Small Space Gardening


Recently, I have gotten some comments and e-mails from discouraged followers who would like to start a garden, but have little or no garden space.  To them I say, "despair not, for I have answers!"  A garden does not have to be an entire backyard setup, it doesn't have to be big, fancy, or look amazing.  Essentially, all anyone needs to garden is some dirt, water and seeds.  Yep, that's it.  In this post I'm going to talk about gardening in small spaces.  After reading, everyone will be so determined to go out and start their own little garden!

Where Can I grow?

I dont' know why people thing they need a five acre spread to plant a garden.  I think, if there's space to walk, there's space to garden.  I'm lucky that I have a backyard, but BF doesn't, he's always wanted a garden but felt discouraged because all he has is a teeny-tiny balcony.  I showed him a few tricks, and now, we may as well call him Farmer John.  I've read of people in New York City starting gardens on their fire escapes (like Mike), or in window boxes as well.  The bottom line is that if you have any space where you can get 6"-18" {deep} of dirt, you're already on your way to success.

Mike from grew a garden on his 2'x3' fire escape!

Whether you decide to plant on your balcony, in a window box or even on your welcome mat you need to make sure your garden will get enough sunlight for the "crops" you want to grow.  Most fruits and vegetables require full sun, but there are some like lettuce, carrots, and raspberries that can get away with a little more shade.  South facing areas are best, then comes east and west facing ones.  Do you ever notice that the north sides of mountains stay covered with snow long into spring time?  Since there isn't enough sunlight to melt the snow on a mountain, try to avoid planting on a north facing area.  If it's all you have, well it will do.  If you need to, you can go to a home store and pick up some growing lights for about $30.

Old dresser drawers, baskets and miscellaneous boxes and containers help this balcony garden

What can I grow?

Regardless of what people say, everyone everywhere can grow everything.  However, depending on where you live, some crops may grow more slowly than others and some may produce more fruit than others.  I live in a desert.  We have two extremes really hot or really cold.  I didn't think it would be possible to grow much, especially in the summer months when temperatures reach 120+ F, but to my surprise, there is a lot that does well here. 

To get started, the most important things to know are your Hardiness Zone, as well as your zone's First Frost and Last Frosts dates.  Based on these dates, you can figure out when to sow (put the seed in a planting cup), and when to transplant (put the seedling into the ground/dirt).  Once you know when to plant, deciding what to plant, won't be difficult.

If you're just wanting to know, "Morgan, what are going to be the easiest, most-fool-proof crops I can plant?"  Well, I'll tell you.

  • Leafy greens:  Salad staples like Lettuce, Cabbage and Mustard Greens grow quickly, and you can harvest the outer leaves while the inside leaves are still growing.  These greens prefer cooler weather, and will do well with partial sun and a little bit of shade.
  • Bush Beans and Peas:  such as Green Beans grow very well once they emerge as a seedling.  Although they don't tolerate cold weather very well, they require little attention.
  • Green Onions: these babies tolerate a wide range of cool to warm temperatures making them ideal for any planting season/location.
  • Zucchini and Summer Squash:  These guys are from the same family and are probably the easiest crops to grow.  Once they sprout, they grow like weeds, and one plant is enough to feed an entire family, however they need a little bit of room to grow, at least 12" per plant.
  • Cucumbers: Cucumbers are fairly easy to grow, but they spread out and take up a lot of space.  Using a trellis is a good idea to grow them vertically, saving space.
  • Blackberries:  Blackberries grow like weeds, and because they are a perennial, once you plant them, you'll never have to re-plant them.  They grow in almost all weather conditions, and as long as they get adequate sunlight you'll have to work to keep them under control!
  • Radishes: radishes grow from seed to plate in just over two months!  As long as they have warm weather, and full sun, these are easy-peasy to grow.
  • Carrots:  Small spaces are ideal for growing carrots.  There is usually more shade than sun, and these babies aren't fussy.  While they take a while to grow, once planted, very little needs to be done with them.
  • Raspberries: These berries can grow on a trellis and do well in shady areas.

But what about tomatoes?  Tomatoes, although a staple in every garden, aren't that easy to grow.  They require some care, full sun, and warm temperatures.  In fact, if nighttime temperatures get too cool, the plants will bolt (flower) and they will stop producing fruit.  However, for any small space garden, I recommend a small variety of tomato like grape or cherry tomatoes!

Get Creative with Themed Gardens

Since beginning gardening, one of the cutest ideas I've heard about has been themed container gardens.  Do you like salad?  Great! Plant some lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, and radish seeds all in the same container!  Once it grows, there you have it, a salad garden!  For fun, add some edible flowers.  They make a tasty and colorful contribution to any summer salad.  My favorite edible flowers are violas, marigolds and nasturtiums! 

Another themed container garden idea is a Spaghetti garden.  Grow a single tomato plant, as well as basil, garlic chives, oregano and parsley.  Come harvest time, all you'll need is the pasta!  Still in the mood for Italian?  How about a Pizza Garden?  Tomatoes, peppers, and basil.  The simplest of all is an herb garden.  These will grow inside or out and don't require much sunlight.  I have an herb garden separate from my "big" garden where I grow Cilantro, Oregano, Basil, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, and Parsley.

Growing Herbs in small spaces can be so cute!

What do I put it in?

"But Morgan, I don't have anywhere to put a bunch of dirt on my balcony/fire escape/window box..."

Small space gardening is often referred to as "Container Gardening."  Yea, it's that easy, get a container- 5 gallon buckets are only $2.00 at Home Depot- put some dirt in it and get growing!  Containers come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  Obviously, flower pots are a good choice, but remember they need to be at least 12" in diameter for most crops.  I recently found these at home depot, and of course bought the raspberry and lime ones for my two watermelon plants! 


Other common options include, wine barrels, plastic trash cans or storage bins (like the ones from Target in your garage), or planter boxes.

Check out this video from my favorite garden guru at

Window boxes are another good option.  They can be found at any home or home improvement store and have been good garden homes for centuries.
The Topsy Turvey!  While they are a bit gimmicky and a bit cheesy, these work so well for small space gardening.  They hang from the ceiling, so as long as there is sun, you dont' need much else.  Not only do they grow tomatoes, they grow just about anything (that isn't a bulb, like onions and radishes, or a root crop, like potatoes and carrots) with a strong stalk, such as peppers, bush beans, pole beans, strawberries, zucchinis, squash, cucumbers, etc.  If it grows on a vine, you can grow it in a topsy turvey!  Another amazing reason to buy a Topsy Turvey, it is IMPOSSIBLE to over-water the plant inside it!

While writing this post, I discovered another one of John's videos about the Phytopod!  This thing is about $65.00, but holy cow, it is amazing.  Watch and learn!

Get Creative with Containers

Just for fun, I google image searched "creative small space gardening."  Below is just a sample of the glorious-ness I found, and all I have to say is that if they can do it, anyone can do it!

How do I plant the seeds?

Uhh, you put in the dirt and then water it....  I'm just kidding.  To be honest when I started my garden, I was a little nervous about this one.  Do I just put one seed in each hole, or can I put in more than one?  I started all of my seeds in peat cups and put about 2-5 seeds in each one, depending on the size of the seed.  Once they sprout, and grow four sets of true leaves, it's time to put them in the dirt... the real dirt, like your container. 

I have been using a method called Square Foot Gardening.  Established in the 1980's, it was developed to get maximum crops from minimum planting space.  Square foot gardening focuses on organic methods including compost, closely planted raised beds/containers, and a small clearly defined garden area.  Essentially, the theory is to divide your container into square feet.  The size of each crop will then determine how many plants/seedlings you can put in each square foot.  For example, one square foot will hold one tomato plant, but another square foot might hold 16 carrot plants.

My 2012 Garden plan with black beans, peas, edamame, green beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, strawberries, celery, green onions, onions, garlic, chives, asparagus, endive, New Zealand spinach, artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, arugula, kale, leaf lettuce, crisphead lettuce, radicchio, Malabar spinach, swiss chard and spinach

When gardening in containers or small spaces, there is a loophole to planting more per square foot than you would think.  For example, peas can be grown vertically on a trellis in a container, but you could also plant carrots in the same container, which don't take up much "air space" as they are a root vegetable.

For a list of plant spacing, click this link.

Now, You're Ready

But wait!  I have a few side notes you may want to read. 

When you purchase your containers, be sure to drill a few drainage holes in the bottom.  Otherwise you plants may get waterlogged or grow a fungus.

Because you're growing in a small container as opposed to the large ground, you'll need to water and fertilize your plants more often.  Since my plants are still in their growing cups, I'm giving them a decent watering twice daily.  Once they go into the ground, they won't need so much.  Fertilizing is usually done ever 3-4 weeks.  With container gardens I would go every 2-3.
The most important thing in starting any garden is to use good soil.  Ideal soil is made of 100% compost or worm castings (poop) with rock dust minerals.  Many people are grossed out by the though of making their own compost, so luckily is sold fairly cheap at most nursery's.  If full compost is not an option, get a good mix of 30% compost, 30% Vermiculite or Perlite (available at Walmart, Home Depot or Lowe's) and 30% Peat moss.  Ready made planting soils are often a waste of money because they lack necessary plant nutrition, and you end up spending a fortune in fertilizers and soil amenders.

If you want to start a garden but don't want to fuss with watering, or if you are a little forgetful, you could try building a self-watering container.  For a variety of different video tutorials, check out Mike over at Urban Organic Gardener.  These containers are incredible and so convenient for our super-heated desert climate!
Journal Ideas!
Don't forget to write in your garden journal!
  • Do you have a small space but still want to plant a garden?  
  • Where will you put your containers? On your balcony or a porch or somewhere else?   
  • Write about what kind of containers you're going to use.  Are you using 5 gallon buckets or garden pots? 
  • What did you decide to plant
  • Are you creating a theme garden?  What's the theme?  
  • Take some pictures!


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