as herbs, peppers, lettuce, and salad greens, and plant strawberries, trailing nasturtiums, and dwarf varieties of peas along the outside edge of containers; these spillers look pretty cascading over the side. Bear in mind that given the relatively small amount of soil these containers can hold, you will need to water frequently. Reduce the workload by installing automatic drip irrigation.

Vines in the Small Garden
Vines are perfect candidates for vertical growing. Some, such as beans or kiwi, only need to be shown a trellis and they’ll start to climb; others, such as melons or cucumber, need a little more encouragement.

Annual vines include peas, pole beans, cucumbers, squash, melon, and vining (indeterminate) tomatoes; perennials include grapes and kiwi. For all, set up your vertical supports prior to planting to avoid damaging developing roots and shoots.

By training them up a trellis, you can enjoy vining fruits and vegetables even in a limited area. Image: GAP Photos/Friedrich Strauss

By training them up a trellis, you can enjoy vining fruits and vegetables even in a limited area. Image: GAP Photos/Friedrich Strauss

Annuals such as peas and beans require only moderately strong supports: plant two or three seeds at the base of each pole. Vining tomatoes can be trained upward using a variety of supports, including stakes, fences, heavyduty cages, tomato spirals, and trellises. Whichever you choose, make sure it is at least 5 ft. tall: indeterminate tomatoes get very tall. Keeping them pruned is also key to growing vining tomatoes in a narrow space. Vining cucumbers, melons, zucchini, and gourds need a solid apparatus that can support the weight of their fruit. Lean a wooden grid or old metal gate against a wall or fence and encourage the vines to scramble over the top, supporting heavy fruits such as melon with netting. Or use an old ladder and allow developing fruit to be supported by the ladder’s rungs.

Planting perennial vines such as kiwi and grapes requires planning and probably a bit of construction work. Both, but especially kiwi, need robust structures to climb and a sunny, sheltered location. Arbors and wall-mounted trellises work well.

Stretching the Growing Season
Season-extension techniques allow you to grow food beyond the main gardening season. Start by introducing yourself to cool-season crops—if you limit yourself to tomatoes and cucumbers, your garden won’t see any action until late spring or early summer. Cool-season crops such as lettuces and peas can go into the ground long before that. But you can use a few tricks to get your crops growing even earlier in the spring, or to hold the garden well into fall or winter.

A classic bell-shaped glass cloche protects a young basil seedling from frost. Image: Andrea Bellamy

A classic bell-shaped glass cloche protects a young basil seedling from frost. Image: Jackie Connelly

Cloches
Cloches are open-bottomed protective coverings that can be placed over tender seedlings to protect them from frost and windchill. Traditional cloches were bell-shaped (cloche is French for “bell”). Cloches can be made of glass, plastic, terra-cotta, or even bamboo. Cloches are great for protecting tender plants against unexpected early spring frosts or for easing seedlings out into the world during their hardening-off period. You can easily make yourself a whole supply of utilitarian cloches by cutting the bottoms off plastic jugs or bottles. Place a bottomless bottle over a seedling, gently pushing it into the soil. Just make sure to remove the cloches on hot, sunny days or you risk frying your seedlings.

Cold frames
A cold frame works on the same principle as a cloche—it protects plants by acting as a mini greenhouse—but with room for multiple plants. These simple—and potentially compact—contraptions allow you to harvest coolseason crops year-round, even in areas with cold winters. Cold frames can also give you a jump on spring by providing a sheltered place where sowed seeds can sprout and grow. (You can transplant them after the weather warms.) They can also be used as transitional housing for seedlings during their hardening-off stage.

Row covers
Floating row covers, also used to protect plants from insect pests, can make great season-extension tools. Lightweight fabrics can be laid directly over your plants or propped up with stakes or hoops. The edges can be secured with stones, handfuls of soil, or a length of wood. Like cloches and cold frames, row covers create a microclimate for the enclosed crops, raising the ambient temperature and protecting late-summer and fall crops against early frosts. Row cover fabric is available in several different weights; look for the type that offers frost protection.

Plastic mulches
Spreading plastic mulches over prepared soil will allow you to plant warm-season crops such as peppers, melons, tomatoes, and cucumbers earlier in the season; the soil warms after the mulch absorbs heat from the sun. Black plastic is the most common type, which is also used for weed control and to reduce evaporation. You can also find silver, red, or green plastic mulches (each created for specific purposes or types of crops), as well as biodegradable mulches. Cover the soil a week or more before you intend to plant, burying the edges into the soil. Cut an X in the plastic wherever you want to plant, then tuck in seeds or transplants.

Winter Gardening
The ultimate in succession planting, winter gardening is all about maximizing your space and your harvest. In fact, many edibles actually taste better after a frost. They produce a natural antifreeze—sugar—that translates into a sweeter-tasting vegetable. Just one more reason to stretch your growing season.

Some varieties of cabbage can provide winter harvests. Image: iStock Photo/dmitrii_designer

Some varieties of cabbage can provide winter harvests. Image: iStock Photo/dmitrii_designer

The key to winter gardening is planting midsummer through late summer for most vegetables. Do not plant cabbage in late autumn and expect a winter harvest—it just won’t happen. A winter garden is like a refrigerator: food stays fresh and ready to eat, but it doesn’t put on any growth.

Day length is the critical factor. As the days get shorter, growth slows. By late fall/early winter, plants are pretty much in hibernation mode until the days start to lengthen again in early spring. The goal is to have your plants reach full size by Halloween, ready for eating throughout the winter. Don’t automatically pull them out if they aren’t ready, though. You can leave cold-tolerant veggies in the ground; they might surprise you by throwing out some new growth when the days start to lengthen.

It’s difficult to imagine planting your winter garden in the heat of summer. One way around this is to start your winter-garden seeds in flats and transplant them into their final homes after the tomatoes and zucchini have been cleared out.

In mild climates, many veggies are happy without protection from the cold (although mulch and protection from wind and excess rain never hurts). In colder climates, cold frames may be necessary to ensure a winter harvest.

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bellamy_a-sAndrea Bellamy is the creator of Heavy Petal, a blog devoted to urban organic gardening. She has a certificate in garden design from the University of British Columbia and studied permaculture methods for food production at an urban microfarm. She has been gardening since childhood and has grown food on rooftops, balconies, boulevards, and patios, and in community garden beds, window boxes, traffic circles, frontyards, and backyards. She is the Grow Food columnist for Edible Vancouver magazine. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, HeavyPetal.ca.

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Click image below for a look inside this book:

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“If I could recommend one book for small-space vegetable gardening, this would be it. Andrea Bellamy nailed it!”Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS’ Growing a Greener World

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