Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt'

Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt'

Friday, March 27, 2015

Gardening in Small Spaces

Gardening friends,
Several years ago I designed a curriculum and started teaching a gardening class about how to successfully garden in small spaces. This class was born out of my experience as an avid gardener for 20 years gardening in the full spectrum of living situations. Container gardening on the front stoop of my apartments, participating in 2 urban community gardens, farming every inch of an uncultivated backyard at a rental house, and my current situation. For 4 years I have joyfully lived and lovingly tended a bountiful garden at our secret garden cottage. Our yard is mostly shaded by 4 mature maple trees. We squeeze out veggies and herbs from every available spot of sunshine. As a gardening teacher, over the years, more and more students of my veggie gardening 101 class kept asking about how to garden in containers, how to garden indoors, how to garden in one raised bed. All of these experiences culminated in my popular small space gardening class.

If you think you don't have room to garden I challenge you to reexamine your space. In our current yard the only sunny garden space was along the pathway on the side of the house that had 2 existing raised beds and was storage for a composter and numerous trash and recycling bins sitting on a brick pad. This was the hottest brightest spot in the yard and it was not being utilized to it's fullest gardening potential.

In small spaces you have to really prioritize your needs & wants. It takes a good amount of organization and planning to not end up with a jumbled overcrowded mess of plants competing with each other. Every year I have tweaked and replanted this evolving garden to meet our needs. And it took some creative thinking to re-imagine the existing space into potential new gardening space.

I had dreams of an ornamental flower garden to nourish bees, butterflies and hummingbirds as well as provide me with cut flowers for my design work. I envisioned a bed overflowing with my favorite flowers: sunflowers, dahlias, lilies, poppies and peonies. So where a very old rangy 4 foot rosemary consumed all the space, it was removed 3 years ago, the gardening bed extended a few feet into unused space and lined with a river rock border. Viola! I had a new 4 foot by 6 foot flower bed.

In a very sunny spot of the side yard is a huge red flowering rhododendron. It is pretty for its few weeks of bloom in May and after that it's just evergreen leaves taking up prime sunny space. Rather than remove it, this year I pruned it from the bottom and within to open it up. This has scored me an additional 3.5 foot by 5 foot of growing space. Due to the rhododendron's mature root system I won't plant directly into the ground. Instead I am working on a series of containers to utilize this very sunny space.

We moved the composter to an unused part of the yard and this opened up space to build our 3rd raised bed for vegetables that can tolerate bright indirect light & light shade. We moved the trash & recycling bins to a new part of the yard this opened up a a very warm sunny space for our potato tubs and our 4th raised bed.

There were 3 stunted unproductive old blueberry plants surrounded by overgrown roses, ferns, ground cover and weeds. This area only receives bright indirect sunlight. Last year we removed the old blueberry plants and cleaned out everything else. After adding new compost and a brick lined border, the result was a 3 foot by 3 foot patch for our favorite 'Hood' strawberries. We had great success with Hoods at our last community garden and are excited to see how they will produce for us in this not full sun site. Right next door to this project is a 3 foot by 5 foot bed of mature raspberries that produce like crazy twice a year in the part sun/shade location.

Every one of our raised beds has a trellis along the backside for vines like peas, beans, and flowers. Utilizing vertical gardening will maximize your limited space.

3 of our raised beds are reserved for vegetables with companion plant herbs & annual flowers. One raised bed is reserved for my perennial herbs with annual herbs added each spring.

Our raised beds total 92 square feet of growing space. An additional 20 square feet is reserved for containers and 24 square feet of ground space for berries. This gives us a total of 136 square feet of growing space for edibles.

In this little amount of space, only 136 square feet we are able to grow:

Beans-pole & runner
Mesclun Mix
Potatoes-5 varieties
Summer Squash
Swiss Chard
Tomatoes-5 varieties


Lemon balm
Lemon verbena
Mints-peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, chocolate mint
Sage-bergarten, pineapple, tangerine
Scented geraniums
Thyme-english & lemon

That's a lot of variety and a lot of food!

My best tip for keeping our raised beds performing at their peak is to take care of your soil. Healthy soil=healthy plants. We utilize organic and no-till gardening methods for optimal soil health. We grow spring, summer and fall and let our beds rest during the winter season. With the exception of the perennial herbs and overwintering veggies-like garlic & shallots. Every spring we had a fresh load of organic compost to top dress our raised beds.

Every 2-3 months during the growing season I apply an organic granular fertilizer that I mix myself from alfalfa meal, bat guano, rock phosphate, kelp meal, greensand and lime. Depending on where the plants are in their growth stages I also apply a liquid organic fertilizer made from earthworm castings and manures. I like to use compost tea throughout the season as well.

I don't use chemicals of any kind-fertlizer, pesticide, herbicide or fungicide. Even organic products can kill beneficial bugs, bees and butterflies. I plant lots of companion flowers and herbs to attract beneficial bugs. I nurture my soil and don't disrupt soil life by tilling or turning over the soil.

In the late fall after crops have been harvested we plant cover crops, my favorite is crimson clover. We also attempt to rotate our crops each year, even in this limited small space.

Let me know if you have any questions or need advice on small space gardening. Your small space garden is only limited by the size of your garden dreams! Now get out there and get gardening!

Have fun,

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