15 Tips For Vegetable Gardening in Small Spaces
Do you have a small garden space that you aren't quite sure how to fully utilize for your garden grown vegetables? There are many different ways to make use of smaller growing spaces. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through her top tips for maximizing space in smaller garden areas.
You don’t need a big backyard or a giant greenhouse to have a successful garden. In fact, some of the highest-yielding gardens crank out delicious fruits and veggies from a small space. This is excellent news for those who may not have room for a garden, such as city-dwellers.
Once you start thinking outside the box (literally), everything from vertical gardening to intercropping can multiply your growing space right before your eyes. Even a small sunny area on a balcony or patio can make for a great space to grow plants.
You will be shocked by the diversity of deliciousness that can be squeezed into a small space! The secrets to optimizing a small garden include choosing the right crops and varieties, companion planting, and continuous seeding throughout the season. Let’s dig into how you can grow more in less space!
As long as you have light, water, and soil, you can practically garden anywhere. But the soil doesn’t have to actually be in the ground.
Small gardens come in many forms for a variety of circumstances. From the suburban renter to the urban apartment dweller, you can grow food in and around your home. With a little creativity, you can even integrate multiple types into one space!
For example, let your backyard raised bed garden overflow into containers on your patio and indoor potted plants in the window. You could also grow lights with microgreens in your kitchen while you use your front porch to hang baskets of strawberries and tomatoes.
Here are four main types of small space gardens:
Perhaps the most common of all backyard gardens, this concept essentially uses garden boxes to grow plants in the soil above the ground-level surface.
Raised beds are most commonly made of lumber, but they can also be made with rough logs, plastic prefab planters, metal cattle feeders, bricks, and unique repurposed materials.
This method uses walls and fences to grow up rather than out. A vertical garden can be a modular pre-purchased structure or a design you construct specifically for your space. This is ideal for urban settings.
Everything from a green wall to a grow tower to an indoor hydroponic system could be considered vertical gardening. You can also go vertical with trellising, hanging baskets, and pots suspended on a wall.
You don’t have to build raised beds or dig in the ground to grow vegetables. One of the very first gardens I ever grew was on a tiny 10-foot square space apartment balcony in western Oregon. I squeezed more than 50 varieties of plants in that little space and harvested an abundance of tomatoes, greens, and herbs throughout the blazing summer.
The great thing about balcony gardens is they don’t require any actual ground space. You could grow food on the balcony of a sky-rise building in Manhattan if you wanted to! The main drawback is the watering needs of these gardens.
Because everything is growing in a container and it’s difficult to install an irrigation system, you will likely have to hand water your veggies on a daily basis. Quality potting soil and water monitors can help.
For tomatoes, potatoes, and brassicas, lightweight fabric pots like grow bags make it easier to maintain soil moisture. They also have handles to give you the freedom to move larger crops around the patio.
If you don’t have any outdoor space at all, you may be surprised that you can still grow a garden. Indoor gardens are possible in nearly any space as long as you have light, warmth, and a surface for your plants to grow.
You can make use of containers and pots throughout your home to grow edible crops as if they are houseplants. Our favorites include salad greens, scallions, spinach, microgreens, and herbs such as potted lavender.
Light is the most limiting factor in this scenario. You’ll need to ensure you have a sunny exposed window (preferably south-facing) or a nice setup of indoor LED grow lights. Ironically enough, the houseplant community tends to have the best ideas for those who want to grow any type of plant indoors.
Tips for Maximizing Your Space
Now that we’ve reviewed the different types of gardens for small spaces, here are some helpful tips for maximizing your small space to grow a garden that will thrive to produce leafy greens, vegetables, herbs, or anything you can dream up!
Too many gardeners waste space growing crops that they don’t even like. Sure, everyone seems to grow lettuce or radishes because they are easy and small, but that doesn’t mean you actually enjoy them in the kitchen.
The best crops for your small space garden are not necessarily the quickest-growing or the cheapest seeds. The best crops to grow are vegetables you love to eat that you can’t find locally or that are very expensive in stores. For example:
- Heirloom tomatoes not available at local markets are worth growing.
- Melons can be more expensive, and are worth growing.
- Fresh carrots are great for growing with children, and have many varieties.
On the other hand, if the potatoes and onions at the store are fairly cheap and of good quality, it’s not worth growing them in your tiny garden. Similarly, if you love winter squash, and you can buy it for $1 per pound at the farmer’s market, it doesn’t make sense to use up 15+ feet of space to grow your own butternut squash plant.
Small space gardening requires a minimalist mindset. Minimalists don’t keep unused or unnecessary items around their house, so a small space gardener definitely shouldn’t waste their time or space growing crops they don’t eat.
Toss out the kohlrabi and turnip seeds (unless of course, you love them), and prioritize the top 5-8 fruits and veggies you crave the most.
Choose Fast-Growing Crops
Patience may be a virtue, but time is of the essence in a small space. The combined power of quick-maturing varieties, intercropping, and succession planting (described below) can drastically multiply your yields!
There are so many delicious veggies you can get in and out of the garden to enjoy the maximum yields possible. Goodbye, sluggish leeks, slowpoke celery, or giant pumpkins! Hello to fast-growing greens and roots.
Top Fast Growing Crops
Requiring just 3-6 weeks to harvest, these quick-yielding greens are tender, delicious, and ready to make the most of even the smallest space. You can space greens close together and cut them small for salads and sautes.
Better yet, many specialty mixes are bred to “cut and come again”, which means you get multiple harvests from the same crop. Choose ‘Kalebration Kale Mix’, ‘Cheap Frills Mix’, or a mesclun mix seed blend.
Microgreens or Sprouts
Perfect for indoor gardens with grow lights or gardeners with a bright windowsill! Microgreens are like baby greens, but even smaller. They cost a fortune to buy but are so cheap to grow. You densely sow them in open flats and harvest just after the cotyledon (first baby leaf) phase.
The microgreen category technically includes everything from broccoli sprouts to wheatgrass to beet greens to spicy micro mustard blends. They take just 10-20 days to grow and are very beginner friendly.
As one of the easiest crops to grow, radishes require very little time, space, or fertility to reap their sweet, crisp roots. Needing just 20 to 30 days to mature and about 1” of space per root, radishes can get in and out of the garden in no time. They’re also great for companion planting! We love ‘French Breakfast’, ‘Easter Egg’, ‘Sora’, and ‘Pink Beauty’.
Zucchini grows at an impressively rapid speed and yields all summer long. While it may not be the most space-saving plant, zucchini makes up for its size with continuous production of flowers and squash. Plus, there are plenty of compact varieties ready in just 45-55 days.
As one of the most popular garden roots, homegrown carrots have unparalleled flavor and nutrition. They can mature in as little as 50-60 days, and potentially sooner if they are harvested as baby carrots.
Beans are easy to plant close together and take just 45-60 days to start yielding. You can harvest fresh beans throughout the summer months.
Also known as interplanting or intercropping, companion planting is a strategy for growing multiple crops in the same area. This ecological technique aims to maximize your garden space while improving the growth of your crops through added fertility, pollination, pest control, and biodiversity.
The key to companion planting in a small space is understanding the growth habits of your crops. Different crops will have different growth patterns, so it’s important to plan ahead. For example:
Tomatoes are usually trellised vertically. This leaves an area of partially shaded space in the understory for shade-tolerant crops like spinach, scallions, or lettuce.
Corn grows tall and skinny, making it the perfect pole-like trellis for pole beans to grow on. As the beans wind up the stalks, the corn can mature without interruption, resulting in double the yields from the same space.
Carrots grow deep into the soil while radishes and turnips keep their bulb-shaped roots near the surface. These growth habits complement each other because they aren’t competing for the same soil dimensions, which means you can space them closer together.
Kale and Cabbage
Kale and cabbage grow somewhat wide and bushy, which means a tall, slender companion like dill or yarrow can add pest-repellent properties to the same small space.
Strawberries love being companion planted in the same bed of fragrant creeping thyme or low-growing sweet alyssum. These provide added yields and ecosystem services while keeping the berries out of the dirt.
You can also intercrop based on crop timing. In professional terms, this is called “relay intercropping.” Basically, the lifecycle of one crop overlaps that of another vegetable. For example:
Lettuce greens are easy to grow next to any slow-maturing crop that has been recently transplanted. While your kale, broccoli, cabbage, or tomato plant is still small, there is plenty of time to grow salad greens or full heads of lettuce 6-8” from the base of the transplants. By the time the larger crop grows up, the lettuce will be out of the garden bed.
Leeks or Onions
After leeks or onions are established, you seed lettuce or radishes in between the rows so they can develop as the onions mature.
Peppers take 70-80 days to reach maturity. After they are transplanted, there is open ground nearby where you can sneak in a quick crop like radishes (20-30 days to mature). This makes use of the unused space during the pepper establishment period. The radishes are harvested by the time the peppers have fully grown up.
Companion planting can take a bit of trial and error. Once you understand the shape and timing of each crop, it gets easier to come up with clever ways to nudge other veggies in alongside it.
Trellis Vining Crops
Some plants just aren’t meant to be grown on the ground. Sure, watermelon and cucumber vines might naturally want to ramble along the soil. But indeterminate (vining) plants are far more suited to trellising. The advantages of trellising include:
A cucumber plant that might have vined over 6 feet of your garden bed can now grow upward in a 1 square foot area of soil. Trellises keep plants more contained and compact so you can squeeze plants more in a small space without sacrificing their vigor.
Pruning your indeterminate crops ensures that they channel their energy into fruit production instead of putting out more leaves and stems. Tomatoes, for example, tend to yield more than their un-pruned counterparts when spaced close together.
Trellised crops have more airflow and a reduced risk for disease. The foliage stays off the soil and has plenty of space to breathe without feeling crowded by its vining neighbors.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, small melons, winter squash, beans, and peas stay much cleaner when they are dangling from a trellis instead of sitting in the dirt.
There are so many unique ways to go vertical in your garden. For example, an A-frame trellis is perfect for climbing winter squash, while a tomato cage or a T-post stake is ideal for indeterminate tomatoes. You can get creative with fence lines, cattle panels, pergolas, and other structures around the garden.
Plan a Space-Saving Garden Layout
Footpaths can take up ridiculous amounts of space in a garden. The same is true of the single-row systems that large farms use. Instead, you should optimize your garden from the start by planning a space-saving layout ahead of time.
Follow these steps to get started:
- Start with a piece of paper that outlines the space.
- Take measurements of the entire area and imagine different layouts.
- Imagine your garden into 3-4 different zones.
- You may have zones for annual vegetables, perennial herbs, and ornamental flowers.
- Decide if you prefer rectangular, square, or other-shaped beds.
- A small backyard may be perfect for elongated rectangular beds.
- Measure out your pathways based on how much access you’ll need near your beds.
- Find areas where you can incorporate vertical or container gardening techniques.
- Weigh out the different layouts and choose what gives you the most square footage.
Use Raised Beds
If your gardening area is on concrete (or clay that feels like concrete), you can build upward instead of digging down. Raised beds have several major advantages, like:
Vegetables simply tend to grow better in raised beds. These simple structures are more suited to intensive planting and more lush growth. Raised beds are scientifically proven to have higher yields than in-ground gardens.
Quick, easy establishment: You can build a raised bed garden and fill it with quality potting soil in just one day’s work.
More fertile, well-drained soil means that crops can be spaced closer together and yield more from a small area. The improved depth of a raised bed ensures that water will flow through the soil instead of pooling up. You won’t have to worry as much about disease or waterlogging.
The soil in a raised bed tends to warm up faster in the spring, which means you can get crops in the ground (bed) sooner.
Wooden raised beds allow you to easily nail or screw in different types of trellises or tunnel hoops. You can even add a bottom layer of mesh wire to keep gophers and burrowing rodents out.
Choose Compact Varieties
Not all vegetables are created equal. Each variety of carrot, broccoli, cabbage, or any other crop can come in a range of sizes. Small varieties are often labeled in seed catalogs as “miniature”, “baby”, or “compact.”
Some of our favorite compact crops include:
- ‘Genovese Compact’ basil
- ‘Tiara’ mini cabbage
- ‘Dragon’ baby fennel
- ‘Fairy Tale’ mini eggplants
- ‘Purplette’ baby onions
- ‘Eight Ball’ compact zucchini
- ‘Sugar Baby’ watermelon
The best thing about small or baby varieties is that they are often more tender and easier to cook. There’s less risk of cutting your hand off while slicing into an oversized cabbage! For vining crops like melon, baby types also make trellising more realistic (good luck trellising a full-size watermelon plant!).
Use Closer Spacing (But Not too Close)
Some crops need space to stretch out, while others are happy to grow close together and can even benefit from tight quarters. Healthy soil and ample irrigation make it possible to reduce your spacing for higher yields. Closer spacing can also reduce your weed pressure because there are fewer places for weeds to sprout up between crops.
It takes some observation to know exactly how close you can get away with. My best advice is to imagine your crop at its full size and only give it that amount of space. If you want to harvest carrots or radishes at a 2” diameter, only space them 2” apart.
Even if your lettuce seed packet suggests spacing at 10-18” apart, you can usually get away with planting lettuce as close as 6” if you harvest the heads at 6” width.
You can even seed some crops in clusters. For example, try seeding green onions (scallions) at a rate of 3-4 seeds per cell and then transplant them in a clump. When you go to harvest, they’re already in a bundle and you don’t waste extra space spreading them out. After all, a green onion is only about 1” wide by the time you pick it.
You can do the same cluster-sowing method with radishes, beets, and salad turnips (like ‘Hakurei’). Their bulbous roots tend to grow up and outward. This works best in clusters of three. There is no reason to space plants out more widely than they need.
A Key Caveat
Close spacing can bite you back if you’re not careful. Too much competition for light or a reduction in airflow can cause weak, leggy seedlings that are prone to disease. Moreover, overcrowded plants can be prone to bolting really quickly (especially arugula, spinach, cilantro, and other low-growing greens). Pay attention to your plants and never be afraid to thin them out if they start to get stressed.
Use Succession Planting
Succession planting means growing several seedings of a crop in a sequence throughout the season. Instead of growing one crop of carrots, you might grow spring, summer, and fall carrots.
Similarly, you can seed a series of lettuce every two weeks for a continuous supply of salad greens. As the older planting wears out, you’ll have a new one getting ready for harvest.
The key to successful succession planting is planning. If you don’t plan out your garden on paper, you won’t know when to plant what. During the chilly winter months, curl up by the fire and use a calendar to brainstorm when you’ll put plants in the ground. Pay attention to the “days to maturity” listed on each variety in the seed catalog.
Keep in mind that succession planting isn’t necessary for crops like zucchini or tomatoes, which will fruit continuously once they’re established. Kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens are also typically planted once and picked throughout the season.
Don’t Forget to Prune
Pruning is one of the most overlooked ways to maximize your harvests in a small space. Un-pruned crops like tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers can take up way more space than necessary. Cutting back “suckers” encourages the plant to grow more fruit instead of putting its energy toward leaf growth.
As you prune, you are strategically training the plant to climb a trellis or stay in its designated bed. Don’t be afraid to give some crops a haircut or pick up their vines and tell them where to grow.
A Key Caveat
Unplanned pruning can harm your crops by exposing fruits to sunscald or reducing the photosynthetic capacity of the leaves. If you’re unsure about how to prune a vegetable, research it ahead of time. As long as you don’t severely defoliate the plant, pruning has far more benefits than drawbacks.
Strategically Use Containers
If you are a renter or have poor soil, containers add more growing space that isn’t permanent. Plus, they give you the opportunity to grow warm-weather perennials that you can bring indoors during the winter. You can drill containers into the fence, line them along a patio railing, or stack them vertically on an outdoor shelf.
The new wave of vertical gardening and modular plant walls has inspired a plethora of unique growing methods for small spaces. You can purchase a vertical garden planter for strawberries and herbs, a hanging wall mount fabric planter, or opt for a DIY vertical garden installation.
Our favorite container garden plants include:
Add Hanging Baskets
Whether they’re filled with flowers or delicious crops, hanging baskets add more personality and yield potential to your patio, fenceline, arbor, gazebo, or house. Remember to properly secure hooks before hanging heavy vegetable baskets and ensure that they receive the proper amount of light.
The best edible hanging basket plants:
- Cherry tomatoes *with pruning
Avoid Space-Hogging Crops
If your garden only amounts to a 10’x5′ space, you don’t want to take up 20 square feet with giant pumpkin vines. When you’re strapped for space, avoid these extra large crops:
Any plant that takes up more than 5 feet of space or has an aggressive growth habit has no place in your small space garden.
Use Your Front Yard
People often forget that their front yard can be just as useful as the back for growing vegetables. Front yard gardens are becoming increasingly common replacements for lawns.
Ornamental shrubs are most commonly used in landscaping. However, there are plenty of beautiful edible landscape plants to add to your garden. Think about landscaping with blueberry bushes, rosemary, strawberries, or dwarf fruit trees.
Better yet, you can make some very aesthetically pleasing raised beds for growing annual vegetables in your front yard. Just be sure to stay on top of the maintenance so your neighbors don’t get upset with you.
Don’t Forget the Borders
We often think that the most growing action happens in the middle of the garden. But in permaculture design, there is a key principle called “use edges and value margins.” Whether you have a fence, a wall, or narrow border beds, you should use as much of the garden edge as possible.
For example, you can create perennial beds for companion planting along the side of the garden. Plants like lavender, bee balm, rosemary, and perennial herbs can aid your crops in pollination and pest control while adding beauty to the area.
You can put raised beds or containers up against a fence to trellis plants upward. Moreover, you may want to plant species that are deer-resistant and rabbit-repellent to act as a pest barrier along the outside of your garden.
Borders also create a screen or barrier between your neighbors, especially when choosing taller plants like sunflowers, larkspur, fountain grass, hollyhock, or Italian cypress. Just be sure these taller-growing species don’t shade out your garden. I prefer to keep the tallest margin trees and shrubs on the north side so they won’t cast a shadow over my vegetables.
With innovations in compact seed varieties, vertical garden techniques, and indoor gardening setups, it’s possible to grow a garden no matter where you live. Combine these modern concepts with old-time methods like companion planting and succession planting to get the most yield from your small space.