This month, I consulted with the resident horticulturist, Scott, to get some gardening tips, particularly for those who have limited space available. A few years ago, Scott had converted a substantial portion of our one-acre property into an abundant vegetable garden but maintaining a garden of that size is a great deal of work that he eventually had neither the time nor the energy to invest.

Since then, the garden has shrunk to a small patch in the backyard; however, with careful tending, it turns out it is no less abundant. If you like the idea of growing your own fresh veggies but don't think you have the space for it, then this post is for you!

The focus of this post is on square-foot gardening, which usually refers to multiple plots, each sized to a square foot. However, I'll be talking about a single, square-foot plot, as this is all that many people have available, and it is a manageable size even for beginners.

Tip #1 - Soil is a living thing.

A vital concept to embrace and remember is that soil is filled with living organisms that contribute to the soil's nutrients and fertility—from bacteria to earthworms, garden soil is teeming with life! The more fertile and alive the soil, the better the results. Later on, I'll be offering some more tips on how to care for and feed your soil, but to start, it is worth taking some time to research what kind of soil is most common in your geographic region. A simple Google search of "soil type in my area" yields a host of results, including the USDA.gov soil surveys, which feature some excellent historical information along with a detailed soil description.

Even if you choose to skip the research, the basics are pretty much the same for all types.—moist (not saturated) soil that breaks up easily, receives several hours of sunlight each day, and has good drainage is an excellent start.

Tip #2 - Use organic compost.

As previous blog posts have mentioned, what goes into an animal is ultimately what you will be eating. The same is true of gardening. What goes into the ground is what will be absorbed by your plants and ultimately, part of what you will be eating.

If you're just starting out, many local nurseries and gardening centers carry commercially prepared organic compost. It is worth the expense. Although you may not be in a setting where starting a compost heap is reasonable, there are organic materials you can add to your garden soil. Some examples:
  • Autumn leaves

  • Discarded lettuce or cabbage leaves

  • Discarded carrot tops and peels

  • Potato peels

  • Egg shells in limited quantities

  • Used coffee grounds add nitrogen,which helps break down these organic materials

DO NOT add animal byproducts, such as bones, animal fat, or innards. Not only will animal materials draw carrion feeders, unwanted insects, and rodents, these materials will also kill the earthworms that are doing their part in composting the organic plant materials. The ONLY animal byproduct suitable for adding to your garden soil is manure—cow, chicken, and horse manures are all great compost additives.

Tip #3 - Pay attention to each plant's growth chart.

The goal of gardening in a small space is to keep things rolling throughout the season by planting fast maturing plants first, followed by plants that have a longer growing season. Once a plant matures and is harvested, it can be pulled to make room for the next plant coming up.

Note: It is the time where the plant is at maturity that matters. You can plant the fast growing plants first, then the later plants just a few weeks later. These will grow side-by-side, but those early maturing plants will be out of the way before the slower plants need the space to finish growing and producing.

Be sure to note how much room each plant needs for healthy growth. A common mistake home gardeners make is planting as many seeds or starter plants as possible in a single row. If the seed packet or nursery tag instructions indicate 12–15 inches should be between each plant, believe it, and leave 12–15 inches between each plant. It may look like a lot of empty space at first, or you may be worried that your yield will not be enough, but to get a healthy, productive plant, the leaves need space to absorb sunlight, and roots need room to grow for the plant to become securely anchored. I often hear of people being overrun with more tomatoes or zucchini than they can use or give away, which just as often traces back to overplanting from the start.

In our area of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a typical garden cycle would be:

Late April: radishes, leaf lettuce, spinach - all are fast growing plants that are typically completely finished within 45–60 days of planting.
Early May: tomatoes (2nd week) OR beans (3rd week), not both. These plants both need a lot of space at maturity and both typically benefit from being surrounded by cages or stakes to give the vines something to hold onto and support the weight of the final product. If you really want to plant both, then be prepared to only have one of each to avoid overcrowding.
Mid May: brussel sprouts - Nothing beats the flavor of fresh brussel sprouts. If your only experience with brussel sprouts is out of a frozen bag, you are really missing out! However, sprouts can be tricky. The growing season is very long and slow. You want the plants to be big enough to produce sprouts, but the ideal time to harvest is not until after the first frost, which may not be until early November!
Late June: red beets or other root vegetables - red beets also have a long maturation rate that can extend well into late summer and early fall, depending on the variety.

Obviously, these are not the only vegetables that can be planted. What matters is learning when each type reaches maturity and staggering your plantings accordingly.

MOST IMPORTANT! - Plant a cover crop.

As the growing season comes to an end, remember Tip #1 - Soil is a living thing.

The worst thing you can do for your garden is leave the soil bare throughout the winter. A cover crop is what you plant in your now empty garden to keep the soil alive over the winter, with the bacteria, organisms, and plant roots holding onto the nutrients so these are not washed out by the winter's snow and rain.

Rye grasses, alfalfa, and clover are just a few examples of good cover crop candidates. Once planted, let the cover crop grow and die without interference. Two weeks before the first planting of the new season, hoe the garden and turn the cover crop under the soil. Think of it as instant composting. As the cover crop decomposes in the soil over the next weeks, it will continue to feed the nutrients in the soil to help keep it fertile and your new season of vegetables healthy and productive.

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