How to grow food in a tiny garden
You might think you have no space to grow food but the good news is, you can create a growing space almost everywhere. And in fact, smaller gardens will get more attention per square meters and often end up looking glorious as a result.
Whether it’s a balcony, a courtyard, a windowsill, a terrace or even a rooftop, there are things you can grow. Growing in small spaces successfully is considering the five following things:
Time and space
Without regular watering, it’s pretty difficult to grow consistently, so you really need to have access to water, as you will need to water multiple times every week. That’s especially relevant if you are growing in a courtyard or a rooftop, and it should be your first question: is there a tap, and how can I access it?
Container size matters when you’re thinking about watering: the smaller the container, the quicker it will dry and the more regular watering it will need. Keep that in mind when picking your pots, as bigger might be better. To make things easier, you can also get plates or trays that fit under the pots and will catch and retain water. It will also help if you’re away for a few days as you can just leave a little bit of water in the tray and it will cover one watering or two.
Small spaces often require containers as there is either no soil to grow in, or if you are in a city, the soil is likely to be a low quality or potentially polluted. Growing in pots and containers has its advantages: you can fully control your plant’s environment, from the soil it grows in, to the watering and feeding you provide, to the level of sun it will get (most pots can be moved).
The good news is that you don’t need to buy expensive pots and containers. From a wooden crate to restaurant oil tins, almost anything can become a container long as:
It is not see through: most fruits and vegetables do not like light on their roots
It has drainage holes: either on the bottom, or slightly up on the side of the container if you want to create a reservoir at the bottom of your pot.
It is the right size for the plant you choose: a tin is ok for a basil plant over the summer, but for a runner bean it’s not going to work. Check how big will your plant become and pick a pot that will suite the fully grown plant size.
You check the material: is it thick enough to hold soil and not break? Wood and metal - made containers will benefit from being lined with damp-proof membrane to increase their life cycle and provide extra insulation for the plants.
You keep the container depth in check:
*Salad, brassicas, peas, beans, balcony carrots, radishes and mediterranean herbs can grow in as little as 15cm depth pots.
*Beetroot, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and courgettes will need a minimum of 40cm depth container to grow well.
*Fruit trees and bushes, carrots, parsnips, comfrey and potatoes will need a minimum of 60cm depth container to thrive.
What to fill your container with is the next challenge, as not all soil is equal, and not every plant likes the same soil. Broadly speaking, soil is made of:
Air and water, which both come free and are abundant so that’s good news!
Mineral material: ground up stones which are the result of erosion and come in grains that will vary between very small (like clay) and much bigger (like sand). As a gardener we like something right in the middle size-wise, often called ‘loam’. Mineral soil is often called ‘topsoil’.
Organic matter: something that was alive and is now dead- it’s the result of the decomposition of organic material, and it’s easily made with a compost bin and time.
Soil life: healthy soil is brimming with life invisible to our eyes, but crucial to plant health. To ensure your soil is healthy, you need to promote and sometimes add soil life to your pot using home made compost, or wormeries cast or tea.
If possible, always source soil locally (if you live near an urban farm or an allotment, they might be able to help), and avoid anything that has peat in as it’s not a sustainable resource at all. Then, you want to match the soil to the plant you choose:
Fruits (tomato, peppers, chilli, courgette etc.), brassicas, potatoes, fruit trees and shrubs: you want a higher concentration in organic matter (compost), a little bit of mineral soil and adding some manure will help. Feeding regularly is a good idea too (see next paragraph for detail on feeds).
Mediterranean herbs: higher concentration of mineral soil (sharp sand, loam or topsoil), less organic matter, and do not feed them- they like poor soil!
Blueberries like acidic/ ericaceous soil, so they are really suited to containers as you can manage the soil pH better in a pot than in the soil.
If you can’t find topsoil, do not fret: you can mix some sharp sand with good quality compost (I particularly like New Horizon, Dalefoot compost made of sheep wool and bracken, and Moorland Gold that provide a sustainable alternative to peat) and you’ll get something decent. ‘John Innes number 2’ is an easy all-rounder as it is premixed and has the right amount of mineral and organic soil for most plants.
Always start by filling the bottom 2 cm of your container with gravel, stones, broken crockery or anything that will allow drainage, then add your chosen soil mix.
Feeding your plants
Growing in containers means that you have a finite amount of soil, so it’s easier to control, but it has a limited amount of nutrients, so it will need some feeding. I truly believe in feeding the soil, not the plant, so my preferred feeds are actually the one that add and support soil life in your pots: worm tea and worm cast from a wormery. Use every two weeks over the summer to increase overall plant health. On top of soil life feeds, I also use the following:
Potassium rich feed: comfrey or banana feed - (soak a handful of comfrey leaves in a litre of boiling water and let it steep for a few days before using, soak a couple of banana skin in one litre of water for a couple of days and use the resulting water )
Nitrogen rich feed: organic chicken manure works a treat. Any animal manure is great, as long as it’s properly rotten as it can burn the plant otherwise.
Micro-nutrients: Rockdust is brilliant, and you really don’t need much. I tend to add a bit to the pot once every two years or so.
Ericaceous feed: For blueberry and other ericaceous plants I like to add fresh used ground coffee mixed with compost to keep a low pH.
Alkaline feed: For all brassicas, water them with the cooled down water used to hard boil eggs as they like an alkaline soil. You can also use garden lime once a year if your soil is very acidic.
Time and space
Some vegetables require a long growing season, a lot of space to grow and might be eaten in a single family meal, as such they might not be suited for a tiny garden:
Head cabbage: up to 10 months to harvest, needs 1 square meter, harvested and eaten in one go
Tomatoes: 4-5 months to harvest, needs 30 square cm, will produce over a couple of months
Radishes: 4 weeks to harvest, needs 5 square cm, harvested and eaten in one go.
Most herbs: 15 square cm, can be harvested throughout the season once established
A way to go around the limitation of container size is to pick smaller versions of vegetables that are suitable for smaller containers like: ‘Paris market’ carrots, dwarf beans, cut and come again salad, Thumb tomatoes etc.
You can also pick your vegetables when they are young and tender as opposed to fully formed. This works particularly well for kale, chard, spinach, peas (pea shoots!) and salad leaves.
Finally, think about using vertical space and grow plants up: peas, french and runner beans are an obvious choice, but you can also grow climbing squashes, trailing nasturtium, cucumbers and mouse melons on strong trellis.
What do I grow in my tiny garden?
Your plant choice should really be based first on what you like: no need to grow kale if you can’t stand the taste of it. So the first step is really to narrow what you want (and possibly what you really don’t want!).
Then think about how much time you have to spend on your small garden. Salads and annual vegetables (they go through their life cycle over the course of a season) tend to require more care and a minimum of 2 or 3 weekly watering and pest checks - daily if it’s really hot. On the other side of the spectrum perennial plants (they survive for many years like trees, fruit bushes, strawberries and some herbs) require less looking after once settled. You should still check on them and water weekly.
So, what to grow? You can give most things a try, that’s the great thing with gardening. I’ve listed my top 10 productive plants for small spaces:
Mediteranean herbs, especially rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano are amazing for pots. These perennial plants will last for years. They prefer poor soil (more topsoil than compost, and very little to no feed, don’t overwater), and will grow fine in medium size pots. They will thrive on a sunny balcony, and will stay green all year round. You don’t need much for cooking, and they look lovely. They will flower during spring/summer, with flushes of gorgeous white to purple flowers very attractive to pollinators.
Cut and come again leaves like oak leaf, mustard leaves, freckles, chard, beet leaf are winners for container growing. They can grow in 15cm depth soil and you can pick a few leaves regularly which is perfect to add to your salad bowl all summer. You can add some basil and flat leaf parsley to the mix for a really fragrant salad. Mustard and chard types are better early summer and autumn, while oak leaf and other lettuce do better in the summer. Leaf vegetables will thrive in semi shade. Use a rich soil with more compost than topsoil, and keep the soil moist at all times.
Peas are a delight for small gardens: they grow up and as such they save lots of space. Most varieties will crop over a few months, providing a steady stream of juicy pods. I particularly like sugar snap peas, snow peas and mangetout as they are best eaten whole with the pod when young. If let to grow, you can enjoy fresh peas straight out of the pod, so it’s a win-win situation. They like a fairly rich soil, and they will need a structure to grow on: netting or string and bamboo canes will do.
Kale are a great addition to any small garden as they can be kept small and harvested young. I particularly like Cavolo Nero, curly kale and red Russian kale. I have mine in a 20cm container and I crop a few leaves weekly. Go for a rich soil, and if their colour is off, add an alkaline solution feed.
A single courgette plant can produce a lot of fruits, and most courgette varieties will grow fine in a large enough container in a sunny spot. Make sure you use a rich soil with plenty of compost and some chicken manure mixed in. Pick a bush for a pot, or a vine if you want to try growing courgettes on a trellis. I like 'Verde di Milano' or 'Burpees Golden Zucchini' bush type. If you feel a bit more adventurous try a pattypan squash or a summer crookneck squash.
Chilli peppers are perfect for growing in pots on sunny windowsill or balconies. They don’t like big variations in temperatures between night and days so keep them sheltered and take them outside later in the year (no earlier than May). Use a rich soil and feed often. I like ‘Lemon drop’, ‘Pretty in purple’ and ‘Pyramide’ as they form compact plants that are well suited to containers.
Bush cherry tomatoes are perfect for balconies: they produce smaller plants that do well in containers, and their small fruits are more likely to ripen. Use a rich soil and put your pot in a sunny spot. I like all the ‘Tumbling tom‘ varieties as they are really perfect for pots and will tumble down the side of your containers. ‘balconi’ varieties are just as great, and come in red and yellow. Make sure you feed your tomatoes regularly, and provide some support for the plant.
Potatoes will grow well in containers. Make sure to earth them up: you need a big enough container, and use small potato varieties like ‘charlotte’, ‘Jazzy’ or ‘Maris bird’ better suited to containers. Use a potassium rich feed for your potato plants throughout the season.
Fruit bush: Currants, gooseberry and blueberries will do well in pots. Blueberries need an ericaceous (acidic) soil so they are really suited to pots where the Ph of the soil can be managed. Make sure to net your fruits if you have a lot of birds around.
Wild (alpine) and common strawberries will do great in pots- especially pots designed for extra productivity with multiples pockets. Strawberries are perennial so they will come back year after year. Alpine strawberries are great if you have a semi- shaded space, while other strawberries will fruit better in full sun.