A narrow strip of grass runs the entire length of my driveway, barely a meter wide. Blessed with full sun, the grass and weeds grow quickly, and because the space is so narrow and blocked by my neighbor’s fence, it’s abysmal to mow. So two years ago I created a series of raised beds and turned the nondescript lot into a lush garden where this year I’m growing tomatoes, eggplant, Swiss chard, runner beans and cucumbers.
Vegetable gardens are sturdy things and don’t take up nearly as much space as even what I’ve reclaimed. Steps, a staircase, a balcony, a terrace, a roof terrace or even a windowsill will do. With a few containers, good soil, and plenty of sunlight, a garden can grow almost anywhere.
“They can get small, small, small,” said Jessica Walliser, founder of SavvyGardening.com and author of “Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces.” “It’s one of the most amazing things in the modern vegetable garden.”
With summer fast approaching, now is the time to try out your green thumb on a small scale. Here are some tips on how to do it.
Get the location of the country
Ideally, find a spot that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day. You can grow in shady spots, but opportunities will be limited. Leafy greens, herbs, and some types of flowers like impatiens and begonias do well in the shade. But if you want to grow a range of flowers or edibles like tomatoes, cucumbers or strawberries, you need sun and lots of it. (Morning light is more comfortable for your crop than hot afternoon light, so keep that in mind too.)
If you plan to garden on a roof or balcony, consider weight capacity. A dozen 12-inch containers full of potting soil and water can weigh heavily on a space that may not be designed to support the load. So check before planting. Also, keep walkways open – a fire escape may look like a balcony, but it isn’t and needs to be clear of obstructions. So avoid gardening there. Also think about how you use your outdoor space and how much of it you want to devote to containers.
“What are your plans for the room?” said Jibreel Cooper, the community program manager for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “If you want to keep it generally open, you might want to look into hanging plants or trellises. Sweet peas and cucumbers can form espaliers and grow vertically. They take up less space.”
If you don’t have a big enough yard, don’t be put off – a window box is a great place to grow herbs. Kris Bordessa, the author of Reachable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Living Confidently, once lined her driveway with large fabric planters to reclaim the hot slab of asphalt. “It was an instant garden,” she said.
If a neighbor has unused outdoor space, you should ask if they would let you plant it in exchange for a share of the crop. (Full disclosure, my small driveway lot is on property actually owned by my neighbor whom I pay in tomatoes for the privilege of using the otherwise fallow land.)
“It’s as simple as saying hello,” said Nina Browne, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s community leader. “You can start having conversations about working together.”
know your limits
Gardening is a hobby that takes time. You have to water, weed and fertilize. During the heat of summer you may need to water daily, sometimes twice. Plant enough containers and this could quickly become a big elevator. So start small, with just a container or two in your first year, and rethink the next season.
“Don’t bite off too much,” Ms. Browne said. “Nothing will turn you off gardening more than when something about you completely fizzles out.”
Get some containers
Once you know where you’re growing, get some containers and aim for a pot that’s 6 to 12 inches deep. Many types of vessels will do, as long as they have drainage holes in the bottom. (And if not, drill a few.)
Ms Bordessa, who offers a video course on container gardening, suggests scouring your home for items you already own, like empty cat litter containers. “A five-gallon bucket is sufficient for a lot of things you’re going to grow,” she said.
If your floor space is limited, look up. “Vertical growing is your friend,” said Cassie Johnston, a master gardener who runs the Growfully Instagram account. A trellis allows tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers to grow vertically against a wall. Consider hanging baskets hung from a railing. Another option: plant your crops in a tower garden, which essentially consists of containers stacked on top of each other. Or make the most of a wall by attaching pocket planters to it.
Fill your containers with a mix of good quality potting soil and compost. But first check with your local community if and how you can get this compost for free.
Choose your crop
Look for plant varieties designed for small spaces, like bush varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. “Breeders have put a lot of effort into breeding varieties that are short,” Ms Walliser said, pointing to short tomato varieties like Tiny Tim and Red Robin, which produce big yields despite their short stature. Tumbling tom tomatoes, as the name suggests, fall over a hanging basket.
Also, curate your crops by planting items with similar needs together. “Don’t put lavender in the same pot as a begonia,” said Ms. Browne. “You need a lot of sun and dry conditions, and you like wet and shady conditions.”
Water your plants thoroughly and opt for long, deep soaks a few times a week instead of lightly misting them daily. “People are very good at the splash and dash method,” said Ms. Walliser. “It’s not irrigation. Watering is standing there and pouring enough water so that at least 20 percent of the water you put in at the top comes out of the hole in the bottom.”
With your garden properly planted and watered, all you have to do is enjoy your little harvest.