Vegetable gardens don't have to be huge to be productive. The real measure of success is being able to nip out into the garden to pick fresh food when it's just at its peak.
My friend Henry, an "old geezer" in his own words, has a smallish backyard garden these days, but years ago he lived on a farm, and "when I needed more room for crops, I just put a plow on the tractor and plowed up more space," he says. He still grows lots of different crops, but on a scale that requires neither plow nor tractor. He grows all he needs, and no more. During the gardening season, he and his wife eat produce from their garden every day.
There's an art to getting the most out of a small vegetable garden. It involves being realistic about the space available, how much time you have and, of course, what you like to eat. When you concentrate your efforts on a few crops you love, taking care of the garden is not a chore.
"If you have a small space, you want to plant things that don't take up a lot of room and have a big return," says Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Seeds. Plant your favorite herbs, she says, grow compact varieties of your favorite vegetables, and grow upward: Let cucumbers, melons and squash plants climb a trellis to make the most of the space and light.
"You can have a wonderful kitchen garden of the things you like to eat, and you can plant it for spring, summer and fall," she says.
Size is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Don Schreiner, a gardener in Overland Park, Kan., has six raised beds, each 6 feet by 6 feet, with room for tomatoes, lettuce, okra and beets. An entire raised bed is devoted to basil. But even just one bed, 4 feet on a side, will produce an impressive harvest of beans, greens and tomatoes. You can grow lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers in flowerpots on a patio. In a window box on a balcony, you have plenty of room for carrots and arugula.
When space is limited, try to make your choices count, Shepherd advises. If you grow beets, you can eat both the roots and the tender leaves. Lettuce is easy and prolific, which is good, because you'll be eating it just about every day. Swiss chard and other greens produce over a very long season, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. Let your herbs bloom, Shepherd says. "If you want butterflies in your garden, that's an easy way to attract them."
Mark Gawron is in charge of the Heartland Harvest Garden, a 12-acre landscape devoted to all things edible, at Powell Gardens outside Kansas City, Mo. Inspiration is cultivated here in abundance. This year, Gawron is planning to show off the many ways small-space gardeners can take advantage of trellises and arbors: "We're going to do hanging melons; it's great for small spaces." Melon plants grown on trellises produce smaller fruit than melons that sprawl, he says, but more of them.
Edible pansies, calendulas or nasturtiums add lots of color and texture to a small-space garden, Gawron says, and they especially make front-yard vegetable gardens "appealing to your eye, and to your neighbor's." Shepherd recommends cosmos and zinnias. Gawron recommends growing lettuce as an edge in a flower garden, and slipping a few broccoli plants in among the daisies. "No space is too small. You will be surprised by how much you can grow," he says.
Small vegetable gardens are naturally easier to take care of than big plots. There is not as much room for weeds, and the weeding -- which is inevitable, no matter what -- takes much less time than you'd expend on a big garden. It's easier to manage pests, too: When you have only six broccoli plants, picking off a few caterpillars is no big deal. In a 30-foot row of broccoli, it can be overwhelming.
To get the most out of small gardens, you still have to give plants room to grow. It's easy to convince yourself that more plants will produce more harvest, but that's not always true, according to Shepherd. "If you don't thin your seedlings, you are torturing them," she says, "and they will never grow as vigorously."
Soil enriched with compost provides basic nutrients and micronutrients, but crops still need fertilizer, even in a flowerpot, Shepherd says. "Just a couple of times in the summertime will make a very big difference in productivity."
One of the most satisfying things about a small vegetable garden is the thrill of watching something grow from the time you plant the seed until you put it on your plate. When you start with a seed, "seeing it germinate is always a miracle," says Shepherd, "and then having it grow into a big plant makes you feel self-sufficient and self-reliant like nothing else can." The harvest from a small garden is a big deal.
-- Renee's Garden Seeds, www.reneesgarden.com, includes many varieties chosen especially for small gardens. Look for the flowerpot symbol.
-- Gardener's Supply Co., www.gardeners.com, sells planters, raised beds and supplies for patio, deck and small-space gardens.
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