Pick the Best Space for Your Garden
If you are planning to start a new garden or relocate your growing space to a different area of your yard, there are some important considerations to keep in mind. You’ll want to make sure that your new garden has enough sunlight for the plants you wish to grow, the soil will support healthy plant growth, and you’ll have easy access to the garden. I’ve planted gardens in plenty of less than ideal locations over the years. I want to help you pick the best spot so you can avoid making the same mistakes. Let’s take a look at how to choose the best garden space or find an alternative spot that will fill your growing needs!
For the best results, make sure your new garden space has the following:
- At least 6 to 8 hours of bright, direct sunlight each day
- Well-drained, fertile soil with the proper pH
- Easy access to a water source for irrigation
- Good air circulation
- Enough space that is clear of underground utilities or other obstructions
Additional tips for choosing the best spot include:
- Choose a level spot
- Avoid low-lying areas where cold air accumulates
- If possible, avoid rocky soil
- Close to the house for easy access and maintenance
Although these are all great guidelines for choosing the best space for your vegetable plantings, you may not have an ideal spot. Plenty of people find ways to work with what they have and still raise an abundance of food on hilly, rocky, or shady properties.
Best Alternative Garden Spaces
New gardeners with a space large enough for a traditional garden may have other opportunities for planting vegetables and other crops, including spaces such as:
- Flower beds
- Foundation plantings
- Front or side yard or along the street curb
- Deck or patio
- Indoor growing space
When considering these alternative spaces, be sure to check your neighborhood or homeowner covenants and city or township rules to avoid fines or having to relocate your garden. You’ll also need to check the weight limit of a balcony or rooftop garden area to avoid damage and safety concerns.
Planting Vegetables in Ornamental Beds
There are plenty of attractive vegetables and herbs that may be planted in flower beds, as foundation plantings (in place of traditional shrubs), along your front walkway or sidewalk, and even in the space between the street curb and the sidewalk, if this is allowed in your area. When purchasing seeds and plants, look for varieties with attractive flowers, leaves, and fruits. A selection of lovely choices include:
- Rainbow Swiss Chard
- Red or speckled varieties of lettuce, radicchio, or kale
- Patio or cherry tomatoes
- Chili peppers with red, orange, and yellow fruits
- Scarlet runner beans (attract hummingbirds)
- Eggplant varieties with lavender, white, or unusually shaped fruits
- Attractive herbs, such as tricolor sage or rosemary topiaries
Alternatives to the Best Garden Space
Traditionally, vegetable gardens have been planted in the ground in a sunny spot where plants have ample space to put down roots. However, many people who wish to grow their own food have smaller yards and less sun exposure to support a ‘conventional’ garden. Fortunately, it is possible to raise vegetables, small fruits, and herbs intensively and some crops even tolerate shade. Let’s take a look at some space-saving garden methods that offer a great deal of potential:
- Raised bed and strawbale gardens
- Container planting
- Vertical gardening techniques
- Wall gardens
- Shade gardens
- Indoor gardening
Raised Bed and Straw Bale Gardens
Planting veggies, herbs, and even some small fruits in raised beds or strawbales has several advantages to planting a traditional garden in the ground. Here are some benefits of a raised bed or strawbale gardening system:
- Raised bed soil warms up earlier in spring and isn’t as susceptible to early frosts in fall
- Strawbale and raised bed gardens may be built in areas with poor drainage, compacted soil, or contamination from lead or other toxic chemicals
- Strawbales increase soil fertility as they decompose
- A raised bed may be filled with homemade compost to increase soil fertility and garden health
- Both garden methods may be installed quickly and allow for an almost ‘instant’ garden
In the case of a strawbale garden, be sure to purchase straw that hasn’t been treated with harmful, persistent herbicides that could kill your vegetable plants. See my article on How to Use Hay or Straw in Your Garden for more information.
Raised bed garden kits are commonly available at garden centers and online but did you know that you can build your own with recycled materials to reduce waste and increase your sustainability? Try building raised beds with re-purposed concrete blocks, bricks, old pallets, or old livestock water troughs instead of purchasing lumber that will eventually rot.
Planting in containers allows anyone with a sunny spot on their deck or front steps to grow herbs or veggies in tight spaces. It’s important to note that containers generally need to be watered more often than gardens planted in the ground because there isn’t as much space for roots to search for moisture. You’ll also need to provide the proper drainage and a good quality potting mix or compost to fill your containers. Here are some impotant things to keep in mind when planting a container garden:
- Containers must have drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess moisture to drain away and prevent root rot
- Glazed ceramic, plastic, and other non-porous materials hold in moisture, while terra cotta containers allow moisture to evaporate and must be watered more often
- Containers should have a saucer or tray under them to catch moisture run off
- Filled containers can be very heavy, especially after watering, so make sure they have proper support
- Use a potting soil or compost mix that retains water, especially when situated in hot, sunny spots
- Use a sandy potting soil for plants that don’t tolerate wet feet (such as succulents) or are situated in cool, shady spots
- Choose compact varieties of vegetables, fruits, and herbs for container gardening
If you don’t have room to grow plants that spread out and take up a lot of space, consider training them to a trellis, fence, or arbor where they can grow up instead. Strategically place these vertical features to provide shade on your deck in the heat of the day or to add privacy to your yard. Some plants will twine around a trellis, while others will need to be trained by tying their stems in place. There are plenty of crops that enjoy growing with a support structure, including:
- Peas, pole beans, and runner beans
- Melons, cucumbers, gourds, mini-pumpkins, and winter squash with small fruits
- Indeterminate tomatoes
- Malabar ‘spinach’
- Grapes, hardy kiwi, and espaliered fruit trees
If garden sites are at a premium, you might have the option of planting a wall garden on a sunny vertical space such as the outdoor wall of your home, garage, or tool shed or on a fence. In this garden method, a shallow container is filled with a moisture retaining potting mix and then covered with chicken wire or another structure that holds the growing medium in place. Shallow rooted plants, such as lettuce, herbs, bedding flowers, or succulents are tucked into the pockets of ‘soil’ and the entire structure is attached vetically on a wall.
These alternative planting spaces must be maintained carefully and watered often to keep the plants from wilting in full sun.
Although many crops need at least 6 to 8 hours of sun daily to produce a harvest, there are others that do well in partial shade. A few will even provide food in a location with full shade. Here’s a list of vegetables that can handle at least some shade:
- Leaf lettuce
- Romaine lettuce
- Swiss chard
- Brussels spouts
Some of these crops will not produce as well in shady spots as they do in full sun however, some of them will do better with shade during the hottest part of the day. Try experimenting with different varieties to see what works well in your garden.
Sometimes there just isn’t enough outdoor space to grow all of the food we want to raise. In this case, consider planting herbs, microgreens, sprouts, and vegetables indoors. Sunny windowsills might provide all of the light needed to raise your little indoor garden. If not, there are a wide variety of LED and fluorescent light fixtures that provide a full spectrum of light for indoor plants. Some companies have full growing systems available for growing indoors if you’re willing to pay a tidy sum for them. You can also set up your own with a shelving unit and individually purchased grow lights.
Consider planting some of these crops indoors to supply your own salads, sprouts, and microgreens all year round:
- Pea sprouts
- Tat soi
- Pak choi
- Beet greens
- Green onions
- Pea sprouts
Of course, there are many other options if you have enough light to support raising your own peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables indoors. You can also raise your own seedlings for an outdoor garden each year and save a lot of money!
Make the Best Garden Space!
Even if you don’t have the ideal space for planting vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits, use your imagination and make the best use of what you DO have. Many people give up on growing their own food because they are stuck in the mindset that you must have a large yard with lots of sunlight in order to plant a garden. However, there are plenty of creative ways to tuck in some veggies or a few herbs in small spaces. It is entirely possible to pot up some peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, rosemary, basil, and even strawberries or miniature fruit trees and raise them on your front steps or patio. Consider growing microgreens and a windowsill herb garden in a small apartment.
If all else fails, maybe you can join a community garden.
Don’t give up on growing your own food in a small space!
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