Time to Get Digging! Planning for a Garden in a Small Space

By Kim Buddington

Well, we find ourselves at the end of January 2020 already. Do you know what that means? If you live in a location where the air gets cold this time of year, it means it’s time to beat the dreary days of winter by planning your garden for the coming growing season! 

But maybe you’re saying to yourself, “aww, a garden sounds nice- but I live in an apartment.” Or, “man, I wish my yard had more space so I could have a garden.”

Please don’t despair. You can actually do a lot in a small space when it comes to gardening! While I live in an apartment in town, I will be once again planning my vegetable garden for this summer. I’m fortunate to have a little patio area and patch of soil outside my door that can is put to good use for growing some fresh food.

Check out my set up from previous years!

My first year attempting a patio garden!
Yum…I had pretty good success with summer squash and cucumbers my second year. Excuse that one random weed…oops lol!
Tomatoes are a great option for container gardens!

It’s crucial to start with a good plan to get the biggest bang for your buck with gardening in a small space. Let’s talk about some things that will help you out!

Evaluate the space you have

This goes without saying, but first, you need to consider the space you have at your disposal. Do you have a small yard with an area that can be transformed into a vegetable bed? Or do you live on the 10th floor of a high-rise building with just a small outdoor balcony? These factors will undoubtedly affect what you can grow, and what methods and supplies you will need to use.

One of the big things I overlooked the first year I had my garden was the sunlight the area would receive. Due to the northern exposure and the shadow of an adjacent apartment building, I learned that more than half of my available growing area would be shaded for a good part of the day. Knowing that fact, I opted to plant my sun-loving plants such as tomatoes in containers and place them in the sunniest part of the patio area to help them obtain maximum growth.  

If you do have an area of natural soil, how is the quality? For best results, get your soil tested, so you’ll know what kind of amendments will need to be added to boost quality. (1) If you have concerns about harmful levels of heavy metals and other pollutants in your soil, it might be wise to have a test run for those as well before getting started. For more on heavy metals and gardening, click here. (2)

Once you are acquainted with your space, you can make a list of things you’ll need to get in order to grow food successfully. This may include items such as:

  • Lumber, hardware, and other necessary supplies for constructing a simple raised bed garden (3)
  • Topsoil, peat moss, composted manures, old leaves, and other materials required for concocting the perfect soil mix in raised beds or container gardens (3)
  • Containers to grow plants in if you are going the container route (Recycle and save $$)
  • Soil testing supplies
  • Shovels, rake, hand cultivator, etc…you know, the essential gardening tools.
  • Fencing to deter critters from feasting on your produce
  • A map detailing the sunny and shaded areas of your garden area for you to reference as you proceed in your planning
  • ____________Fill in the blank as needed!

Decide what you’d like to grow

Remember, you don’t have a lot of space to fool around with, so be intentional when you choose your plants. Are cucumbers and tomatoes the favorites of the family that you can never seem to keep in stock? Prioritize space to grow those plants, rather than producing a ton of arugula (sorry to my arugula lovers 😉 that you know is only going to languish in the back of the fridge! Once you’ve decided on your “high priority” plants, then you can use the remaining space to grow something fun, or try something new on your family.

With a basic idea of what you’d like to grow, now comes the exciting part! Time to browse through the seed catalogs or scroll through seed company websites to pick your plant varieties. There are so many options available to home gardeners today. It can admittedly be a bit overwhelming. Pay special attention to these attributes when picking seeds and plants:

  • Plant hardiness- The United States is divided up into zones based on climate. Pick plant species and varieties that are labeled as being suitable for growing in your geographic zone for best results. Don’t know your zone? Check out the Park Seed Company’s zone map here. All you need to do is put in your zip code!
  • Plant and row spacing requirements- This is important when space is your limiting factor! Choose plants that do well being planted closer together. Consider “dwarf” variations of standard plant options, as they can save you space.
  • Growing habit- Are you looking at vining type plants that spread out all over- like summer squash and peas? Or do they grow in an upright fashion, such as peppers, broccoli? You don’t have to nix vining type plants from your garden plans altogether, but investing in some kinds of trellises and/or poles is a good idea. You can then “train” your vining plants to grow up along the trellis instead of all over your space and out under the neighbor’s fence.    
  • Soil depth requirements- This is especially important if you will be growing in containers. For plants like lettuce, basil, and radishes- you only need about four or five inches of soil for good growth. Save your deep containers for things like squash, broccoli, and beets, though, as they need about a foot of soil for optimal root and plant health. (4)

Once you’ve planned out what you’d like to grow, you’ll need to think about buying your seeds and plants. If you’d like the added fun of starting transplants (tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, etc) yourself, you can be starting seeds now or within the next few weeks depending on where you live. Check out this great guide if you are interested in learning more about starting plants from seed. If you plan to buy your transplants, wait until it is almost time to plant them in their final place.   

It is also a good idea to check in with your local garden center to get an inside scoop into the best times to plant, specific to your location. They will surely be glad to help you with any other specific questions you have related to anything gardening.  

Well, with your plan of attack, supplies, and plants ready to roll, you know what that means…

Go out there and plant your garden! 

You can’t have the pleasure of harvesting your own fresh produce if you never try, so just go out there and get your hands dirty! (Well, do it when the weather is suitable, but I think you get my point.) Embrace the space you have, the unique challenges that come with it, and don’t forget to have fun! Your first year will be a learning experience, but it’s a good one. With your own garden, no matter how small, you can enjoy a little bit of nature wherever you call home.

Here’s last years bumper crop of lettuce to further inspire you 🙂
This little guy was sneaky and grew up too fast on me…but still tasty!
Are you ready to grow some fresh food?

Happy Growing!  

How do you garden in a small space? I’d love to learn about your setup 🙂

References

  1. https://www.seedsavers.org/small-space-garden
  2. https://extension.oregonstate.edu/food/safety-storage/should-i-worry-about-heavy-metals-my-garden-soil
  3. https://www.almanac.com/content/how-build-raised-garden-bed#
  4. https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/urban-gardening-with-vegetables/5491.html

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