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NEW SERIES! Big Ideas for Small Spaces

Window-box style planters with a combination of herbs and edible flowers.
Photo: Julie Weisenhorn, UMN Extension
Now that we have reached the depths of winter, I’ve been dreaming of starting my garden. I grew up with greenhouses and a large garden and worked on farms on and off, so I’ve always had the fortune of abundant access to land and space to grow food. However, two years ago I moved to St. Paul and I’ve missed having gardening space. 

While many of our readers have large backyards, I imagine many of you are like me - living in apartments or dense urban areas where your options for growing are limited. Throughout 2020, I’ll be writing a column about small space gardening. 

Gardening should be accessible to everyone, so I’ll be sharing some big ideas for growing in small spaces. These spaces could include community garden plots, window boxes, pots and buckets, and indoor growing systems.

Since winter is a great time to read through seed catalogs and plan your garden, let’s talk about what crops and varieties are best suited to small spaces. 

Choosing what to grow

When growing in a small space, it’s hard to fight the temptation to plant too many things. Plants that are too close together end up competing for nutrients and light, and a dense plant canopy can lead to more disease pressure, so fewer plants that are properly spaced will actually provide you a better yield than squeezing many plants in the same space. 

With that in mind, I typically avoid planting things like pumpkins and winter squash - these crops take up a lot of space, and are easy to find at farmers markets later in the summer. 

For small containers like window boxes, herbs and leaf lettuce are great choices. These plants grow quickly, and you can usually get many harvests throughout the summer. An extra bonus to growing herbs is that you can dry them and enjoy them throughout the year. 

This year I’ll be growing herbs that I can dry and use to make herbal teas. Edible flowers can also work well in these spaces, providing a nice pop of color along with flowers to add to salads and other foods.

Buckets and bags as small-space solutions

If you have access to a slightly larger area where you can put pots or buckets outside, you have many options for planting. Growing in buckets, bags, or pots is a great option for people who are renting. They can be placed along sidewalks, parking areas, decks, or really anywhere. 

Make sure to drill holes in the bottom of your container to allow for proper drainage and water your plants regularly. Soil in a pot tends to dry out more quickly than soil in the ground, so keep a close eye on your plants, especially if the forecast predicts warm weather. 
Trellising is a great way to take advantage
of vertical space in a small garden.
Trellises don't have to be fancy--they can be as
simple as a few sticks for your plants to climb.
Photo: Oregon State University

Container size guidelines

If you’re able to add trellising to your buckets (this could be as simple as chicken wire or even some sturdy sticks!), you can grow almost anything in a container. 

The University of Illinois Extension has a nice overview of container sizes and spacing for various crops: Making herb and vegetable containers

As a general rule, a plant’s root system will be similar in size to the above ground biomass, or even a bit larger. If you can anticipate the final size of the plant at maturity, find a container with approximately the same amount of space (or a bit more space) for the roots to grow. 

Light access is a key consideration when choosing the right plants for your space. If you’ve got a bright, south-facing window or outdoor area, almost anything will thrive. 

If you have a shady spot, consider sticking to cooler-season crops like peas, lettuce, and cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.). 

Variety considerations

When looking for plants that will grow well in containers, look for terms like “compact,” “tidy plant habit” or “short stature. Some seed companies like Johnny’s even have filters for varieties that grow well in pots!

Another consideration for plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans is whether they are determinate or indeterminate

  • A determinate variety will grow to a certain size and then flower and produce fruit all at once. Determinate varieties are typically preferred for growing in pots, as they require less maintenance and remain compact.
  • An indeterminate variety will continue to grow, flower, and produce fruit throughout the summer. Indeterminate varieties typically require staking and pruning, whereas determinate varieties maintain a bush-like shape. 

Small space gardening: what would you like to learn?

Future installments of this series will include succession planting, soil testing, and tips for starting seeds indoors. What else are you curious about? Let us know in the comments! I’d love to hear your suggestions for future articles. 

Author: Natalie Hoidal, Extension Educator, Horticulture - Food System Agriculture

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