how to grow a garden in less space

Running the length of my driveway is a thin strip of lawn, barely 3 feet wide. Blessed with full sun, grass and weeds grow fast, and because the place is so narrow and blocked off by my neighbor’s fence, it’s pathetic to mow.

So two years ago, I lined a row of raised beds with it and turned this impromptu plot of land into a luscious garden, where this year I’m growing tomatoes, eggplant, Swiss chard, pole beans, and cucumbers.

Vegetable gardens are hardy things and don’t require nearly as much space as the ones I reclaimed. Steps, a stoop, a balcony, a terrace, a roof deck or even a window sill will do. With a few containers, some good soil, and plenty of sunlight, a garden can grow almost anywhere.

“You can go smaller, smaller, smaller,” said Jessica Walliser, founder of and author of “Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces.” “It’s one of the most amazing things about modern vegetable gardening.”

With the summer season approaching, it’s time to try your green thumb on a smaller scale. Here are some tips on how to do it.

get the lay of the land

Ideally, you want to look for a spot that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day. You can grow in shady places, but the options will be more limited. Leafy greens, herbs and some types of flowers, such as impatiens and begonias, do well in shade. But if you want to grow an array of flowers or foods like tomatoes, cucumbers or strawberries, you need sun, and lots of it. (Morning light will be kinder to your harvest than warm afternoon light, so keep that in mind as well.)

If you are planning to garden on a terrace or balcony, consider the weight capacity. A dozen 12-inch containers filled with potting soil and water can put a lot of pressure on a space that might not be designed to carry a load. So check your weight limit before planting.

Keep walkways open as well. A fire escape may look like a balcony, but it is not, and should be free of obstacles. Avoid gardening in such places. Also consider how you use your outdoor space, and how much of it you want to dedicate to containers.

“What are your plans for space?” said Jibril Cooper, community program manager for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. “If you want to keep it generally open, you probably want to look into hanging plants or a trellis. Sweet peas and cucumbers can be skewered and grown vertically. They take up less space. “

If you don’t have a large yard, don’t be discouraged. A window box makes a great place to grow herbs. And Chris Bordessa, author of “Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living,” lined his driveway with large fabric planters, reclaiming a once-hot asphalt slab. “It was an instant garden,” she said.

If a neighbor has unused outdoor space, consider asking if they will let you cultivate it in exchange for a portion of the crop. My small driveway plot is on property that actually belongs to my neighbour, which I pay in tomatology for the privilege of using the otherwise fallow land.

“It’s as simple as saying hello,” said Nina Brown, community area manager for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “You can start a conversation about working out together.”

know your limits

Gardening is a hobby that takes time. You have to water, weed and fertilize. During the summer you may need to water daily, sometimes twice. Plant too many containers, and that can quickly become a big lift. So start small in your first year with just one or two containers, and reevaluate the next season.

“Don’t bite too much,” said Brown. “There’s nothing that will turn you away from gardening more than eliminating something entirely.”

get some containers

Once you know where you’re growing, get some containers, aiming for pots that are 6 to 12 inches deep. Many types of pots will do, as long as they have drainage holes in the bottom. (And if they don’t, drill some.)

Bordessa, who offers a video course about container gardening, suggests scouring your home for items you probably already have, such as empty kitty-litter containers.

“A 5-gallon bucket is enough for a lot of things you’re going to grow,” she said.

If your ground space is limited, see above. “Vertical growing is your friend,” said Cassie Johnston, a master gardener who runs the Instagram account Growfully. With a lattice, vegetables like tomatoes, beans and cucumbers can be stacked on a wall. Consider hanging hanging baskets from railings.

Another option: Plant your crops in a tower garden, which are essentially containers stacked on top of each other. Or make the most of a wall by placing pocket planters on it.

Fill your containers with a mix of good quality potting mix and compost.

choose your crop

Look for plant breeds designed for small spaces, such as the bushier varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

“Breeders have put a lot of effort into breeding dwarf varieties,” said Walliser, pointing to micro-dwarf varieties of tomatoes such as Tiny Tim and Red Robin, which have high yields despite low stature. Tumbling Tom tomatoes, as the name suggests, cascade over a hanging basket.

Curate your crops too, planting items with similar needs together.

“Don’t put lavender in the same pot as a begonia,” Brown said. “Some need a lot of sunlight and drier conditions, and some like moist and shady conditions.”

Water your plants well, opting for long, deep soaks a few times a week instead of light daily sprays.

“People are very good at the splash-and-dash method,” Walliser said. “It’s not water. The water is standing there and pouring enough water so that at least 20% of the water you put in the top comes out of the hole at the bottom.”

With your garden properly planted and watered, all that’s left to do is enjoy your little harvest.

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