Grow Your Own Food
Compact vegetable varieties save space
Story after story touts the ease and benefits of growing your own food. The reasons—including the profound satisfaction of harvesting homegrown vegetables and herbs—are convincing. “Why wouldn’t you choose to grow your own vegetables, especially ones that are high in nutrition?” says Joe Lamp’l, host of national public television’s Growing a Greener World, an award-winning show featuring organic gardening, green living, and farm-to-table cuisine. “People want to grow their own food because they want more control over what goes into their bodies and where their food comes from. There’s a risk when you don’t know how your food is produced.”
Okay, you’re convinced . . . but wait! You live in a condo with a balcony or a townhouse with a patio. There is no room to grow the plants you see in fields and large suburban vegetable gardens. Maybe you never even wanted a vegetable garden until now, and you landscaped your home with ornamentals. Whatever your situation, there is a vegetable plant for you.
“We’re finding in our travels that a lot more people want to grow food without the space to do it,” says Lamp’l, who has both a large vegetable garden at his home near Atlanta and a small kitchen garden devoted to herbs and petite vegetable varieties near a door to his house. “They may have a balcony or a patio and are finding success with containers and varieties of vegetables that don’t take over—dwarf, compact, or patio varieties.”
To answer this growing need, seed and plant companies are bringing smaller vegetable varieties to market. You can tuck them into containers, little beds, and mixed ornamental borders. Compact vegetables let you cultivate more plants in a given space, providing a greater yield and more variety than you could obtain with sprawling traditional types.
“What I’m really looking for are varieties that produce a lot in a small amount of space,” says Scott Mozingo, product manager of Burpee Home Gardens. “Populations in cities across the country are growing. Millennials are living in apartments and first-time homes that often don’t have room for huge gardens, but they still want to grow their own food. Gen Xers have homes/apartments and busy families but not a lot of time to tend a big garden. Baby boomers, who traditionally had large vegetable gardens, will be retiring and potentially downsizing but not losing that desire to grow their own. By searching for high-performing varieties that don’t require a lot of space, we can still remain a relevant part of everyone’s garden. Gardeners will have no excuse to not grow something because they ‘don’t have the space.’”
Lamp’l grows compact vegetable plants both in containers and in the kitchen garden by his house. Except for fertilizer in the initial potting soil, his plants, including cucumbers, herbs, peppers, and tomatoes, receive little care from him but still produce fruit and “hang in there,” he says. “For the newbie, I like the fact that these plants are pretty darn tough. For a few bucks, a single person or a couple can buy potting soil, containers, and plants; put them in the sun; water them; and grow their own food.”
Container gardeners should keep things basic and easy. “When gardeners have all the space they want and then some, they have a little more freedom to experiment,” Mozingo says. “For small spaces, make sure you’re picking varieties you love and you’ll be happier tending to them. Container gardening on a balcony or patio requires daily attention, so make that experience worth it! Also, if you think the pot is large enough, get one a little bigger. You’ll thank me in August when you have more soil to hold moisture!”
So which vegetables suit containers and small spaces? “Some edibles are very ornamental,” Lamp’l says. “The leaf crops are beautiful. My personal favorite is ‘Red Giant’ mustard; it looks like neon and is tough as nails. Dinosaur kale and broccoli are beautiful as ornamentals, as are chard, bok choy, lettuces, and herbs, which do great in containers. In a very small space, you can sow broccoli over several weeks and get fresh broccoli every time you harvest. Peas are great for vertical space.” Lamp’l recommends sowing lettuce seeds by sprinkling them on the soil, starting just before the last frost date in spring and sowing more lettuce every few days thereafter. Harvest the leaves regularly when they are small and sweet.
Small space gardeners can also take advantage of vertical space by creating a pallet garden and mounting it on a wall or on supporting feet. Lamp’l gives easy instructions on his website for building such a garden and packing it with plants (growingagreenerworld.com/creating-a-pallet-garden-step-by-step-instructions). You can also fill vertical space with hanging baskets. Try a compact cherry tomato plant such as ‘Topsy Tom’ or ‘Tumbler’; the leafy, fruit-covered vines look striking cascading down the sides of the basket.
When Mozingo is not hanging tomatoes in baskets, he stakes or cages vining crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, to keep them off the ground. “I think tomatoes always benefit from being staked or caged,” he says. “We don’t grow our cucumbers in cages all the time so I wouldn’t say that caging is required, but if you don’t have a lot of room, they can be trained up a cage or trellis.” For small spaces, he recommends Fresh Pickles, a cucumber variety that produces up to 50 four-inch mini-cucumbers on a 15- by 40-inch plant. Vegetables to avoid in tight spaces include pumpkins, which typically develop long vines and big, heavy fruit; watermelon; okra; and indeterminate tomatoes. The mature size of these plants would overwhelm most small areas.
Compact varieties also work well integrated into ornamental gardens. It is easy to tuck small vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers into a sunny spot in a mixed border of shrubs and perennials. “The big trend with edibles is to incorporate them within an existing landscape,” Lamp’l says. “You create a big setup that’s functional and beautiful. That’s where young people are going, and it’s the best use of space. It debunks the myth that vegetable gardens are ugly.”