You don’t have to settle for that little potted basil plant on your windowsill; any small outdoor space can be transformed into a beautiful, productive vegetable garden, or a fire escape into a fresh-food oasis. Even just a 10×10 plot can grow a hundred pounds of produce, if you plan ahead and maximize your space.
Industrial agriculture has wide reaching environmental consequences, from water and air pollution, to energy use, to environmental degradation. In 2019, total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the United States accounted for 10% of total national emissions: an increase of 12% since 1990. By cutting out the need for transportation, packaging, and refrigerating, growing your own vegetables – even just a few plants – can significantly lower your environmental impact. It can also save you money on expensive store-bought produce; spending a few dollars on supplies and a few minutes of maintenance a day will sow weeks’ worth of produce in time.
Gardening does, however, require some planning, especially when working with a smaller space. During these final cold winter weeks, making preparations for your new garden is a great reminder that spring is just around the corner. Here’s how to get started.
Choose Your Crops
Facing that wall of seed packets at the garden store can be overwhelming. Instead of grabbing at random, choose plants that will thrive under the conditions you can offer and yield a bountiful harvest.
Choose plants that will still have a high yield when grown in small spaces: pole and runner beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, peppers, peas, kale, zucchini, lettuce, and salad leaves will produce without abundant room. Pick vegetables that will continue producing all season long as well – like bell peppers, squash, and tomatoes – instead of crops that can only be harvested once, like corn and carrots. Peas and beans will also keep producing after picking, as will many leafy greens like spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, and arugula.
Grow Up, Not Out
Trellised, climbing plants grow vertically and maximize your space. Stakes, fencing, caging, or trellises will guide vining plants upwards, or, tie string to a trellis along one side of a raised bed and stretch it across the plot for plants to grow up.
Vining squash and cucumbers normally take up a lot of space, but trellis them correctly, and they’ll rocket upwards. Peas and beans – like Kentucky Blue Pole Beans, for one – grow quickly and abundantly. Pole beans varieties are better than bush beans for growing vertically, and don’t spread out as much.
Smaller is Better
While normal varieties will often do just fine in a smaller space, many crops have compact or dwarf varieties as well. That way, you can still enjoy the produce you like without taking up as much space. Look for varieties labeled as “tiny,” “compact,” “dwarf,” “baby,” “patio,” or other phrases evoking a smaller size.
Before choosing your crops, consider how much sunlight your yard gets on an average day. Vegetables generally need 6-8 hours of sunlight a day to grow and produce successfully. If you’re unsure of your sun exposure, record a video of your yard or balcony to see the patterns of sunlight and how it casts across the space (keeping in mind that it changes a bit throughout the season). Watch which sections have light for the longest, paying attention to any shade cast by trees, fences, buildings, etc. If your whole space gets shade, consider root vegetables (potatoes, carrots), which only need about 4 hours of sunlight, and leafier crops (kale, lettuce, chard, spinach), which can tolerate less sun.
Once you know which crops you want, order seeds, or plan where you will get transplants when it’s time to plant. Seeds might sell out closer to the start of the growing season, so make sure you have what you need ahead of time.
Plot It Out
Creating a sketch of your garden will help keep you focused and realistic about what can fit in your space.
Keep your expectations small for the first year. A 6′ x 6′ plot can provide plenty of vegetables and is a good starting point for a beginner gardener; a 20′ x 25′ (500 sq. ft.) bed can yield enough vegetables for a family of four during the productive summer months, so a smaller space is perfectly adequate.
Knowing how much sunlight you have, choose a spot in your yard to prepare for planting. Sketch out the dimensions and consider how many plants you can reasonably grow (5 vegetables for a 6′ x 6′ plot is advisable), keeping in mind the spacing required for your chosen crops. If you have room for multiple rows, leave a foot or two of space as a path to walk between them.
Building raised beds is another option for small spaces, especially if you don’t have healthy soil, or any soil at all. The soil in raised beds also heats up faster in the spring, making them a good option for colder climates. You won’t need to waste space on pathways for walking through the rows either.
Growing in raised beds also gives you the option of rounding the soil to create more space. For example, if the plot is 6′ across and you form the soil into a gentle arc, you can make as much as 7′ available for growing. While an extra foot doesn’t seem like a lot, the cumulative extra space can allow you to grow more plants.
Pretty much anything can be grown in a container. If the sunniest spot (or only spot) available to you is the patio, back porch, or a city fire escape, consider switching to container gardening and growing your veggies in planters.
At minimum, a 5-gallon pot is needed for fruiting plants like peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. A pot with 12-inches in diameter is also preferable, and leaves room for plants to flourish, especially bushy ones like tomatoes. Keep in mind that, the bigger the container, the less often you’ll need to water.
Unlike house plants, plastic containers are better for container gardening than terra cotta/clay pots, which dry much faster. Conversely, metal pots will cook the roots, but if you don’t get plenty of sunlight, black plastic will help retain some heat.
Plot Each Plant
Plotting out individual plants ahead of time will prevent overbuying of seeds and help you determine how much fertilizer or soil to buy.
Think about where each seed or starter will go, with sunlight and the depth needed for each crop as main considerations. To fit more plants into a small space, try staggering the seeds or starts and growing in triangles rather than rows. Avoid crowding them, however; having more plants that are squished together will yield less produce than having fewer plants that can grow to their full potential.
Many gardeners have success with companion planning as well: growing multiple crops in one spot, typically pairing low-growing and taller plants. Basil, for example, thrives underneath tomatoes that shield them from the afternoon sun. You can also plant vegetables that get harvested earlier – like spinach or peas – with slow-growing crops like peppers, which take over after the early crops are finished.
Plan for Healthy Growing
Before getting seeds into the ground, make sure you can give your veggies everything they need to thrive.
Rich, healthy soil is crucial for a successful garden. A dark and crumbly soil is the goal, with a good mixture of all three components: sand, silt, and clay. Find out the composition of your soil and make sure it’s not too gritty (sand), powdery (silt), or sticky (clay), and incorporate healthy soil if needed.
The nutrient content of the soil is just as important as its composition. Deliver more essential nutrients by spreading 2-3 inches of fresh compost over the beds a few weeks before planting in the early spring, then turning it under at least 6 inches below the surface (some gardeners spread it in the fall as well). Begin seeking out compost to use if you don’t make your own at home. Alternatively, mix in worm castings (AKA worm poop) – using a bunch if you don’t have any worms in the soil – or liquid fish emulsion, which can be bought at most garden stores
If you’re growing in a raised bed, line the bottom with a few layers of newspaper, then add soil on top so you don’t need.
Barring rainy weather, the average garden needs a thorough watering every few days. Plan how you will get water to your plants, as this might alter where you choose to grow things (for example, if your hose doesn’t reach around to the opposite side of the house, you might want to choose a closer location). If transporting water from inside, make sure you’re realistic about how far you can carry it. Irrigating your crops with rainwater is another low-impact option if you have the space.
Preventing Pests and Disease
Unfortunately, smaller gardens can be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Rotating crops fights against fungi and pests, but this practice is not always possible in small plots. If you have an infestation or a serious fungal problem, it is best not to grow that crop (or similar crops in the same family) for a year.
Water the soil instead of the leaves to prevent fungal problems, and water earlier in the day so the leaves dry out again in the sunshine.
If you do have pesky insects, pick them off by hand, or use one of the many natural remedies that deter bugs, like diatomaceous earth, aromatic herbs, neem oil, or a spray of dish soap and water. To keep out other pests like rabbits and deer, surround plants with chicken wire or fencing, and push it at least 6 inches below the soil so burrowing animals can’t get underneath.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.