Cabbage and marigolds

Cabbage and marigolds, which are both edible, mix beauty and food in a small space.

Grow Bed

Grow Beds help small-space gardeners grow more in less space.

I talk with urban and suburban gardeners every day and I’m impressed with how people cope with food production in small spaces. Those with decent soil and sun in the right place often plant in the ground, mixing ornamentals and food together in their small plots. As I walk through neighborhoods, I see peppers, eggplants, chard, kale and tomatoes tucked into flower borders. String beans share trellises with morning glories and clamber over the tops of picket fences and along the railings of fire escapes.Space constraints frequently lead to other creative techniques, like using food crops as ornamentals. Customers tell me about planting hedges and screens of blueberries, raspberries, dwarf fruit trees and sunflowers. I’ve encouraged homeowners to plant trellised grapes as property dividers, too, because they take up even less space than a hedge. On a trip to Portland, OR, I saw a tiny garden with a squash vine scrambling over an evergreen hedge and raspberry canes tucked into a 2 ft.-wide row between the house and the sidewalk.

Many vegetables varieties are pretty enough in their own right to grow without sacrificing ornament. Eggplants have beautiful purple stems and flowers and shiny, colorful purple, pink, white or striped fruit. Hot peppers cover themselves with fiery fruits. Lettuces offer a huge array of leaf colors, patterns, and shapes that even rival hostas. Tomatoes trained up a colorful spiral qualify as garden art. Most herbs fit easily into perennial and butterfly borders and some, such as creeping thyme and mint, can serve as ground covers. Try tall, feathery dill at the back of a border and curly parsley as edging at the front.

More Information

  • Space-Intensive: Everything for small-space gardening, including tools, raised beds, supports, soil and fertilizer.

Last summer, I spoke with a city gardener with a postage-stamp yard who grows everything in our Grow Beds. She says that she has 14 of the 3 ft. x 3 ft. beds and she plants all her vegetables and flowers in them. The soil in her yard is poor, so she fills the raised beds with a rich mix of compost and topsoil. I’ve been using them for several years and love them, too.

Container gardens allow even landless gardeners to put some of their own food on the table. Recently, a customer told me that he plants half-barrels of sweet potatoes along the sidewalk in front of his apartment building. They enjoy the heat and look terrific all summer, he says, and they provide a bumper crop of tubers in the fall. Condo balconies support self-watering containers full of salad fixings and Revolution Planters hang from porches even in the most asphalt-paved neighborhoods.

Growing in small spaces has real benefits, too: fewer weeds and pests, less maintenance time, and often, more food per square foot. Raised beds, containers, and integrated gardens fit better into our busy and demanding lifestyles than the old 20 ft. x 40 ft. rototilled gardens I grew up with. Gardening has undergone a revolution in my lifetime, and, as Martha might say, “That’s a good thing.”