15 Tips for Gardening in Small Spaces
Don't have a lot of room? Don't worry! You can still create an amazing garden, whether it's on your porch or on a balcony in the city. In this article, gardening expert Kelli Klein shares her top tips for gardening in limited space.
When driving through farmlands, you see acres filled with countless rows of corn, soybeans, cabbages, onions, and commercially grown crops.
You might think you don’t have the space to grow vegetables at home. But when you start to get creative, gardening in a small space has so much potential. Anything that can hold soil and get enough sunlight (typically 6-8 hours) is a potential garden site.
Below we’ll discuss the top tips for maximizing a small garden space. There are many possibilities, from windowsill planters to vertical gardens to raised beds!
Even if you have a large yard, you can still benefit from maximizing your space with the small space mindset. Gardening in a small space can be challenging, but there are many ways to ensure a bountiful harvest, beautiful blooms, and an overall enjoyable landscape.
Take advantage of any south-facing sunny windowsill you have! This is the perfect place to start a microgreens garden. Microgreens grow quickly, and all you need is enough warmth to germinate the seeds and 6-8 hours of light per day for the best growth.
These mini greens are more nutrient-dense than their fully mature counterparts and are ready to harvest in just a few weeks rather than months.
Microgreens differ from sprouts since microgreens are harvested after the first set of true leaves appears, and sprouts are harvested shortly after a seed is sprouted.
Sprouts can also be grown on a windowsill and don’t require a growing medium, just a moist and warm environment for the seeds to germinate, often a mason jar. Sprouts can be grown from various seeds, but one of the most popular varieties is mung bean sprouts.
Most vegetables with edible foliage can be grown as microgreens, but some popular choices include herbs like parsley and basil, brassicas like broccoli and red cabbage, root crops with edible tops like turnips and radishes, and even pea young pea shoots.
Microgreens add a lovely fresh flavor to dishes as a garnish or main ingredient in a salad. Herbs can also be grown in full maturity in a sunny window, and certain herbs, like basil, can be grown from cuttings and endlessly propagated for your windowsill garden.
If you have a patio or a deck and long for a green garden space, consider setting up a container garden. South-facing is best if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, but east-facing or west-facing will suffice.
Before setting up your container garden, ensure your planting site gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. The sunlight hours do not have to be consecutive. The benefit of containers is that you can also move them to chase the sun as the seasons change.
Diversify Your Containers
There are almost endless choices when it comes to containers. The main qualifications for containers are that they hold soil and have drainage holes to drain away excess water. This could be as simple as a 5-gallon bucket with drainage holes drilled into the bottom, a store-bought plant pot or a fabric grow bag.
Planter boxes hanging over the side of a railing can help maximize your deck space, or you can string up some hanging planters. Flowers like trailing nasturtiums look stunning in hanging planters, and as a bonus, they are edible too! Short flowers like pansies and dwarf marigolds grow well in planter boxes on a railing. They attract pollinators and won’t block out light to other crops below them on the deck floor.
Patio and Deck Growing
The good news for patio and deck gardeners is there are so many dwarf varieties of common vegetables perfectly suited for containers. There are dwarf determinate tomatoes that don’t require tomato cages for support and dwarf bush cucumbers that don’t require trellises to climb.
You can even grow potatoes and sweet potatoes in a large container (about the size of a wine barrel). Mini fruit varieties like dwarf blueberry bushes are also well-suited for container growing. Pepper plants especially do well in a 5-gallon-sized grow bag or pot.
If you have space for even one raised bed, you can maximize your small garden space. To increase the productivity of a small raised bed:
- Allow larger plants to spill over the edges and ramble away from the bed
- Place a trellis on the north end of the bed for vining plants to grow vertically
- Practice interplanting and companion planting
- Try square-foot gardening
No matter the length, make sure the bed is only 4 feet wide so that you can easily reach the center from either side.
Raised beds offer endless options for placement, layout, and configuration to suit your space best. You can build one from wooden two-by-fours or even old dresser drawers or a bookshelf with the back knocked out to allow for drainage. You may have even seen old bathtubs or small plastic kids’ pools used as impromptu raised beds. Nearly any material works as long as it is non-toxic, holds soil, and provides drainage for excess water.
One of the best benefits of raised beds is growing in premium soil rather than working on amending your current native soil, which may be far from ideal, depending on your area. Modular metal raised beds are tailored and assembled to fit your unique growing space, no matter the size of your garden.
Succession planting ensures you get continual harvests from the smallest of spaces all season long. In its simplest terms, succession sowing refers to staggering the start dates of your plants so that you’ll also stagger the eventual harvest.
Certain fast-growing crops like bush beans will grow quickly once the weather warms, but they also tend to produce one large crop and then peter out. Succession sowing can guarantee a steady, manageable, and continual harvest over a longer period rather than one large harvest from a group of plants, like bush beans, all at once.
Saving Space With a GreenStalk Planter
Since bush beans are small and compact plants, they are also a great option for growing in a vertical GreenStalk planter. Each pocket in the GreenStalk is perfect for one bush bean plant. For an extra added layer of succession sowing in your GreenStalk, you can grow cool-weather-loving, quick-growing radishes before you plant out your warm-weather-loving bush beans.
Staggering Dates to Avoid Pests
You can even succession sow summer squashes to avoid pest damage. In areas with issues with squash vine borers, one tactic is to plant a succession crop right when the first crop starts succumbing to the squash borers. This gives you a second round of production as the first round of plants begins to fail. Start seedlings indoors and have them ready to replace older plants that die back.
Another way to succession plant, without having to stagger start dates, is to choose varieties with different days to maturity. For example, some potatoes mature in 90 days, while others can take up to 120 days to reach maturity. When planted at the same time, those potato harvests are staggered throughout the season.
Companion planting involves planting crops together that tend to have similar growth requirements or can otherwise benefit each other. The most widely known example is the Native American three sisters’ garden of corn, pole beans, and squash:
- Corn grows tall and provides a structure for the pole beans to climb
- Beans are nitrogen-fixers and add fertility for the next season’s growth
- Squash spreads low to the ground and shades the soil
- The large leaves of squash vines help retain moisture and suppress weed growth
Also called intercropping or interplanting, this is a great way to maximize space. In the three sisters’ example, all three plants grow in one space rather than separately.
Other companion combinations deter pests. Flowering plants like nasturtium act as a trap crop to draw pests away from your vegetable crops.
Crops like garlic and onions deter pests and don’t take up much space, so they easily fit in with other crops. Garlic can deter root-knot nematodes that often plague rose bushes. Planting garlic between these plants can help deter this pest.
Vertical gardening is a great space-saving technique for a small garden. When you run out of ground space, growing plants skyward is always possible! When vertical gardening, it’s important to ensure that whatever vertical structure you choose will not block light from shorter plants in the area.
In the northern hemisphere, place your vertical structure on the north side of your garden. A vertical structure can be a cattle panel trellis, arbor, or wooden or plastic-coated stakes.
A trellis is great for climbing and vining plants like morning glories, moon flowers, cucumbers, and pole beans. Even pumpkins and butternut squash put out tendrils and will climb a trellis. Stakes are useful for growing indeterminate tomatoes using the Florida weave method or tying each tomato to an individual stake as it grows.
Hanging pots along a fenceline can also make use of the vertical space, and a GreenStalk has the footprint of a moderately sized planter but maximizes vertical space with several layers of plant pockets.
Perennials take up permanent space in the garden, so it’s important to be mindful when choosing their planting site and be aware of their mature size, especially when gardening in a small space. Consider dwarf perennials to grow in pots, such as dwarf blueberry bushes, apple trees, and even fig trees. You can even Espalier fruit trees, shaping their branches to be flat against a wall or fence line and supported by a lattice to help save space.
Planting perennials that take several years to harvest amongst your flower beds will help keep space free in your annual vegetable beds. It also maximizes the unused space between plants like rose bushes, peonies, and the like. For example, asparagus is a space hog and can take up to 4 years to mature. Grow it amongst a perennial flower bed to add visual interest and save space.
The benefits of adding flowers to any landscape are plentiful, but especially in a vegetable garden, they draw in pollinators and other beneficial insects. Consider edible flowers if you’re interested in growing an edible garden in a small space but don’t want to sacrifice precious space to ornamentals. These double-duty blooms are beautiful to behold and also tasty on the plate.
As mentioned above, nasturtium can be used as a trap crop to draw pests away from other crops, but it is also edible and said to have a peppery flavor. Bachelor’s buttons, calendula, chamomile, Johnny jump-ups, marigolds, and borage are popular edible flowers.
This mix of flowers blooms at various points throughout the season so that you’ll always have something blooming. Some edible plants can be left to flower, and their blooms can be consumed. For example, arugula produces tiny yellow 4-petaled flowers with a similar flavor to broccoli raab. Even dill flower heads can be cut and used for pickling.
To get even more out of a small space, employ season extension techniques to give you more chances to grow crops in that smaller area. Most home gardeners focus on the summer garden, but quick-growing crops can be grown in the cool weather of spring and then replaced as the weather warms.
Likewise, a second round of cool weather crops can be started from seed indoors during the hottest part of the summer (generally around July, but it will depend on your specific growing zone) and then transplanted as the weather cools and the summer crops wind down for the season.
Cool-weather crops that do well in spring include lettuce, peas, radishes, beets, spring onions, and carrots. In the spring, a mini raised bed greenhouse or cloche can be placed over your plants to protect them and help give them an early start when weather conditions might not yet be completely ideal. Chard and kale can do double duty and survive both cold and hot conditions, so they can be grown throughout most of the season.
In the fall, cold frames can be used to keep frost-tolerant vegetables going into the winter months, like spinach, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, and kale.
When gardening in a small space, especially when planting densely, you’ll want to give back to the soil consistently. Otherwise, the soil could become depleted after seasons of growth. One way to accomplish this is to use cover crops at the end of the growing season. Cover crops grow quickly at the end of the season and can be “chopped and dropped” in place and allowed to decompose, which adds nutrients back into the soil.
Growing nitrogen-fixing crops like peas and beans can also help improve your soil composition. At the end of the growing season, cut plants back at the soil level and leave the roots in place to add organic matter and stored nitrogen back into the soil.
Another source of organic matter and a boost to improve your soil is the addition of compost. Homemade compost is great, but commercially produced compost works as well.
Be sure it is from a reputable source that is OMRI certified. Taking care of the soil in your small space will ensure it takes care of your plants in return. The same principles can be applied to pots and container gardens (such as the addition of compost to replenish the soil).
As mentioned above in the container garden section, many dwarf varieties are well suited for growing in pots, but they can save space in a small raised bed or other small gardening space.
Dwarf corn is easier to manage and grow in a backyard garden than traditional corn. Generally, you need at least a 4 ft by 4 ft plot of corn to ensure cross-pollination for a good harvest.
Most backyard gardeners have difficulty dedicating this much space to a single crop. There are now dwarf varieties that are made to be grown in large pots on a deck and can reliably cross-pollinate with as little as 8-10 plants grown in a 24-inch container. Even crops you thought were too big for your space might be within your reach if you choose a dwarf variety.
If your patio, deck, or small space garden isn’t cutting it and you still want to spread your wings, there are many local community gardens where you can pick up plots and add to your overall growing space. It won’t be right outside your back door, but it might be on your way to/from work or nearby.
My area has a community garden right next to the local library, making it a one-stop shop for books on gardening with the space to apply the knowledge right next door! Community gardens are also a great way to build a community! You’ll be able to connect with like-minded people, which is a great confidence boost for new gardeners.
Speaking of community, another way to increase your growing space is to coordinate with neighbors. Perhaps your neighbor is skilled at growing summer squash, and they always find themselves overrun partway through the growing season.
You might be able to grow a crop that they don’t have the space for, or conditions for, in their backyard and arrange a trade-off.
Yes, you read that right! Lawn removal is another option for increasing your garden space. This once unheard-of suggestion is quickly gaining popularity.
Lawns create a monoculture of non-native plants that require lots of water and fertilizer and offer nothing in return for us gardeners or for the local wildlife (aside from a potential free mulch source via grass clippings).
As conscientiousness in regards to how we utilize water is on the rise, many are replacing lawns with xeriscaping, rock gardens, native plant pollinator gardens, and water-wise gardens. Replacing a portion of your lawn with any of these gardens will create a haven for your local environment.
Consider replacing even a portion of your lawn, if not the whole thing, with a lawn substitution like yarrow, which is drought tolerant, can be mowed and cut short, or left to grow tall and flower. Replacing your lawn with a vegetable garden may still require you to water it, but at least you’ll be getting some food and providing some habitat for the surrounding wildlife.
As an experienced gardener, I want to branch out (pun intended) and experiment year after year to learn new things. Over the years, I’ve learned to focus on limiting experiments to one small space per season. I choose a space to dedicate to experiments or new-to-me crops, and the remainder of my space is carefully planned. This helps me maximize the space while leaving some room for creative freedom.
It’s so easy to pour over seed catalogs in the dead of winter with idealistic visions of what could be grown in our gardens, regardless of how realistic it might be. Keeping the space for experiments limited helps to save space for the things I like to grow and eat.
Generally speaking, it’s best to grow what you like to eat. When you grow what you like to eat, you’ll be excited enough to go out and check on it daily. If you grow radishes just because they’re easy to grow, but you hate eating radishes, then you might not be that excited about it (and gardening is supposed to bring excitement and joy into our lives!)
Plus, you will have wasted that space growing radishes when you could have been growing something you’ll enjoy (and we want to enjoy the literal fruits of our labor). Learning to focus on growing what you like to eat will help pare down your list of plants, keep expectations in check, and help you make the most of your small space.
Popularized by Mel Bartholomew, the Square Foot Gardening method was first introduced in 1981 to help home gardeners maximize their growing space. Before this method, most gardeners ran into trouble adapting the row garden methods that most commercial growers use to fit into a backyard space.
While commercial growers have to account for walkways and paths for heavy-duty harvesting machinery, home gardeners do not and can therefore plant more densely.
The basic method lays out a guide for how many plants can be grown in a single square foot. For example, in one square foot, you can grow either 1 head of cauliflower, 1 eggplant, 1 tomato, 1 summer squash, 4 heads of lettuce, 6 bunches of spinach, 9 turnips, or sixteen radishes.
Then section off your growing space using string or a wooden lattice to outline each square foot in your bed and plant accordingly. Square foot gardening is also used in conjunction with some of the methods mentioned above, like vertical growing and succession sowing.