Plant Answers  >  Gardening in Small Spaces

Gardening in Small Spaces

People have always gardened. Man was probably created in a bed of turnip greens and has been growing and eating them every since. Yet, gardening has changed from vast plantings to small, easily managed areas. The reason is simple—people no longer have to depend on garden production for survival. In the past, if you didn't grow it, you didn't eat it. In fact, the size of your waistline depended a lot on your gardening expertise. Nowadays, the supermarket supplements the necessities of life so gardening has become a hobby that may or may not provide sustenance.

Gardening as it was in the past, is now in the present, and will be in the future. The size of the garden and the reason for gardening may change, but the art of gardening will endure.

Recent surveys indicate that over 50 percent of all families in the United States claim to have a garden. "Garden" is defined as "a plot of ground, usually near a house, where flowers, vegetables or herbs are cultivated". Notice that size is not a criterion as to whether a planting is a garden. Size is the variable that differentiates gardens of the past from those of the future. People have less and less space that can be used for gardening. For cost reasons, building lots are smaller. More and more families are living in condominiums or "garden homes" which have small and/or unsuitable growing areas. Of course, something can be grown any place you live but not necessarily edible plants. Such factors as sufficient light (8 to 10 hours daily) and suitable soil limit the production potentials of plants that are grown for fruits or roots. If the planting area has a marginal light situation, herbs and leafy vegetables such as leaf lettuce, chard, spinach, kale, mustard greens and beet greens can be successfully grown. Low light regimes require the use of adapted foliage plants and ornamentals.

In some situations, gardening spaces are limited. Because people want the most for their effort, several production schemes have been formulated. These include square-foot gardening, postage stamp gardening and vest pocket gardening—all designed to allow people to grow more in less space.

These gardening designs provide easy access to facilitate cultivation, pest control and harvest, as well as improving the growing medium. If you carefully analyze these design schemes, you realize that they are simply immovable container gardens. Basically, all of the do's and don'ts for container or porta-gardening pertain to diminutive condo gardening.

For more on container gardening, see

The most common mistake with “petite gardening” is trying to produce too much from too little. Because the garden area is small, people are willing to spend an exorbitant amount to insure that anything and everything that can be done has been done to produce maximum yields. Once the "souped up" planting area is ready, gardeners assume that they will be able to grow as much of what ever they want to plant. Even though the garden area is capable of "high performance" growing, space available is a limiting factor to quality production.

In crops such as lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, spacing controls the size of heads, curd, etc. As a general rule, the wider the spacing dictates the larger size of the product that will be produced. For example, in broccoli, the size and number of side shoots will increase with wider spacing. Also, the size of onion bulbs, of potato tubers, and of roots, such as beets, turnips, rutabagas, etc., can be controlled by the space you allow between plants in the row. Obviously you can't expect to produce an onion 5-inches in diameter when the plants are spaced two inches apart. Optimum spacing for crops are:

1-3 inches between plants of carrots, garlic and radish
2-4 inches between plants of bush beans, beets, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, parsnips, spinach and turnips
6-8 inches between plants of lima bush beans, celery, mustard, parsley, rutabaga and shallot
10-15 inches between plants of corn, cucumber, lettuce, muskmelon, New Zealand spinach and sweet potatoes
12-24 inches between plants of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, kale, okra and pepper
18-36 inches between plants of eggplant, squash and tomatoes
36-60 inches between plants or hills of pumpkins and watermelon

Since space is a limiting factor in small gardens, smart growers figure out how to get the most from the least. One of the best ways to make a small gardening area grow an abundance of quality produce is to intercrop. Intercropping means planting plants between plants. However, inter-planted plants should consist of crops which will mature faster and be removed before competition with the main crop can occur. Studies in underdeveloped countries where resources are limited indicate that legumes such as peas and beans, which have the ability to remove nitrogen from the air by means of nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria located on plant roots, should be planted with nitrogen-needing crops such as corn. The corn furnishes a support for the peas and beans to climb upon and nitrogen is produced on the pea and bean roots for the corn. The system works but not productively—yield studies indicate that neither the corn or the legume crops produce as much when they are grown together as they would grown separately and fertilized properly. Shading and nutrient competition is obviously detrimental to both crops. So, intercropping is successful if done properly to avoid the adverse effects of crowding plants.

A productive intercropping system involves careful planning and knowledge of crop performance. Vegetables that are uniquely adapted for use in intercropping systems possess one or more of the following characteristics:

1. Small to medium space requirement for growth and maturity (4-6 inches per plant)
2. Faster maturity rate than the crop with which it is to be intercropped
3. Shade tolerance.

Such crops as beets, carrot, chard, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, green onion, parsley, radishes, spinach, and turnips for greens and roots possess all of the characteristics which make them ideal inter-planting crops for larger-growing, slower-maturing plants. Another factor that makes the above listed crops ideal for intercropping is that they are all frost-tolerant. The frost-tolerant ability means that these crops can be planted earlier (4-6 weeks before the frost-free date) than the longer--maturing, frost-susceptible standard garden crops such as tomatoes and peppers. Frost-tolerant crops also have the ability to germinate and grow best in cold soils of 45 degrees F.

Because planting space is limited, growers with miniature gardens should consider only those plants that will offer maximum returns. Crops such as broccoli, celery, collards, green onions, herbs, eggplant, kale, mustard, parsley, pepper, spinach, Swiss chard and tomato offer the possibility of multiple harvests over a long period of time. Conversely, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, lettuce, onion bulbs and radishes are one-time-harvest crops. Yield per square foot must be considered when evaluating the efficiency of a small garden. Of course, personal preference for certain fresh vegetables must enter into the decision of what should be grown, i.e., grow what you like to eat.

Another very important consideration to insure success in a miniature garden is variety selection. If lack of space limits a planting to only one plant of a very desirous vegetable which is expected to provide a long-term harvest of delicious produce, that one plant had better be the best variety available if high yields are expected. Use only varieties recommended by reliable gardeners or the Texas Cooperative Extension Service in your area. Be sure that the recommended varieties are supported by both tests and experience. DO NOT purchase a variety which you know nothing about unless you are willing to take the risk of failure. See the listing and sources at:

After selecting the crop that you want to grow and the best variety of that crop for your area, you must carefully avoid planting too many plants in the available area. The performance of the best of varieties will be diminished or voided by crowding. Recall how large the plant will be at maturity and space appropriately. Regardless of how small the transplant looks at planting time and how much "extra" space you seem to have, small transplants do mighty big plants make!

Most of the varieties recommended at the website above are small growing plants. Both of the large-fruited tomato varieties listed are classified as determinate or semi-determinate. A determinate tomato plant grows to a genetically-predetermined height and terminates its shoot growth by producing a flower cluster. An indeterminate tomato plant of such varieties as Big Boy, Better Boy or Beefsteak never terminates growth and would consequently grow into a thicket of vines if not killed by environmental factors such as cold or pests. Vines of indeterminate tomato varieties grown in environment-controlled greenhouses can grow to be more than 30 feet long. Obviously, smaller-growing, high-yielding plants are more desirable for small gardens.

Many of the garden vegetable plants have a sprawling growth habit which causes them to require more space than is needed merely between plants. You can easily solve this problem by enclosing plants in circles (18-20 inch diameter) of concrete reinforcing wire, or staking-and-tying plants as they grow. Not only do these cultural practices contain the plant in a small area, they also keep the foliage and fruit off of the ground, avoiding contamination by soil-borne diseases. Plants grown in an upright versus sprawling position consistently produce more harvestable fruit—a must for miniature gardening.

Other common-sense cultural practices must be exercised if success is expected. The timing of plantings can make the difference between success and failure. If you plant tomatoes after the temperatures of summer have become excessive, you are guaranteed failure. Plant lettuce late in the spring and it will produce a flower spike surrounded by leaves as bitter as quinine. Timing of planting can be determined from information obtained at local county Extension offices or from experienced growers in the area.

Insects and disease organisms will attack the same plants in miniature gardens as they will in larger gardens. Inspect plants periodically for the presence of insects feeding on foliage and fruit, as well as for disease. It is critical that close attention is paid to pest control. Since you are growing less it can be devastated faster. However, inspection should be easier since there are fewer plants and they are more accessible. Pesticide coverage of plants and subsequent control of pest problems should be facilitated by the accessibility to plant and fruit surfaces in a small garden if planting densely is not a problem. Texas Cooperative Extension recommendations for fruit and vegetable pest control should be followed, or a reliable nurseryman consulted. Follow label recommendations exactly as to control techniques including rates and timing of sprays.

Whether your garden is large or small, the growing principles are the same. However, if you expect maximum production from a diminutive space, you had better pay closer attention to those details that the “large area” gardener can ignore and overcome because of the greater production space. The gardener that has little, and does more with it, truly reaps the benefits and satisfaction of intensified growing and good management.



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