Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could have a parcel of land to till and toil and harvest?? Okay, probably not for everyone. The reality is that most of us don’t have much extra space in our backyards to plant enough food to feed our families. But even just a couple of pots on a balcony, or windowsill, can not only cut some costs on the grocery bill, but can give you a real sense of satisfaction knowing that you grew those greens all by yourself!
Now, before you hit up your local nursery and fill your cart with veggie goodies, I’m about to let you in on a little secret: there are two major things that all gardening magazines with their glossy pictures of small space gardens overflowing with luscious greenery and vibrant vegetables fail to tell you. They are things you don’t realize until you start your own garden and have dreams of making enough tomato sauce for the winter, or enough pickles to keep you popular with your neighbours. Small space gardens are at a distinct disadvantage for being able to grow in bulk. When you grow veg in containers, raised beds, on balconies, small patios and terraces, the goal isn’t to start your own large scale production, rather, you want to create a grazer’s garden, basically you want to grow a little bit of a few things. And here’s why:
Small Space Garden realities
Not everything matures at the same time
This is always such a big letdown. Just because you plant a tomato or two, doesn’t mean that the fruit will be ready at the same time. You’ve had these dreams of canning a couple of jars of tomatoes, but you only seem to be getting one or two tomatoes every few days. You can’t keep them until they’re all ready to be canned, so you’re out of luck. This, my friend, is the dark side of small space gardening no one talks about. You will probably never have enough to preserve more than one or two jars, and you most likely won’t get to immerse yourself in a weekend sauce-making session, unless you dedicate your entire space to growing only one kind of veg. This reality caused me to change what I plant in my garden. I no longer plant cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries because these are all things I like to can, and in order to do so, I need a bushel (which is 150 cups or something). Those 4 cucumbers I plucked off the vine just won’t cut it. Be prepared to harvest small handfuls of this and that, rather than a bumper crop of one thing. And that’s totally okay. I mean, there’s always room for some beans with dinner, or some baby arugula in a salad.
Vegetables wait for no man
When a vegetable is ready; it’s ready. You can’t leave it on the plant, or buried in the soil until you’re ready for it. It’s not like just because it’s planted in soil it’s in a holding tank. Vegetables wait for no man. If you don’t harvest your greens, they will bolt. Then they’ll be really bitter and you’ll be so sad. If you don’t harvest your peas and beans they’ll get stringy and tough. If you don’t harvest your tomatoes…well, you get the picture. As much as I’d like to leave those giant heads of leaf lettuce in the bed until I’m ready for them, I can’t. They’ll bolt or go all wormy. When a vegetable is ready, it has be he harvested. If you can’t use it give it to a friend, or a food bank. That’s why it’s important to grow what you love and what you know won’t be a problem to devour!
My top 5 Vegetables for small spaces
I try to include different vegetables every year to my garden, but these five are my go-to’s time and again. I know they’ll grow and produce. They’re low-maintenance, relatively pest-free, and put up with my sometimes lack-luster watering regimen. And they all grow amazingly well from seed! Buy those adorable seed packets, and plant them! And just like that, they’ll grow! No fuss, no muss! Plus, I know they’ll get eaten, and even if I only am able to harvest a little at a time, these five work easily into my cooking routine. So, without further ado, and in no particular order (except for swiss chard, which is my favourite, and is always #1 in my books!), here are my top 5 vegetables for small spaces:
Cherry tomatoes are a patio standard. They’re small, and cheerful, and usually ripen in clusters that are perfect for salads, or cheese trays. They will occupy prime real estate for most of the summer, and of my top 5 are the only ones that will do so, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, in my opinion. They are fairly low maintenance, and do not need to be fertilized: just plenty of sun, a good amount of space, and regular watering. Picking fresh, sun-warmed cherry tomatoes off the vine and eating them is perhaps the most rewarding thing about gardening.
Mesclun Mix (baby greens)
Mesclun mix is like a chia pet. It’s considered a “cut-and-come-again” lettuce for good reason: you can give it a haircut for your salad, and within a few days, you will have more greens growing up in its sheared spot. Mesclun mix is super easy to grow, especially in shadier areas and is my top pick for beginner gardeners growing from seed. You can also easily grow it around the base of a tomato plant, or in salad beds. Mesclun mix has a very short life span, which means you can till the soil and start again in the same spot with some more mesclun mix, or another vegetable altogether, which keeps your veg garden looking lush and full all summer long!
Since peas are climbers, trellising peas not only creates some visual interest in your garden, but it actually takes up less room which is a huge bonus when you are dealing with limited real estate! Plant some baby greens at the base of pea plants, or even some great ornamentals! Also, peas are amazing, pods and all, raw in salads, tossed into stir frys, and served as part of a veggie tray.
Bush beans are the workhorse of this group. They’ll give you a great harvest, and will, mostly, mature in large amounts at the same time, which is great if you’re looking to pickle a jar or two of spicy beans. They don’t need to be staked, and stay nice and compact. Best of all, you can easily fit two bush bean plants into one square foot of spacace. What’s not to love??
My unofficial favourite. I’m not even sure why, to be honest. I always do the same rainbow chard, mostly because I love the little hits of colour in my garden, not because it tastes any better. Part of what I love about the chard is that I can harvest it while it’s still quite young and toss it into salad or sautee ut up into a great side dish with a little garlic and hot peppers. Because I pluck here and there instead of harvesting the whole plant, it feels like it gets a longer life in my garden. And how can those bright yellow and fuchsia stalks be wrong. Ever?!
Bonus herb: Basil
Every herb is a great herb. For real. Unless you’re cilantro, in which case, you are officially the worst (sorry!). I love basil. Outdoors, in a good amount of sun, basil will explode. When you walk by it, you can smell it. It’s amazing. And it comes in a bunch of varieties: thai basil, lemon basil, black opal, genovese, etc. It’s all good. Because you can pluck what you need without affecting the plant, you can really keep it going all summer: just make sure you pinch off any flowers that start, otherwise, the plant will bolt, and the leaves will get really bitter. If you can’t keep up with your basil production, pull it up, make some amazing pesto and freeze it, if you can keep it that long!
If you missed the first instalment of the small space garden series, check it out here!
happy garden starting!