By LEAH SMITH
Agriculture can come in all sizes. Having a small space in which to work doesn’t have to limit you in terms of the diversity of what you produce, nor does it mean you won’t be able to satisfy your needs handsomely; it simply means you need to know how to go about it. There are several different approaches to getting the most you can out of your land.
(An important strategy for achieving top-level production that I won’t be covering in this article is to make your soil as healthy as possible, which leads to healthy, productive plants. Not to worry! I will be covering this subject in another issue.)
Plant Variety Selection
If you have had any experience with vegetable varieties, you will know that they are not created equal. Plants thrive in different growing conditions, even if they are the same species. There are also different things that they will or will not be able to do for you. Can they be staked? Will they produce a heavy crop? The required nutrient level and drainage of soil, required sunlight level, and ability to compete with weeds are further characteristics that will continue to separate plants. It is useful to think about potential members of your garden in a variety of ways to determine which are the plants for you.
One approach to variety selection to make the most of a small space is choosing varieties that are noted for heavy production. If you thumb through seed catalogs, you are sure to find a variety or two of most every vegetable or fruit that will be worthy of this description. For example:
- Irish Potato—Red Maria, Elba, German Butterball
- Snap Pea—Super Sugar Snap
- Pickling Cucumber—Double Yield
- Bush Bean—Provider
- Mini-Hubbard Winter Squash—Gold Nugget (doubly useful as it is a compact plant)
And almost every variety of acorn winter squash is noted for both enthusiastic production and compact growth. Pole beans are also famous for high yields, and note that they come in flat and round regular, Romano, and French/filet varieties (there are even some dry shelling varieties, such as Bingo). On the other hand, there are many varieties of fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, which are much more judicious when bearing fruit and should possibly not be considered.
Some produce varieties should be selected because they make great use of the space given to them. Long salad radishes like Dragon and French Breakfast will give you more radish flesh with their one inch-square of ground than, for example, Cherry Belle and Easter Egg, because they simply keep on growing down. Cylindrical beets, as opposed to the more familiar round roots, repeat this technique. Pole beans, as well as being productive plants, are also very large plants (8 to 10 feet tall) that produce very large yet tender beans (pods range from 6 to 11 inches long depending on the variety). Yard long and runner beans also boast enthusiastically tall plants, and a correspondingly greater harvest potential.
Then there are the “keep on picking” plants, those with a larger harvest over time. Kale, Swiss chard, and collards are the sorts of greens that will keep on giving as long as you keep on taking. As long as eggplant and pepper plants have time to produce more flowers, and as long as you keep on picking, they also will produce more fruits. Broccolis can be different; some varieties produce only a strong central head, and the harvest is over. Instead, select one that produces a central head and then a good harvest of side shoots (De Ciccio and Umpqua are two nice open-pollinated varieties); or pick a sprouting broccoli.
You could also select plants that have a compact growth habit. There are varieties of summer and winter squash, melons and peas that produce very large or long plants. And there are cabbages and carrots that require ample space because they produce a generally large plant. But there are also varieties of all of these that stay small. Sometimes it is because the produce you harvest is of a diminutive size as well, and sometimes because they just don’t need to grow as large vegetatively to produce their crop. See Table 1 for a listing of plant varieties that are especially suited to small areas. Note that varieties listed in the “container” column can readily be grown in a “tight” planting scenario, but that the converse switch should not be assumed to be true.
Tomatoes offer different options for the small garden; the key is to remember what is what. They can be indeterminate, which in the scenarios above would mean “keep on picking.” Indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce tomatoes until there is a killing frost. On the other hand, a determinate tomato plant will only grow to a certain size and fruit count, which ripen all at once. Compared to indeterminate plants, determinate ones are compact and bushy, better for spaces where you don’t want them trailing all over. So as you can see, you can choose to grow either kind of tomato plant as long as you remember what it will do and where/how to plant/culture it accordingly.
There are plants that can do double duty for you, giving you greater opportunities to harvest. Squash like Tromboncino (zucchini rampicante) can be harvested when smaller and immature as a nice summer squash, or allowed to mature and be used as a winter squash. There are many heirloom squash varieties that can bridge the summer/winter gap, such as Kamo Kamo, Mongogo du Guatemala, and Table King Bush. A favorite cucumber of ours is the Silver Slicer. It is from the “slicing” section of the seed catalogue and it is a great slicer, but there have been years when pickling cucumbers became scarce before the canning was done and we found that when picked small they were perfect pickling stand-ins. Depending on your corn proclivities, you could raise Hopi Blue or Painted Mountain and pick ears at the immature, sweet corn stage for fresh eating (provided you are not afraid of exotic colors and real corn flavor), and allow the rest to mature to be harvested and ground into corn meal. When maximizing the edible is an important consideration, you might want to confine yourself to hardneck (stiffneck) varieties of garlic. This is the class of garlic that produces a hardened flowering stalk, which is the garlic scape. Garlic scapes are a harvest unto themselves, and with this one simple guideline you are now producing more food.
And there are still other interesting crops to explore. Celtuce is one. A type of lettuce, you harvest the lettuce leaves from the plant at any stage of its growth, as it is the 12- to 14-inch stem on which they are produced that is your primary objective; it is crunchy and tasty. Cracoviensis, or Asparagus Lettuce, is similar. A lettuce that grows fast in cool weather, there is again no bitterness in the leaves on the thick, fleshy, “bolted stem” it sends up, which is to be peeled and eaten like asparagus.
So far I have focused on vegetables, but fruits have a place in this discussion as well. Strawberries in particular offer a wealth of options. A standard variety like Honeoye is known for being highly productive and for producing fruits over a longer period of the year than other June-bearing varieties. Several varieties are everbearing strawberries, which produce all summer (smaller quantities measuring by-the-week, but for many more weeks). Some varieties have a compact growth habit, so that one can easily find room for them in a small garden or a container, even a hanging basket. Alpines are a strawberry type that have varieties of this sort.
The list goes on. Huckleberries can easily be grown in containers. Top Hat is a blueberry variety that grows on a miniature bush, measuring 2 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter, and will fit in a container or anywhere at all. There are other blueberry varieties that have compact growth, and some that offer two separate harvest periods (such as Bushel and Berry Perpetua). There are many fruits that grow on vines and so have a small “footprint” in the garden, including grapes, goji berries (goji berries are a double duty crop, as they have edible leaves), and kiwi. The kiwi Prolific is self-fertile, compact in growth, and produces fuzzless, bite-size fruits in hardiness zones 4-8. And there is a plant called a dwarf flowering cherry or sand cherry, which is a 5-foot bush and not a tree like other sweet cherries, and so much easier to fit into a limited space.
Many available fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, and plum) have been grafted so that they bear five different varieties of one fruit, offering selection in the space of one tree. And many of these are dwarf trees, meaning that they only grow 8 to 10 feet in height and so won’t overwhelm the area where they are planted. Additionally, there are also single-variety fruit trees that are dwarf and/or self-fertile, cutting down on the height of your trees and the number required for fruit.
It is not only what you grow but how you grow it. There are various culturing techniques that will help you maximize land use.
Time to Grow Up: As referenced earlier, one option it to make crops go up. Whether it is tomatoes, pole beans, or cucumbers in cages, on trellises, on a tripod, or on cattle panels, it is important to keep efficiency when harvesting (or at least convenience) in mind when setting up your “aerial” system. Some varieties of crops are more suitable to growing up than others. Many varieties of slicing cucumbers have sufficiently strong vine growth. Melons that also have strong vines and/or come as dainty fruits (such as the honeydew Orange Silverware and the speciality melon Tigger) are exceptionally well suited. And caging all manner of small-sized tomatoes makes harvesting them so much easier (as well as being a good way to save space), they should not be grown any other way.
A Little Training: Simply sending plants up into the air saves space. Further manipulation and training of plants to grow in a specific way can be of even greater use. Techniques that come to mind are espalier pruning and cordon trellising of fruits, which are most often used to orient plants to grow flat against a wall or straight up within a small circumference. Once the basic objectives of pruning are understood (once you know how not to cut off next year’s fruit), almost any shape can be achieved or, rather, almost any space can be filled. And filled by many different kinds of fruits, from apple or pear trees to currant or gooseberry bushes.
Close Quarters: Container production opens up other options as well, both indoors and outdoors. Whether it is fresh herbs or microgreens in the kitchen itself, cucumbers in a window box, or strawberries in a hanging basket, the more plants that are happy to grow in a container of any sort, the more ground area you will be left with for others. Again, refer to Table 1.
Space it Out: Plants need to be given sufficient space to produce their crop, but required spacing can be investigated. Take the onion family. Always plant scallions in bunches of 4-6, and pull them out of the ground in a bunch. Instead of planting bulbing onions individually in a row, plant them 2-4 in a group. They will simply push each other aside as they each size up. And a leek variety like Zermatt can be planted densely and used for a first picking of (alternating) baby leeks, leaving the remainder with space to produce full-sized leeks. What other space modifications are out there?
The Best of Friends: Companion planting is planting different crops in close proximity for a variety of reasons, all of which are intended to lead to increased production. Improved pollination and pest control are a couple, as is “plant partnerships” that use nutrient cycling and associated soil microbes of plants to help one another. Research companion planting for the specifics.
A Shapely Approach: Yet another practice for filling up a garden space efficiently involves the basic planning of the garden so that you can practice intensive crop production. Raised-beds (typically rectangular) and the further specialized keyhole and pyramid gardens are some on the layouts on which most intensive gardening takes place; the garden areas are more contained and more controlled, with the objective of being more productive. Square foot gardening is about as precise as it can get, with plots marked at each foot to closely monitor plant density. Raised-beds can be of even greater benefit if they are used along contour lines on slopes, creating garden space where there otherwise couldn’t be due to erosion.
The Element of Time
We have been discussing ways in which plants don’t take up a lot of room spatially. There are also ways to work with how they take up room temporally.
A Winter Garden: An excellent production booster is the planting of an off-season garden that will continue to yield in the dead of winter and into spring of the next year. You can find varieties of many different crops to serve this purpose. The Giants of Colmar carrot, Tadorna leek, purple sprouting broccoli, and many other crops can withstand the cold months of winter. A successful winter garden is simply achieved by planting the correct varieties and possibly using a bit of mulch for extra protection. Imagine the possibilities if you were to use cold frames or other means of season extension as well! Be sure to plant these long-term crops with ones that grow rapidly so that the ground for your winter garden isn’t out of production for a time; rather, you can still get a fall harvest and then have the winter planting as a bonus.
Space Holders: Which brings us to the point that cool-season crops that grow in the spring (and do so rapidly) should be thought of as space holders in the garden. This refers to arugula, lettuces, mesclun, radishes and spinach, for example. Summer transplants can be put into the ground as soon as the spring crop comes out, or they can be planted at the same time (see interplanting below).
In Rapid Succession: Successional planting is keeping your ground in fairly constant production by having seeds or transplants ready to go into the ground as soon as the previous crop is removed. Be mindful of varieties, as succession planting depends upon crops’ time-to-harvest, which varies from crop to crop and even variety to variety. For example, some carrot varieties may take 50 to 60 days to reach maturity, while others take 80 to 90; you must decide which is appropriate where. Even crops like tomatoes and potatoes that require a lot of time in the soil can be thought of for succession plantings. They can go into ground that was used for an early spring crop, or move right in when the winter garden plantings come out. Various short-season crops like scallions and cress, as well as the rapid growth, cool-season “space holders,” are certainly great for hopping in and out of the garden in rapid succession.
Profitable Partnerships: The growth of plants can complement one another in many different ways, leading to numerous combinations to keep your ground packed for production. Interplanting is planting different species in close proximity to make the fullest use of a given resource. For example:
• Sunlight: Some crops require full sun, while others can grow in (or prefer) partial shade. See Table 2 for a sample of crops that fall into the “light” and “shade” categories, and so can be planted together.
• Rooting Depth: You can interplant species that make use of different zones of the rhizosphere, as plants do have characteristic rooting depths. See Table 3 for information on the rooting depths of various crops.
• Time to Maturity: It is considered when you plant successionally, and also when you interplant crops with different dates to reach maturity. In a sense, interplanting based on time to maturity is successional harvesting as opposed to successional planting.
The combinations are endless, though you will find some work better than others. Obviously, the well-known “Three Sisters” combination of corn, vining beans, and vining squash makes use of complementary rooting depths perfectly, and they clearly work together in terms of sunlight, moisture and nutrition, as well as by the corn providing a natural trellis for the beans. Onion, carrot, and lettuce is another good combination that works for rooting depth, sunlight, and time-to-harvest. And there are other ways in which crops can fit together well and be synergistic in a close arrangement. People use “prickly,” vining cucurbits as a physical barrier to help keep furry garden pests from the succulent crops they desire. Or they use crops like peppers or dry beans as markers to help locate the “base” of melon plants for soil drenching at the roots, which can be hard to find in a sea of vines. And why not use sunflowers or broom corn as natural trellises, too?
A final thought is to remember you might have access to more land than you think you do. Creating an edible landscape allows you to go beyond a conventional garden and employ plants that can offer you food as well as provide for other practical needs. If you are in need of a hedge, why not an eight-foot-tall blueberry (or serviceberry or Nanking cherry plum) for a hedge you can also harvest from? Or if you are in need of a ground cover, try putting in lingonberries or strawberries. From small trees (like aronia berry, sea buckthorn, or crab apple) to vines (hardy kiwi or vine peach), there are numerous options of plants to choose from which are attractive and practical.
Not to mention that there are many typical garden plants that are attractive enough to be used in landscaping, too. Jerusalem Artichoke or Red Veined Sorrel, or any of those really intriguing eggplant or okra varieties, especially those with arresting colors. What is more beautiful than an okra flower? I saw a quinoa variety in a catalogue recently called Brightest Brilliant Rainbow. With vivid pink flowers, it is absolutely gorgeous. As it has calcium and iron-rich leaves, and seeds that provide a plant-based complete protein, it is a plant worth growing for a variety of reasons. Also bear in mind that having the full expanse of your lawn at your disposal (with occasional buildings interspersed) should make plant isolation easier in case you wish to save seed.
Anything Is Possible
Don’t stop here; there are yet other ways to produce your own food without using a great deal of space. Why not grow grain? Grain crops don’t have to be planted in large fields and harvested with a combine. I think buckwheat is fun. Flowers for the honeybees, seeds for the chickens, and more seeds for you. Why not the Otaheite Orange, a dwarf plant that does well in indoor container gardening? Or the Moringa, a complete protein superfood full of vitamins and minerals with leaves, seed pods, and seeds to offer? And there is absolutely no reason that the list of shallow-rooted, shade loving “plants” that you consider for your garden shouldn’t include mushrooms (with the correct mulch, of course).
The potential benefits of urban and small-space agriculture are many. From more land being used to perform carbon and nitrogen sequestration to providing food and habit for beneficial insects to helping to reduce storm runoff in urban areas to energy conservation for society in general, as well as the energy and food savings and personal satisfaction provided to the growers themselves, the challenge of gaining the knowledge, skill, and technique needed to make urban agriculture work really well is more than worth the returns.
Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, avid reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.