Small Space Veggie Gardens admin
Small Space Veggie Gardens
Small space gardening is hot. Any Internet search for the terms container gardens, raised beds, or vertical gardening turns up millions of results. In recent years it has been the fastest growing category of gardener. This segment of gardeners is composed of several groups. Urbanites represent a big part, as more people live in cities than ever before.
Residents of cities and towns usually garden in small spaces by necessity. Others may have big yards but have limited time and/or energy. These include the time-crunched and downsizers who choose to cut down the size of their garden. New gardeners are other constituents of small-space gardening, and they often wisely start small to bolster chances of success and to keep from feeling overwhelmed.
Small Space Perks
While they often require more detailed planning, in some aspects small gardens can be easier. Garden design is less complicated. For instance, you may only have room for three tomato plants, but tending them will be much easier for you than the guy who is growing thirty. Maintenance is simpler. Weeding, tilling, amending the soil, fertilizing, mulching, and watering (except containers) all require less effort than in large spaces.
But less effort doesn’t mean less vitality. Small spaces can have a big impact. Whether it’s a simple hanging tomato on a porch or an intricate herb spiral mailbox planting, they all contribute to a better physical and social environment. Community gardens fill vacant lots with veggies and flowers. Raised beds bring color and interest to parkways and cul-de-sacs.
Green roofs and wall gardens soften harsh cityscapes while freshening the air. Schools, churches, retirement homes, and hospitals use garden plots to recreate and educate. In this case, size does not matter. We may not have much space or time, but we won’t let that stop us from planting flowers, growing food, and enjoying the outdoors. We can all “get out and grow.”
Why Grow Your Own Vegetables?
Few things are as beneficial and life changing as growing your own food. Vegetable gardening gets you outdoors, gives you some exercise, and provides you with healthy crops. Veggie gardens can give you both a sense of achievement and peace of mind.
Growing your own food is seeing a resurgence in popularity. It often is touted as a way to save money, but veggie gardening is not just about saving a few bucks. For instance, if you have an average growing season and harvest 5 pounds of sweet potatoes from a container planting, that’s not a bonanza. You wouldn’t get rich taking them to market, and it wouldn’t cost you much to just go buy 5 pounds of sweet ’taters. But other factors add value to growing your own garden veggies.
First, homegrown produce is as fresh and local as you can get. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals) are at their peak when the veggie is picked. The quick trip to the kitchen means your body receives the most health benefits. Homegrown veggies are right outside your door. There’s no need to drive to a supermarket to get veggies that have been transported from across the continent. If you are the impulsive type who gets a hankering for a fresh spinach-oniontomato omelet at odd hours, grow the plants for ’em. They’ll be right there whenever you want them.
Second, you control all the additives. If you don’t want your family to ingest residues from pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, or preservatives, use techniques and products approved for organic gardening. I never push gardeners to be completely organic, but I recommend organic and sustainable practices whenever possible. A wide selection of pesticides and fertilizers approved for organic gardening is readily available. Labels can be misleading, so read the ingredients. And look for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listing or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval.
Another factor is variety. Supermarkets carry one or two types of each veggie. That’s a sparse selection compared to the hundreds of varieties that exist. If you grow vegetables from seed (many are easy), your choices are nearly limitless. You can grow the usual varieties or rare, gourmet heirlooms with neat colors and complex flavors.
Plus, growing your own food is one of the most gratifying experiences a person can have. Ask gardeners about their best veggie crops and they’ll start to smile. Prepare for a long, jovial conversation as they excitedly speak about the merits of their garden and harvest. Few gardeners really think they are self-sufficient, but it feels good to grow your own food.
So factoring in freshness, proximity, availability, organic growing methods, variety, and self-satisfaction greatly increases the value of the homegrown veggies. Only the gardener can put a monetary price on his or her garden’s harvest. For many it’s priceless, although they will happily share their bounty.
Ripe & Ready
We grow vegetables as much for the satisfaction of harvesting as the nutrition. Something about picking crops makes us feel proud, confident, and humble. To go from tiny seed to ripe veggie is a miracle. We don’t control the process. It is already programmed in the plant. We just help out along the way and get to reap the benefits. The sense of satisfaction is ageless. You smile whether it’s your first harvest season or your fiftieth. It literally represents the fruits of your labor, and they are sweet.
Vegetable or Fruit?
Technically, vegetables and fruits are different. Vegetables have edible roots, stems, and leaves. Fruits are fleshy structures containing seeds. Some of the less sweet, more savory fruits are grouped as veggies for culinary purposes. Tomato, pepper, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber are examples of fruits that are commonly referred to as vegetables.
Small Space Veggie Garden Ground Rules
A few simple rules help promote good garden health and growth. To get the most out of a small space, understanding some techniques that prevent or limit diseases, waste, toxins, poor soils, and other problems is useful. This allows you to have a productive garden without a large yard.
Sustainability promotes methods and techniques that do not deplete resources or cause lasting harm to the environment. The tenets of sustainability— conserve, reduce, recycle, and reuse—fit perfectly with small space gardening. We conserve through techniques such as intercropping and mulching.
We reduce the use and cost of resources through Best Management Practices. We recycle nutrients through composting and water with rain barrels and cisterns. And we reuse or repurpose materials (wood scraps, hangers, plastic flatware, string, plastic egg cartons, and so forth) in the garden rather than trash them.
There’s a lot of flowery rhetoric and poetic waxing about sustainability, but basically it boils down to being efficient and economical. When I first started gardening, I took advice from my grandfather and other seasoned gardeners. The methods they showed me are the same ones that we now call sustainable. The old heads just called them common sense. These methods are not new. Altruistic reasons aside, you should practice sustainability because it’s cheaper and it works.
How? You can use less water if you mulch. Your harvest will increase if you plant in succession. Making your own compost saves money and supplies the best soil amendment. By allowing proper spacing and providing healthy soil, you won’t have to buy as many fungicides or pesticides.
Sometimes you will need chemicals in the garden. Avoid those that leave residual toxins to reduce negative effects on your local habitat. Residual toxins can kill beneficial wildlife in the garden, damage the surrounding environment, and harm our health. If chemicals are needed, look for those that are more gentle on the environment (OMRI and USDA listed).
Best Management Practices
Best Management Practices (BMP) go hand in hand with sustainability. BMP were developed by professional gardeners and farmers. The practices stress cleanliness and preparation, which is essential in small spaces to limit the spread of disease and increase yield. BMP also promote the conservation of resources, which means conservation of money in your pocket.
Do a site analysis first. Inventory the sun/shade patterns, utility and power lines, existing trees, pathways, garages, and other structures. This is crucial information whether you’re planning a large landscape or even a single container. The results will determine the gardening space, prep work required, and refine your gardening goals.
If utility lines are overhead, your tree selection may be limited. You won’t encounter this often when growing veggies, but later you might decide to grow ornamental and fruit trees. Pick varieties that will stop growing well short of any overhead lines.
Pathways, trees, garages, hardscapes, and utility boxes aren’t dangerous, but they can affect your gardening success. Unless you can convince people to change their walking routes, never plant in pathways. Gardeners, particularly in community spaces, often try to redirect foot traffic with raised bed plantings or shrubs. But people are creatures of habit and will trod right over your barberries or kale, many times completely oblivious to your efforts. To avoid frustration, embrace the pathway and make it part of your design.
It’s the same with all landscape elements. Trees and garages are a mixed blessing in veggie gardens. They protect plantings from strong winds and provide the sheltered habitat that most veggies want, but they also cast shade. Air-conditioning boxes are another mixed bag. You can’t plant near them or the AC unit may be damaged. But you can build a protective trellis around your AC unit, which gives you a vertical element on which to grow climbing veggies like cucumber and peas. When you complete your site analysis, you’ll have all the answers necessary to get started.
Sunlight & Growing Season
During your site analysis, make sure to note the location, amount, and duration of sunlight. It’s good to know how much light your space receives, where it shines, and how that changes through the seasons. This helps you make a successful choice when buying plants. Vegetable plants need lots of sunlight. Field greens are about the only crop that can grow in partial shade, and they won’t be happy about it. Measure the amount (full, partial, filtered) and duration (number of hours) of summer sunlight in your space before choosing the location or plants for your veggie garden.
Most veggies would prefer eight or more hours of direct light. Other plants in your garden may be able to get by with less. Plants labeled for full sun exposure need six or more hours of unobstructed sunlight. Part sun plants require four to six hours. Part shade plants thrive in dappled light or two to four hours of sunlight. But there are plants that can handle the complete shade of tall buildings or evergreen trees.
Unless your outdoor gardening space is on the dark side of the moon, you’ve probably got enough light to grow a garden. Your geography determines the number of days in your growing season. In areas that have cold winters, your growing season is the number of days between the last frost in spring and the first frost of autumn. (Excessive heat and drought can also affect the growing season.) Colder areas have a short growing season during summer.
Hotter places also have a short growing season from late winter to spring (before temperatures become too hot to grow some veggies). Short growing seasons will affect your crop selection. Casaba melons take 110 hot days to ripen. Minneapolis barely has 110 frost-free days, let alone hot ones. So Prince can’t grow casabas in his backyard garden. Many potato varieties stop growing when temperatures are above 80 degrees F.
Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants
Soil is the foundation of vegetable gardening. Without good soil, you can’t grow good veggies. The soil feeds and anchors plants. Building good soil pays big dividends when gardening. It is not a static solid, like concrete or a block of wood. At their best, garden soils are dynamic, fluid, and full of life. Plants get the vast majority of their requirements from the soil. A gardener’s main job is to improve the quality of the growing medium beneath their feet. A well-drained, loose textured soil allows roots to absorb water, air, and nutrients. The bottom line: healthy soil grows healthy plants.
If you know or suspect the soil is contaminated with toxins (like some urban soils), take precautions, especially when growing veggies. Lay heavy-duty landscape fabric across the ground as a barrier. Construct raised beds at least 12 inches tall on top of the fabric. Line the inside of the bed with landscape fabric. Bring in uncontaminated topsoil or compost soil mix to fill the raised beds. Then you can confidently plant anything, including edibles. Or, just grow in containers.
Amending the Soil
Organic matter includes compost, aged animal manures, peat moss, humus, pine needles, straw, shredded leaves, and grass clippings. The types available depend on your region. Incorporate some into your garden soil because organic matter:
improves the drainage of heavy soils
improves the texture (tilth) of compacted or heavy clay soils
increases water-holding capacity of sandy or rocky soils
supplies nutrients and minerals as it breaks down
buffers against pH problems
Soils that are rocky, gritty with sand, sticky with heavy clay, or stinky from being waterlogged need amending before planting veggies. You are trying to create a balanced soil that looks, smells, and feels rich. Textbook garden soil consists of the following:
45 percent solids—minerals and crushed rocks that hold the nutrients
25 percent water—fills in the space between the solids and allows the nutrients to move toward the roots
25 percent air—this pore space keeps the soil loose and allows roots to absorb oxygen, which prevents root rot
5 percent organisms—fungi, bacteria, insects, animals, roots, and all their waste comprise the living part of soil
Don’t get caught up on the percentages, just concentrate on improving what you’ve got. That means amending with organic matter. For all soil types, it is a magical panacea. Till or dig generous amounts into the top 6 inches of soil. If you want a vigorous workout, incorporate organic matter to 12 inches deep. This is called double digging because it takes a lot of shoveling.
Double digging builds your soil and character, so share the goodness. Invite your strong-backed friends to a soil amending party with a promise to return the favor. Fortunately, double digging is a one-time thing. But, when growing veggies, you will still need to amend the top layer annually. Organic matter decomposes over time and your veggies’ voracious hunger depletes the soil of nutrients.
Soil Test & pH
Taking a soil test helps determine what you have. A simple soil test can tell you what nutrients are available or lacking in your soil. Knowing this makes it simpler to amend the soil for productive growth. A soil test will also indicate your pH level.
Soil pH measures the acidity (number of hydrogen ions, H+) in the soil. The scale ranges from 1 (strongly acidic) to 14 (strongly basic). Fresh water is neutral at 7. People are familiar with acids and bases in their foods and beverages. Acids taste sour and astringent, like lemon juice, soft drinks, coffee, and vinegar. Bases are usually chalky-tasting and bitter, like milk, yogurt, beans, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus.
Most garden plants grow best at a pH of 6.8, but a range from 5.8 to 7.2 is acceptable. If the pH is too acidic (below 5.8) or basic (above 7.2), minerals can get “locked up” in the soil and will be unavailable to plant roots. This damages plant development and stunts growth.
Veggies in soil with extreme pH values may not die, but they don’t produce well either. Fortunately, plants are forgiving and pH values are adjustable. Use a soil test or simple pH kit found in most garden centers to check the values. Adjusting the pH of the soil is similar to improving the texture and nutrients. You’ve got to incorporate amendments and you do it every year.
Adding crushed limestone (calcite or dolomite) raises the pH of acidic soils. Spreading sulfur fertilizers lowers the pH. Compost and other organic matter is once again the silver bullet. It acts as a buffer in all soils and helps plants deal with out-of-balance pH values. This is yet another reason to continually add organic amendments to your soil.
Selecting Plants & Seeds
Before buying veggies in pots or cell packs, inspect them thoroughly. Check the leaves for insects or disease. Choose healthy, stout plants with several sets of deep green leaves to give them the best start. Check to make sure each plant is securely anchored in the six-pack or pot, which indicates a well-established root system.
Some garden centers offer fruiting veggies in bloom and some may already have fruit forming; that’s fine. In areas with short growing seasons, larger transplants mean faster and larger yields. However, when you transplant it into your garden, remove all flowers and fruit to help larger plants acclimate. If you don’t, instead of focusing on establishing itself in its new home, the plant will put energy into flowering and fruiting. To get big, high-yielding veggies, a plant needs to fully establish and develop before switching its energy into fruiting.
Seeds are like tiny treasure chests. Each one is capable of producing a miracle. Sowing seeds is one of the most fundamental and rewarding pleasures in gardening. The journey from an inanimate speck of debris to a lush plant is an incredible process, even for the most grizzled veterans.
Germinating seeds can be a fun family activity. It’s quality time together and the kids will learn valuable life lessons. Parents and teachers can use seed germination to teach kids the relationship between cause and effect, observation, measuring, and weather patterns. Plus, kids have fresh tendons and springy muscles made for stooping and bending.
General Rules for Starting
Seeds Buy seeds with the current year’s date stamped on the packet or use fresh seeds that you collected from the previous year’s garden.
Indoors, sow seeds in a loose potting soil mix. Some mixes are specifically made for germinating seeds. Outdoors, amend the soil and rake the surface smooth. A loose soil allows the first roots and shoots to easily sprout.
Sow seeds in moist—not wet—soil mix. Seeds in wet soil have lower germination rates and higher instances of disease.
Supply bright light. Not all seeds need light to germinate, but after sprouting most seedlings require four-plus hours of light for best development.
Develop an ability to ruthlessly thin seedlings. This is a tough one. Fresh seeds usually sprout in overabundance. Without thinning, they will all struggle for their share of space and nutrients. The seed packet will detail thinning and appropriate spacing.
Water the soil, not the leaves. Outdoors, use a nozzle with a gentle setting so the seedlings aren’t washed away. Indoors, trays or pots should be placed in water so that seedlings are soaking water from the bottom up.
Plant seedlings sown indoors in their outside space once they have three sets of leaves. Follow directions on the seed packet for spacing.
Seeds vs. Transplants
Many veggies are best grown from seed. Some, including carrots, peas, beans, and okra, develop taproots and should be sown directly in the garden. Other veggies can be started indoors and transplanted outside later. Starting seeds indoors gives you a head start on warm-weather veggies, such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash, which means a bigger harvest.
Compared to container-grown transplants, seeds are cheap and plentiful. You’ll have more than enough for the current year. Sow about twice what you think you will need. Put the rest back in the packet and seal it shut with masking tape or a hard fold. For extra protection, place the packet inside a clean sandwich baggie.
Store the excess seed in a cool, dark, dry place for use in future seasons, or donate to a school or community group. Starting from seed keeps the garden cleaner. Lots of diseases, weeds, and pests enter the garden on the plants that you buy. Slugs, oxalis, and root rots are just some of the marauders that have used potted plants as Trojan horses to invade my gardens.
Growing from seed limits the amount of unsterilized soil and plant material introduced to your space. Since you have more control, it is also easy to go organic and sustainable. Unlike with potted plants, you can determine all the variables with seeds. Another huge advantage of planting with seeds over potted plants is that you get to start gardening much sooner.
Seed catalogs make great winter reading. You get to peruse kaleidoscopic photos and dream of the coming season while icicles dangle from the tree branches and house eaves. Make sure your seeds arrive at least six weeks before the last spring frost. To start seeds, use a germination soil mix.
Pots, trays, takeout boxes, and even egg cartons can serve as seedling containers. Fill the container with moistened (but not wet) soil mix. Push the seeds into the top of the moist soil. Place a lid, cover, plastic wrap, or wax paper on top of the seed tray to maintain high humidity. Keep the soil moist and place in a very warm location, like on top of a refrigerator. Once the seedlings begin sprouting, remove the cover and place the tray in a bright, warm location.
Keep the soil mix moist, not soaked, and avoid wetting the leaves. Rotate the tray every couple days to prevent seedlings from leaning toward the light. Thin the seedlings according to the seed packet. When each has two sets of leaves, transplant the seedling to individual pots and fertilize with a half-strength water-soluble fertilizer. Place in a bright space until warm weather arrives, then plant in the garden. Space the veggies according to instructions on the seed packet.
Placement & Spacing
Designing a veggie garden is simple. Everything is based on practicality. Rows should run north to south, but if you have to go east to west, it will be okay. The tallest plants are best positioned on the north side of the garden (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). This prevents shading of the shorter plants.
Leave enough space between rows, blocks, or beds to walk, work, and water. I’ve damaged many a plant with a wayward water hose or misplaced step. Now I try to leave plenty of space amid plantings. The spacing between individual plants is a controversial subject. Seed packets or plant tags give optimal spacing under ideal conditions. Many intensive, square foot gardeners ignore traditional spacing and cram as many plants as possible into an area.
Kudos to the successful intensive gardeners, but I prefer a different approach. Plants want their space just like people. Packing ’em in creates weaker plants that are more susceptible to disease and insects. Poor air circulation is a leading cause of fungal diseases. Some intensive gardeners recommend planting sixteen onions per square foot.
Personal experience has shown me that nine per square foot will yield larger onions at about the same weight. If I were a subsistence farmer with the free time and dire need to work the garden constantly, maybe I would be a crammer too. As it is, I garden for enjoyment. I want to give my veggies a good start and allow them the proper space and time to produce crops.
Digging holes for plants always makes me smile. Planting feels like spring. It’s a renewal of hope and another chance for life. The process is fairly straightforward for you but rough on the plant, even traumatic. Roots, the blood vessel of plants, are ripped apart. They’re yanked from their home and plopped in a strange environment.
It takes them awhile to adjust to the new conditions. While they are recovering from transplant shock, plants won’t be 100 percent functional. Many of the roots are severed, so their ability to draw water is reduced. A few techniques can ease their pain. Prepare the hole before planting and make sure the soil is loose and moist.
Soak the plant in a bucket of water to moisten the rootball, gently tease out any circling roots, and plant it at the same depth it was previously growing. (Tomatoes are an exception and will be covered later.) If possible, pick cloudy, cool, and/or drizzly days for planting, so there is less need for water.
Soak the soil afterward to give the roots every chance to drink. Check often to make sure the soil is still moist. If the weather is hot and dry, you may need water every day for a week before the roots regrow and the plant stabilizes. If it is cool or it rains, you may not need to water at all.
Intercropping, Succession, & Scale
When growing veggies, interplanting is often called intercropping. Small space gardens are planted more densely to make efficient use of all resources. Intercropping and succession are valuable techniques to improve efficiency and productivity. Rather than putting different kinds of veggies in separate areas, intercropping groups different crops together. Care must be taken to ensure the plants do not compete for the same resources, particularly space and light.
The most common example of intercropping is with what’s termed the “Three Sisters”: beans, squash, and corn. They occupy different spaces above ground and their roots systems are complementary below ground. These plants actually benefit from intercropping. Succession planting encourages you to continually sow new crops in the same space. You can do this with different types of veggies or the same one. Either way, while the current crop is bearing, the next crop is already growing.
You can also do succession planting with the same crop. Some vegetables mature all at once because their ripening time is fixed by nature. Determinatetype tomatoes, cauliflower, bush beans, and zucchini have been known to overwhelm kitchens with their heavy production. Unless you plan to donate, can, freeze, or host a large dinner, spreading your harvest over several weeks is a better option. Instead of sowing a whole carrot patch or a packet of beans, take it in chunks.
Sow a new section every three weeks to keep the patch productive well into winter. Similarly, rather than planting four ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes at once, plant them at one-week intervals over four weeks. Sowing successively prolongs the harvest season and makes it more manageable.
Scale is another factor to consider in small spaces. Because full-sized plants can overwhelm the space, use dwarf plants where possible. Since Ma’s backyard is small, dwarf hemlock and weeping spruce were better choices than their larger relatives. The dwarf evergreens can serve as design focal points without dominating the yard. The same applies for veggies.
Water is the lifeblood of plants. Small space gardens take less time to water, but you may have to water more frequently, especially during summer. Hot air and sunshine quickly suck moisture from the soil and leaves. Evapotranspiration is the two-dollar word for the combined desiccating effects of evaporation and plant transpiration.
Here are a few tips to make watering more effective:
Use your finger to check soil moisture. Put your finger in the soil up to the first knuckle.
Take it out. If the soil on your finger is moist, you’re fine. If it’s dry, it’s time to water.
Water early in the morning.
Dawn is best, but definitively before the heat of the day.
Water thoroughly so it soaks deep into the root zone.
Try to keep the leaves dry to limit fungal blights like powdery mildew.
While you’re letting the hose soak an area, use the time to monitor your plants, cut flowers, or harvest some produce.
Evapotranspiration is especially hard on containers and hanging baskets, which are exposed on all sides. In a sunny location, it is not uncommon for hanging baskets to need watering twice a day. Small pots fare no better. Even large containers may need watering every couple of days during the height of summer. Water until the potting mix is saturated and runs out of the pot. On balconies, use a tray bottom to catch excess water or your downstairs neighbors may fuss. (Trust me on this one.)
Plan for the summer heat. Proper irrigation keeps the garden and the gardener from struggling. In most cases a soaker hose attached to a timer is sufficient for small gardens. Programmable in-ground and drip irrigation systems allow precise watering, and some are made specifically for patio and balcony container gardens. They automatically handle your watering chores. Regardless of the option, think about irrigation as you plant so it is not a problem later.
Summer vacations are tough on gardens. I’ve lost many a plant to summer trips. You’ve got a few options. The most common is to ask a friend to water in your absence. With a programmable irrigation system, you can feel free to go on vacation without calling in favors. Or take the laissezfaire route. Pray for rain and enjoy your vacation. The garden will be fine (or not); and you can deal with the fallout when you get back. Remember, farmers markets are open, and planting (even a second time) is fun.
Vegetables are heavy feeders. Successful gardeners make sure nutrients are available when the plants need them. That means preparing a rich, organic soil before planting and fertilizing while they’re growing. Fertilizer can be amended into the soil, spread across the surface of the soil, or dissolved in water. Water-soluble fertilizers are poured around the base of a plant or sprayed on its leaves (foliar feeding).
Fertilizers contain essential nutrients for plant growth. Small space gardens must fertilize to maximize growth. This is especially true in containers and hanging baskets that often lose nutrients through water runoff. Fertilizers are available in dry granular and liquid forms. Some are fast acting to give an immediate boost. Others slowly release nutrients over time, thus providing a steady supply for several weeks. Proper fertilization takes some planning. There are some definite dos and don’ts:
Do fertilize regularly.
Do follow directions closely for mixing and applying.
Don’t fertilize when plants are not actively growing.
Plant roots only absorb fertilizer when they are actively growing. Fastacting, water-soluble fertilizers won’t remain in the soil. If plant roots don’t absorb them, the fertilizers will wash or leach away from the garden. That’s a waste of resources and the opposite of sustainability. So don’t fertilize near the end of the growing season or when the garden is dormant.
These rules are particularly important for patio, balcony, rooftop, and vertical gardeners. In these small spaces water runoff quickly leaves the garden, goes down drains, and moves into the environment. In natural habitats, fertilizer runoff alters ecosystems, promotes invasive species, and creates dead zones in bodies of water.
By following the fertilization rules, you boost your garden, save money, and protect your local wildlands. Fertilizers have numbers on them listing the ratios of three nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). The numbers are listed in the order N-P-K. The nutrients function differently within the plant.
Nitrogen promotes leaf and stem growth.
Phosphorous helps produce flowers and fruit.
Potassium increases overall health and disease resistance.
The numbers tell the percent of the elements by weight. For instance, a 10-20-10 fertilizer is 10 percent nitrogen by weight, 20 percent phosphorous by weight, and 10 percent potassium by weight. A soil test will let you know what nutrients are present or lacking, so you can make adjustments. (You wouldn’t test container potting mix because it’s not soil to begin with, but you can expect to feed container plants regularly.)
The most commonly used fertilizers are the synthetic granular forms. They are inexpensive, easy to transport, and easy to spread by machine or gloved hand. Since many synthetic fertilizers are water soluble, you can apply them as you water to kill two birds with one stone. Add the fertilizer solution at the end of your watering, or wait and fertilize the day after watering.
Organic fertilizers differ from synthetics. They are slow acting and generally not soluble in water, so they don’t leach from your garden. This makes them more sustainable and appropriate for organic gardening. Organic fertilizers (such as worm castings, greensand, wood ash, recycled food scraps, bat guano, and so forth) are amended into the soil or spread across the surface, like topdressing.
Organic matter, such as manure and compost, has low but balanced amounts of all soil minerals and nutrients. It is heavy and more difficult to spread, but typically less expensive than organic fertilizers. Use organic matter like a topdressing or mulch. Amending with organic matter and slow-release fertilizers builds a healthy soil environment, where beneficial bacteria, earthworms, and good insects can thrive and fight the bad guys.
Good soil makes healthy vegetables, which in turn make healthy gardeners. The chart above reviews some types of fertilizer. Soil amendments are tilled or dug into the soil. Topdressings are spread loosely across the soil surface. Mulch is layered 2 to 3 inches deep across the surface. Granular fertilizer is dissolved in water, then poured around the root zone or sprayed on leaves.
Compost is decomposed organic matter. Rather than discarding plant waste, composting allows us to recycle our garden debris and kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich, loose, well-drained organic soil amendments.
Plant material is “eaten” by bacteria, earthworms, pill bugs, and millipedes. They all work together to transform dead plant tissues back into the building blocks of life. Materials suitable for composting include garden and kitchen debris, such as leaves, stems, spent flowers, grass clippings, straw, cornhusks, peelings, rinds, apple cores, and so forth. Hard or fibrous materials, such as cornstalks, nutshells, and rinds, should be chopped into smaller pieces to speed decomposition.
Avoid using wooden branches, bones, animal fat (including cheeses), and fresh animal droppings. These decompose slowly and can attract unwanted pests. Do not use diseased plants either. Managing your compost consists of adding plant matter, keeping it moist, and turning the pile. Stirring a couple times a week keeps the pile well ventilated, which speeds up decomposition and reduces odors.
A stagnant pile takes a long time to make compost and it can smell terrible. Aerobic bacteria quickly break down plant matter but need oxygen (supplied by turning the pile). Many small, unobtrusive composting units are available for the small space gardener. Rotating compost bins take up more space but accelerate the process. If you have no outside space, you can still compost. There are undersink units for kitchen scraps. Vermiculture kits, which use red wriggler worms, are the most efficient and produce compost the fastest.
Composting provides gardeners with the best soil amendment for free. Going from kitchen scraps and plant debris to prized compost can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on temperature, moisture, and how often you turn the pile. Finished compost will look loose, rich, and woodsy. It can then be worked into the top layer of soil or spread across the ground like mulch.
Mulching is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your garden soil. It retains moisture, helps moderate soil temperatures, suppresses weeds, and slowly releases nutrients. Veggies need a 2-inch layer of mulch throughout their growing season. Timing is critical when mulching veggies.
Cool-season crops, such as broccoli and cabbage, should be mulched as soon as they are established, or a couple weeks after planting to keep the roots cool. Warm-season crops, such as tomatoes and squash, should not be mulched until the weather is hot. This gives the soil a chance to warm up, which warms the roots and increases growth and production.
Wood chips and shredded bark are typical types of mulch. They are available bagged or loose. Loose wood chips are sold by the yard (about a wheelbarrow full). Pine needles, straw, and grass clippings are other options. Mulching with 2 inches of compost, rotted manure, leaf mold, or other organic amendment combines all the benefits of mulch with a slowrelease organic fertilizer.
George Washington Carver developed crop rotation methods to prevent nutrient-depleted soils. Planting the same crop in the same plot every year can lead to nutrient deficiencies in the soil, as well as disease and insect problems. Carver noted that plants from different families use different nutrients and are susceptible to different pests. Rotating plots among different plant families helps reduce soil deficiencies and pest infestations.
Weeds take light, water, nutrients, and space from garden plants. If left unchecked, weeds can completely overwhelm a space. Their presence reduces the beauty and productivity of the garden. Weeds also attract and provide cover for pests, such as grasshoppers and aphids. The definition of a weed is subjective, but any plant that is out of place or out of control can be weedy.
In small gardens, lots of plants can be weeds. If a plant grows in the wrong area and is upsetting the intent and integrity of your garden, then feel free both to call and treat it like a weed. Small spaces are easier to weed. The exception is community gardens. Because it’s a communal site, there are a lot of common weeds. In nearly all gardens, wind and animals drop new weeds seeds in the garden throughout the year.
It takes diligence to keep them down. Once veggies are established, mulch heavily (2 to 3 inches) to inhibit weed growth. Thick, lush foliage from some veggies, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, also discourage weeds. Other plants need more help. Although not practical in a large garden, small spaces can inhibit weeds with a mulch and weed cloth combination. Here’s how: clear the garden of visible weeds. Lay the weed cloth over the garden and stake it in the ground with landscape pins or spikes.
You can cut holes for planting or seeding. Add a 2-inch layer of mulch on top of the weed cloth. Take care not to cover your plants or seeds. This combination of deterrents prevents more weed growth than either would alone in my community plot. But even in the best systems, some weeds will get through. That’s when you need some tool help.
The CobraHead® is the best weeding tool I have ever used. Lately, though, I have been using the hoe more. It’s gentle on the back and perfect for plants arranged in rows or grids. A hoe does really well in tight spaces. You can reach deep into the plants without stepping into the garden bed. Plus, a hoe is agile enough to be moved between plants and quickly chop down a swath of weeds.
Tools make weeding quick, but sometimes gloves are all you need. After a long day, hand weeding can be relaxing, almost therapeutic. I sit on my garden cart, put on some gloves, and rest my mind as my fingers move throughout the garden.
They seem to instinctively know when and how to lift the crown of crabgrass or pull the taproot of dandelion. Because hand weeding has become intuitive, my mind is free. Some of my most creative thoughts and plans can bubble up to consciousness. It’s a time to dream of the future and reflect on the past. After weeding, the garden and I are both in better shape.
Healthy plants have fewer problems. Provide ample sun, good soil, and ample moisture while following Best Management Practices to keep plants healthy and resistant. After prevention, monitoring is the most crucial part of any pest management program. Take time to check your plants when you water and harvest. This is easier in a small garden because you literally have less ground to cover.
Pests like to hide themselves and their eggs under the leaves, so be sure to turn them over for a look. Good cultural practices are the best defense against fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and blackspot. These include watering in the morning, giving plants the proper spacing for adequate air circulation, rotating crops every year, and keeping your tools clean. When you find pests or diseases, mechanical methods are the first line of defense.
Handpicking, crushing, washing off, and vacuuming off are initial efforts. The next step is biological warfare. Beneficial insects and bacteria are available to fight against bad pests. Ladybugs, tiny wasps, praying mantises, and lacewings seek out and eat bad bugs. Beneficial bacteria, such as B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis), can stop most chewing insect pests.
When pests or diseases reach infestation level, chemicals may be necessary. OMRI- or USDA-listed products are contact killers and will not leave any toxic residues to harm pollinators, beneficial wildlife, or you. This is especially important for gardens where kids visit. Recent studies have shown that pesticide residues ingested by kids are linked to ADHD.
Monitoring allows you to identify and solve problems early. Make a mental note or actual chart when you first notice pests or diseases. The information you record on the chart should be general observations. You don’t have to count each individual bug or damaged leaf. But rough numbers will help you identify the disease or pest. The more information you have for your search the better. Check with plant information services at botanic gardens and extension offices and they will be able to help you better with this type of info.
Small spaces can have a big impact on the local wildlife. Gardens are like islands in the middle of deserts, literally an oasis where birds and butterflies can rest and refill their tanks. Ecologically, gardens provide food and habitat to a host of animals. In cities they are essential sanctuaries for butterflies, songbirds, honeybees, dragonflies, and other wildlife that could not survive in human environments without a garden or green space.
The insects are usually the first wildlife visitors. On my rooftop nectar-rich plants bring butterflies and bees. Colorful flowers and culinary herbs attract honeybees and bumblebees by the dozens. Because they pollinate my veggies, bees are my favorite guests. As the container garden gets bigger and better, I see more types. Native green bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, and even friendly wasps frequently visit.
Other than bees, other kinds of insects and creepy-crawlies are growing in number too. Spiders (orb-weaving, wolf, and jumping types) are the most prominent creatures. They are welcome anytime. From the looks of their webs, they kill hundreds of Lake Michigan midges and mosquitoes every day.
Ants are nearly as common. Some beneficial insects that just stop by for a visit include dragonflies, stoneflies, ladybugs, assassin bugs, and lightning bugs. The lightning bugs are a new arrival. Apparently they showed up so their young could feast on my burgeoning population of slugs. That’s the drawback to a wet spring and mulched containers. With that much life in such an inhospitable place, you can only imagine the amount of creatures present in a community garden or backyard. If you plant it, they will come.
Time-crunched Has become a common description of modern life. Our days are filled with activities, commitments, necessities, and distractions in a way that was unimaginable a couple generations ago. Everyone from toddlers to seniors has their schedules packed with events and tasks that in the moment seem absolutely crucial to their existence. Small pieces of plastic and metal interrupt our routines and summon us to work, chat, watch, and tweet at all hours of the day and night.
The peaceful evenings and weekend mornings spent lounging on the porch with family and neighbors are as endangered as sea turtles. We feel compelled to stay busy. The time-crunched want to garden, but it has to fit within their hectic lives. Downsizers are typically older gardeners who no longer have the inclination, time, or energy to tend large spaces. They may have tended a large backyard veggie patch in the past, but now they prefer a raised bed by the side door.
They don’t want to give up gardening. They are just done working a large space. I’ve watched this time and time again. At 79 my grandfather parked his tractor for the last time. At 88 my great aunt stopped her decades-long fight against the honeysuckle vine that threatened her fig tree and veggie patch. At 84 my friend tom gave up his community plot. They still wanted to garden, but the rigors were just too much. In small spaces you can grow veggies without much time or effort.
It takes planning, organization, and an acceptance of the limitations. If you garden in a raised bed two hours a week, you are not going to harvest as many tomatoes as the guy down the street who works in his backyard garden two hours a day. But that’s okay; you may not need or want that many tomatoes. In the following paragraphs are some tips to save time and energy while gardening.
Whether you are growing kale or pecan trees, nothing is as beneficial as proper mulching. You won’t need to water or weed as often. Using rich compost as mulch reduces time spent fertilizing too.
Amend Soil With Organic Matter Another
Tip to reduce watering time is to amend with organic matter. Compost, worm castings, rotted manures, and so forth build the waterholding capacity of the soil while maintaining good drainage.
Install Irrigation Systems
Watering the garden is the most frequent and time-consuming task. Let technology do it. Install a timer on your spigot and use a drip line, soaker hose, or sprinkler. Drip lines work in the ground and in containers. Holes in the line leak water precisely where you want it. Soaker hoses are more general and not suited for containers.
Place soaker hoses under mulch, while drip irrigation lies on top. Sprinklers are common; however, overhead watering may invite fungal diseases. Also, most oscillating sprinklers were made for large yards and can be awkward or impractical to use in a small space.
Whichever you choose, put the system on a timer and watering takes care of itself. Set it for one hour or more every two or three days, depending on your climate. You want to soak really deep into the root zone. Program it to finish as you are leaving in the morning so you can check to see if the plants received the right amount of moisture. If you are in a rainy or dry spell, adjust the timer accordingly.
Make Your Own Self-Watering Pot
Containers can dry out fast. In the height of summer, you may need to spend an hour a day watering a container garden. Changing the drainage helps reduce watering. Look for containers that do not have predrilled drainage holes. Instead of putting holes in the bottom, make them on the sides of the pot. You will need a drill, a 1/4-inch bit (or smaller) to start the hole, and a 5/8-inch bit (or larger) for the final hole. Big pots need six holes all around at about 3 inches up from the bottom.
For smaller pots, four holes placed 2 inches up will do. With the holes on the side, water can sit in the bottom. This acts like a reservoir that the roots can access when they need it. The holes allow excess water to drain out and air to come in. The containers are more drought resistant and you can gain one to two days between watering with these drainage holes. On my rooftop container garden where i have more than 150 containers, this reduced watering from a seven-plus-hours-a-week task down to three hours.
Grow Low-Maintenance Crops
If your goal is to save time and energy, don’t grow crops that require tending or harvesting every day. Indeterminate tomatoes need continual staking, pinching, and cleaning. Okra, lettuce, green beans, and zucchini need frequent harvesting to produce at their peak. At some point during their growth cycle, these veggies are going to demand some time.
Conversely, potatoes, onions, peppers, and sweet potatoes can take care of themselves. Put these root crops in the right conditions and they’ll grow. Occasional weeding, watering, and fertilizing are all they ask. There is no urgency to harvest. The crop will be waiting on you when you have time to stop by.
Grow In Raised Beds
Gardening is easier in raised beds. You add good soil mix, so there is no tilling or double digging. A layer of landscape fabric underneath stops weeds from growing through. Any weeds that blow in are easy to remove in the loose soil. Because the area is raised, working in the bed is kinder on the joints and tendons.
At harvest time the veggies are easier to see and reach. You don’t have to be a carpenter to build raised beds. There are kits available that you can assemble in less than 30 minutes. Some of them are modular, so you can expand upward and outward if you choose. This could have kept my grandfather growing beans and peppers for a few more years.
Grow Resistant Crops
Fighting diseases takes up a lot of time and resources. If the disease kills the veggie, then all the time spent planting and tending it will have been wasted. (Or more positively, deposited in the experience bank. How’s that for cognitive dissidence?) Do yourself a favor and select resistant varieties of veggies. This doesn’t mean you won’t have diseases, but it gives you the best chance to avoid common problems. Disease-resistant varieties are usually highly productive too.
Pick Prolific Plants
As well as growing resistant crops, if you have a limited amount of time, select plants that will give you the most reward. There are a few things more frustrating than tending a non-productive veggie. Growing ‘mr. Stripey’ tomatoes is a good example. This sweet beefsteak tomato has orange and red skin with orange and red flesh. ‘mr. Stripey’ is a joy for the eyes and the taste buds. However, it is not that prolific, and it ripens very late.