Wednesday, March 16, 2011

THINKING INSIDE THE BOX Gardening In Small Spaces

Increasingly, I find myself speaking to groups made up of apartment or condominium dwellers, both young and starting out in life, and older and in the process of minimizing the size and complexity of their living environment. Many perceive their particular lifestyle as being incompatible with the idea of being more self-sufficient and alien to the desire to enjoy the fulfillment of a meaningful home garden. I hasten to disabuse them of this illusion, warning them that I could easily take up three or four hours of their valuable time doing so; after a lifetime of gardening in four states, in mountains and deserts and in all kinds of climate, I am passionate about planting, nurturing and harvesting my own crops. Even though I presently have several acres available for growing things, I still prefer to garden in raised beds and moveable containers. The reasons are many.
I don’t enjoy hours and hours of weeding & cultivating. I prefer not to bend over any more than necessary. I wish to use as little water and fertilizer as possible. I always aim to produce an early harvest, outsmart early frosts at the other end of the season, and be able to actually move growing plants from one place to another. It is also nice to be able to go away on extended journeys without coming home to an army of weeds that have taken over, or to find myself tired of the whole “keeping-up” battle through the long hot days of summer.
My basic garden “space” is a four foot by four foot square, with multiples extending to 4’ X 8’, allowing me to be able reach into the heart of the bed from each side. This enables me to practice “square-foot gardening”, rather than dealing with long rows with wasted space for walking, irrigating and re-cultivating, all of which takes time, space, and encourages weed-production.
In each square foot of space I can produce either 16 small items such as carrots, baby beets, or onions, or 4 larger plants such as lettuce, Swiss chard or parsley. Of course each tomato, pepper or cauliflower plant will require its own square foot of private territory. Keep in mind though, that square-foot gardening invites “succession planting”, so that as each mature plant is harvested, something else takes its place; another reason why advance garden-planning is important. Fast-growing veggies such as radishes and even baby carrots can be sewn amongst and between longer maturing crops, where space is available even briefly. Even tall crops like corn can be grown efficiently in this manner, with up to 24 stalks sharing a single four-foot square bed. (Pollination actually loves this kind of “block” arrangement.)
And then there is another concept for getting the most out of limited space, and that is where my “vertical” garden comes into play. I prefer to plant pole beans rather than the space-consuming bush varieties. You can either “companion-sew” them at the end of a bed where the shade they provide might help other nearby plants, or take advantage of a sun-warmed wall or building side where they don’t compete with other growth. Other vegetables such as cucumbers, squash and even melons can be trained to grow vertically, making use of space not otherwise in productive use. (Save those cast-off pantyhose to act as “suspenders” for heavy fruit when tied to the growing mesh.)
Rather than use space for a small potato patch, I plant mine in several large – bushel-size – clay pots, adding soil around the growing vines as they reach for the sky. In a good year, I can expect 30 or more mature tubers from each planter, merely by reaching down and pulling them by hand from soil that never gets hard and dry and never needs weeding.. In fact “container-gardening” is a refinement of the whole idea of gardening in small spaces. My last ripe tomato of the 2010 season was harvested in a sunny indoor pantry on January 1st, and a half dozen good-size ‘maters are already on this year’s plants at February’s end before they even go outdoors. I have a friend who grows a huge crop of Italian figs high on Salt Lake City’s east bench year after year by growing the trees in large movable containers on wheels, permitting her to roll them indoors each fall.
As gasoline prices rise, and trips to the store become ever more costly, perhaps it is time to start thinking – and growing - “inside the box”.

NOTE: The book “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew” has been a perennial favorite since its first publication in 1981.

In only fifteen square feet of raised-bed space, 24 spinach plants keep company with 12 heads of lettuce, 24 baby beets and a year-old parsley survivor. This bed is constructed for waist-high convenience and has seen use both outdoors and in this spring greenhouse.

A “square-foot” approach to gardening makes sense even when room to grow is not the only reason. In this “experimental” trial garden, competing varieties of lettuce plants from around the world are on stage to have their merits compared and monitored by Al’s friend, Shep Ogden in southern Vermont.

A pair of early tomato plants get to spend some time “getting acquainted” with the outdoor raised bed which will be their home in the near future – a process known as “hardening-out”.

Members of the super-hardy brassica family, these young cabbage plants get a head start on the season in a winter-like setting they love.
All Photos by Al Cooper


  1. Wonderful article. I live in central Utah where the alkaline soil is a major problem. We have resorted to digging flower beds out, lining with plastic, and buying decent dirt. As long as we monitor the water it seems to be an improvement. Wish there was some magic cure to treat the dirt we have! Is there??

  2. Square Foot Gardening (or SFG) is such a simple technique that even the young, elderly and absolute beginner can do it. Mel demonstrates how simple this method is, without going into a whole lot of detail - because it's just not necessary. The illustrations are straight forward and the book is a very easy read. After reading this book you will wonder why you didn't start a garden much earlier!