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No space, no time? Yes, you can grow vegetables.

Traditional vegetable gardens--large, rectangular plots with rows of crops and footpaths between rows--are fine for large backyards and gardeners who have the time to tend them. But where gardening space (and time) is limited, can you grow vegetables at all? The answer is a resounding yes, as the photographs on these pages show.

Every square foot counts in these small gardens. "All you need is good soil and water and fertilizer, and anything will grow--even in a 4-by 8-foot box," says gardener Tom Olson.

Any space will do as long as it gets at least 6 hours of sun each day and is near a water source. Planting near the house is best since the garden is more likely to grab your attention and invite you out to enjoy it and maintain it. And the convenience of harvesting from an easy-access garden will encourage you to use the crops regularly for family meals.

Once installed, small gardens don't take a lot of time to maintain. Even at peak growing season, David Lansing spends just an hour a week caring for his 52-square-foot established vegetable garden (pictured on page 100). "With my busy schedule and family commitments, that's the way it has to be," he says. "I used to enjoy spending more time in the garden, but now I have to get in and out as fast as possible."


A successful vegetable garden is usually the product of careful design and planning, and an up-front investment of time and resources.

Most of these gardens feature raised beds, which neatly organize small spaces. The change in level from the ground to planting beds makes these small gardens appear larger. And beds that curve or meander--like the one pictured above right--give a further illusion of space; also, their less structured look makes them at home in the landscape.

Raised beds have other advantages: Their contained area makes it easy to improve the soil, especially if it requires lots of amendments. Filled with light, rich soil, they drain well. They warm up quickly, and they're easy to plant, tend, and harvest.

If you don't have room for raised beds, you can still grow vegetables in nooks and crannies--in narrow side yards, along garage walls, and on patio overhangs.

Whichever design you choose, start with a plan on graph paper. Figure how big beds can be in the space you've got, how much wood or trellising you'll need, and what kind of irrigation system you want. If you plan to install drip irrigation, an irrigation supply specialist can help you figure the components you'll need. Thoroughly prepare the soil, adding fertilizer and amendments such as compost as needed.


Besides designing your garden well, there are other ways to maximize harvest from a small space. Choose productive plants that suit your tastes and don't grow too large; the list on page 97 can help you decide what to grow. Plant only what you can use. Interplant fast-maturing crops like lettuce and spinach with slower-growing crops like broccoli and cauliflower. The lettuce and spinach will be ready to harvest before they are crowded out by the slower-growing plants.

Plant quick-maturing plants like radishes, beans, and carrots in succession so you can harvest several crops in one season. Plant intensively in blocks or wide rows.

Plant at the correct season. Fertilize and water consistently so plants grow vigorously. Keep vegetables picked--daily during peak season--so more will grow. Don't waste space on diseased or over-mature plants.


We decided to find out. Bud Stuckey, who tends the Sunset test garden in Menlo Park, California, designed the raised bed and trellis system pictured above to make use of every inch of space--including trellises for pole beans, cucumbers, and melons. First-time gardener Susan Hobson Dormitzer planted and tended the garden for a season.

"My grandfather spent hours tending his big garden," she explains, "so I always thought having a vegetable garden was a Herculean adventure. But I found that it doesn't have to be an all-consuming hobby."

Since Dormitzer works five days a week, she couldn't give the garden a lot of time. She spent 1 to 1 1/2 hours planting it, then about an hour every other weekend throughout the growing season for maintenance. During the week, she needed only 10 to 15 minutes a day to water and harvest vegetables--a job she could do in office clothes.

Dormitzer attributes much of her success to the fertile soil. Before she planted, Stuckey amended it with compost, chicken manure, and redwood soil conditioner. Later, plants were fertilized weekly with fish emulsion.

She chose vegetable varieties that are known for their flavor and productivity: one plant each of 'Ambrosia' melon, Japanese eggplant, 'Sunburst' squash, and yellow cherry tomato; two each of 'Jalapeno' chili pepper, 'Lemon' cucumbers, and yellow bell peppers; and a row of 'Blue Lake' pole beans. She filled in with green and purple basil, lettuce, and thyme and, for color, ageratum and marigolds.

The experience wasn't without failures. The squash tried to take over the garden, so Dormitzer pruned off leaves to keep them from shading other plants. "It was too prolific. I would rather have more melons, peppers, and cucumbers. They're good investments in space."

Powdery mildew was a problem, especially toward season's end. But the small garden yielded enough produce to feed her and her husband, with extras for friends.


If your growing space is so limited that you can't accommodate even a raised bed, you may be able to find space for a few crops along a wall or patio. Stroll through your garden and seek out wasted spaces. Do you have a narrow strip between the garage and the house, a planting bed bordering a pathway, or space for an arbor over a walkway? Consider extending a low garden wall with trellises, which create valuable vertical growing space for vining and sprawling plants like beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

By attaching trellises to an existing block wall along the back border of her property, veteran gardener Nellie Brogle grows enough beans and cucumbers in her 10-foot-long, 3-foot-wide garden to keep her family and neighbors well supplied, and she still has plenty left for canning (98 quarts of cucumbers one season). "A small space will produce tremendously, if you take care of it," says Brogle.

The trellis above right supports a pumpkin vine and hides a small compost pile in an otherwise wasted space next to the house. "Nothing is more fun than making compost," says Lansing, "and the plants respond immediately when you use it."


It's not always easy to find space for it in a small garden. But a compost pile puts garden waste to work--creating a ready supply of beneficial amendment and mulch. To serve your garden well, it can be as small as 3 feet high and 3 feet wide.

Which vegetables to grow in small spaces? Here's advice

We asked avid gardeners, including extension specialists and vegetable growers, what they would grow if they had limited space. Here is their advice. Numbers after named varieties correspond with seed suppliers listed at bottom right.


"My standard is 'Blue Lake' |2, 3~. Yellow 'Romano' |3~ has stupendous flavor if not overcooked, but is less productive." --Rosalind Creasy, author of Cooking from the Garden

"In the long run, pole beans are more productive than bush beans. Scarlet runner beans, with attractive red flowers, are best in cooler areas."--Wendy Krupnick, Shepherd's Garden Seeds


"Baby beets such as 'Kleine Bol' ('Little Ball') |2, 3~ are good at any stage."--W. K.

"Mix seeds of different-colored beets, then sow them in small blocks. Harvest young leaves for salads, the beets when they're about 1 inch in diameter."--R. C.


"Sprouting types such as 'Mercedes' |3~ are practical for small gardens because they allow harvest of small quantities over a long season."--W. K.


"Mix 1 radish seed to 4 carrot seeds ('Chantenay' or 'Nantes') and plant in one row. The radishes will be up and gone by the time the carrots start growing." --Shepherd Ogden, The Cook's Garden seed company


"I recommend 'Early Sunglow' |2, 3~. It produces two or three ears on a 4 1/2-foot stalk. For baby corn, pick as soon as they show silk. They're wonderful steamed, stir-fried, or pickled."--W. K.


"'Salad Bush' |2, 3~ makes full-size slicing cucumbers on a vine that spreads to 2 feet. Train it inside a small wire cage." --Nona Koivula, All-America Selections

"Cucumbers like to grow vertically. 'Lemon' cucumber |1, 3~ is always good; another favorite is 'Kidma' |3~."--W. K.


"One of my favorites is 'Osterei' |1~. It makes white egg-size fruits."--S. O.

"Eggplants take a long time to mature; start with good-size transplants. 'Agora' |3~ is prolific."--W. K.


"Mixed baby greens are the best crop for a small garden. You harvest quickly, and over a long season. I mix seeds of bok choy, chard, baby spinach, lettuces, and mizuna, then sow seeds over a 2-foot-square area. Harvest with scissors." --R. C.

"Lettuce is great because it will grow for such a long time. 'Reine des Glaces' |1~ is a full-flavored Batavian. Of the romaines, I recommend 'Rouge d'Hiver' |1, 3~." --R. C.

"The best spinach is 'Melody' |2~. It's dependable and flavorful. I scatter seeds in blocks, not rows, and use thinnings in salads."--R. C.


"Edible-pod kinds are most space-efficient. I like 'Super SugarMel' |2, 3~."--W. K..


"My favorite is 'Corno di Toro' |1, 3~. Plants are productive; peppers are huge and sweet."--Elizabeth Berry, Galina Canyon Ranch Produce

"'Poblano' chilies |3~ are best. They have an intense flavor."--R. C.


"The trick with potatoes is to grow a small amount and leave them in the ground until you're ready to use them."--R. C.


"They're hardly small plants, but two are suited to small gardens: 'Jack Be Little' | 1, 2~, which bears 3- to 4-ounce pumpkins, and new 'Baby Bear' |1, 2, 3~, which bears 1 1/2- to 2-pound fruits. Train vines up a trellis."--N. K.


"I plant 'Easter Egg II' |1, 2, 3~. Each one is a differently colored surprise when you pull them up."--R. C.


"Most aren't too practical where space is limited, but vining 'Zucchetta Rampicante' |3~ is good for small spaces because it can ramble up a trellis."--W. K.

"Plant only one hill of squash, but more than one variety. Harvest them all as babies."--S. O.


"In limited spaces, plant compact, bush-type 'Chello' |3~. It produces yellow cherry tomatoes."--W. K.

"Try growing 'Sweet 100' |1, 2, 3~ in an 18-inch pot at the base of a drainpipe, then tie stems to the pipe as it grows."--S. O.


1. The Cook's Garden, Box 535, London-derry, Vt. 05148; 2. Park Seed Co., Cokes-bury Rd., Greenwood, S.C. 29647; 3. Shepherds Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018.
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Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar; Ocone, Lynn
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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