Friday, July 18, 2008

Making the Most of a Small Garden

New gardeners are generally eager to get growing and by summer generally find they over-planted in the spring. Who could imagine those miniscule seeds or tiny starts would get so big so fast? Seemingly frail tomato seedlings play this trick on me every time. Here are some strategies and vegetable selections for the small garden.

Compact growers produce well without taking over:

  • Bush beans and peas: Just a few plants produce about as many string beans as your family will be willing to eat. Look for pea varieties that grow 32" or shorter.

  • Determinate cherry tomatoes: Though these will still take a lot of space, they're not as aggressive as regular or indeterminate tomatoes.

  • Dwarf varieties: Many vegetables also have dwarf cultivars that may be more appropriate for small plots.

  • Herbs: Low growing herbs like chives, parsley, cilantro (coriander), thyme, tarragon, sage, and oregano or marjoram pack a lot of flavor in a small space.

  • Root crops: Just a few radishes, onions, shallots, beets, garlic or carrots are all you need to spice up the rest of your dishes.

  • Salad greens: Leaf lettuce, arugula, spinach, and mustard greens like mizuna are easily managed. Try small plantings every few weeks to extend the harvest. My greens even seem to bolt less readily when crowded together.

Maximize vertical space, but be cautious about shade:

  • Cucumbers: Cukes can be trained up a strong mesh or trellis.

  • Pole beans: These are adept at holding on to any vertical stick or trellis.

  • Some squash: I've successfully coaxed butternut squash up a trellised arch, but had less success with delicata squash. Experiment with one or two seedlings of your favorite squash.

  • Taller peas: Pea vines 36" and taller can be trained to vertical supports. You'll need to tie them off regularly since their tendrils aren't strong enough to hold on during our windier days.

Inter-plant seasonal crops to maximize your harvest by spreading it further throughout the season. Just as spring crops like spinach, lettuce and peas are half grown, interplant a few summer crops like bush beans, basil and more lettuce. Just as your summer crops are half grown, harvest the remainder of your spring crop and interplant some winter crops like kale, collards, chard, and winter leeks. As you harvest some winter crops in November, plant a few garlic cloves or sew in a little mache (corn salad) for next spring.

Some aggressive vegetables folks with small gardens should avoid include:

  • Artichoke, cardoon, rhubarb, zucchini: These large leafy plants quickly dwarf their surroundings.

  • Asparagus: Though small when harvested, the remaining stalks you let grow to power next spring's shoots are too tall for small gardens.

  • Brambles: Raspberries, blackberries and other perennial brambles grow too tall and shade most small plots. They also spread by runners.

  • Corn: The stalks simply grow too tall and will shade the rest of your plot. Successful pollination usually requires more stalks than will fit in a small space.

  • Indeterminate tomatoes: "Indeterminate" means the thing never, ever stops sprawling!

  • Mint, lemon balm: These aggressively invasive plants can be confined in a container, but should not be planted in the bare ground if you have any hope of growing anything else.

  • Potatoes: Though you could try just one potato plant, harvesting generally requires you to dig up a significant chunk of real estate where other plants may be growing.

  • Squash, melons, pumpkins: Most of these grow meandering vines that smother anything up to 10 feet around.

Perhaps the best advice to new gardeners with small plots is to simply plant less. Otherwise you may end up with a surplus of one crop, but nothing else to harvest. Start with just a few plants to find out what grows best for you, and how much space each eventually consumes come summertime.

Copyright © 2006 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

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