Lifelong gardener and author of the syndicated weekly column Midwest Gardening, Jan Riggenbach’s latest book is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual.

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Big Harvest - Tiny Space
by Jan Riggenbach       #Edibles   #Raised Beds   #Urban Gardening   #Vegetables

Compact vegetable varieties produce a gourmet harvest in a small space.

With garden space and spare time at a premium for most families, gone are the huge backyard plots that once yielded all the vegetables a family could eat. After a move to the city in 2012, my own vegetable garden shrunk from a half acre in the country to a few raised beds. Nonetheless, I’m amazed at the large and varied harvest from my new, much smaller space these last two years. 

‘On Deck Hybrid’ is billed as the first sweet corn variety developed especially for container gardening.

Success for me and other small-space gardeners is due in part to plant breeders, who have developed compact veggies to replace some of the space hogs of the past. Many of these new varieties are ideal candidates not only for small beds, but also for containers, which means you can grow a decent harvest even if you have no ground at all. 

Take ‘Fairy Tale’, ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’ eggplants, for example. All three of these petite, award-winning varieties produce prolific harvests on compact plants.   

A host of small-fruited tomatoes such as ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Red Robin’ make it possible to harvest your fill, even if your only growing space is a few hanging baskets or other small containers.  

Sweet baby carrots like round ‘Atlas’ or short and stubby ‘Caracas Hybrid’ are a gourmet treat, perfect for growing in the shallow soil of a container.  

Winter squash, a notorious spreader, is now possible to grow in a small garden bed, thanks to space-saving varieties, such as ‘Bush Delicato’ and ‘Early Butternut’.

Small-Space Techniques
There are several techniques that also help make today’s small-space gardens successful. Intensive planting works wonders. With no need to save wide rows between crops for the rototiller, you can bunch vegetable plants close together not only to reap a bigger harvest, but also crowd out weeds and conserve moisture. Instead of a single row of green beans, for example, I now plant four rows of seeds only 6 or 8 inches apart to completely fill the 4-foot width of one of my raised beds.  

Rich, fertile soil is important when you’re gardening intensively, but fortunately it’s a lot easier to tend to soil building when space is limited. I was always short of homemade compost for my large country garden, but now I have a ready supply for my new raised beds and pots from one large outdoor compost bin, plus an indoor worm factory.

‘Mascotte’ bean produces plentiful, long-slender beans on compact plants.

Containers and Raised Beds
When growing vegetables in containers, I have the best luck with a mix of one-third compost and two-thirds quality potting soil. For the raised beds, we had a load of timber soil delivered. Water collected in a rain barrel attached to a downspout, fortified with regular additions of a liquid organic fertilizer, helps keep my plants healthy and productive. 

Growing my veggies in raised beds and pots has solved what would otherwise have been a major problem: the walnut trees that ring my new back yard. Tomatoes and their relatives are particularly sensitive to the juglone that is produced by walnut roots. By growing these crops in soil that doesn’t come into contact with the trees’ roots, I avoid the possibility that my tomato plants will succumb to walnut wilt.

‘Astia’ zucchini is a non-rambling bush variety with glossy-green fruits.

Frequent Sowing and Good Companions
Companion planting and successive sowing keep all available space producing throughout the season. Radishes and broccoli raab are so quick to grow they don’t even need a space of their own. Just sow a few seeds of these cool-weather crops around slower growing summer crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, and they’ll be gone before the later crops need more space.  

Leaf lettuce thrives in the partial shade of taller crops. When early crops, such as spinach and peas, languish in summer’s heat, rip out the spent plants and put in new crops, such as green beans and carrots, in the emptied space.  

As autumn approaches, plant a second round of cool-season crops like lettuce, turnips and spinach to take the place of frost-sensitive tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  

‘Fanfare’ cucumber produces big fruits on a semi-dwarf plant.

Plants on the Up and Up
Vertical gardening is another good way to make the most of what garden space you have. Use trellises for crops such as peas, pole beans, cucumbers, melons and winter squash or let them climb a chain-link fence. Cage or stake tomatoes not only to save space, but also produce better fruits than possible from plants that are allowed to sprawl on the ground.  

In tending my own small plot, I’ve discovered something else: I’m no longer distracted by quantity and can concentrate on quality. No more zucchinis that slip my notice until they’re as big as baseball bats, for example, and no more broccoli ruined by yellow flowers sprouting in the middle of the green heads.





‘Super Bush’ tomato is known for its high yields of heavy fruits with rich tomato flavor.

Best Space-Saving Varieties
Here’s a sampling of vegetables you can grow in a small plot or even in a container.

‘On Deck Hybrid’ sweet corn grows only 4 or 5 feet tall. Unlike most varieties, which require a large number of plants to achieve full ears, ‘On Deck Hybrid’ was bred for better cross-pollination when planted in relatively small quantities. W. Atlee Burpee & Co. recommends planting nine seeds in a 2-foot-wide container. Expect to harvest two to three ears per stalk.     
‘Mascotte’ bean is a 2014 All-America Selection winner, which produces plentiful, long, slender pods on compact plants. The root system makes this variety ideal for growing in a container or window box, or for packing a lot of bush bean plants into a small garden bed. 
‘Astia’ zucchini is a French bush variety with non-rambling, compact vines. The harvest of glossy-green fruits begins early and keeps coming. 
‘Fanfare’ cucumber produces 8- to 9-inch fruits on semi-dwarf plants. Grow them in a container on a trellis and you’ll be rewarded with a long season of fresh cucumbers in a very small space. This disease-resistant variety is a past All-America Selection. 
‘Super Bush’ tomato produces high yields of heavy fruits that have a rich tomato flavor. The compact plants grow only 30-36 inches tall.


The harvest from a single sweetpotato plant completely fills a 24-inch pot with tuberous roots.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jan RiggenBach, Renee’s Garden, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., and All-America Selections.


Posted: 05/17/16   RSS | Print


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