You don’t need much space to plant a veggie garden. If you just have a windowsill, you might want to opt for some herbs or if you have a sunny sliver of siding, you could hang a living wall.
Financially, growing your own food makes sense: for every $1 invested, you can reap about $6 in produce. The average American family with a veggie garden spends $70 a year on it and grows an estimated $600 worth of vegetables. (We discuss the current trend and future of urban gardening in the article Why we all will be gardeners.)
To get started with a garden, it doesn’t take much space. Barcelona’s urban garden shop Horturbà helps novices begin to garden in their city apartments. Owner Josep Maria Vallès has a recipe for the smallest garden possible. “A 2 liter bottle, cut in half: turn over the upper portion, with a rag in the neck, place it on the inferior half… fill the upper portion with earth and plant lettuce. In a month, eat it. It’s a microgarden, a portable garden!” (Vallés gave us some pointers for starting your own urban garden in this video in Spanish).
Starting your own container garden
The most important thing to consider when placing your containers is sun. Vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun every day. If you don’t get quite that much sun, there are a few plants like broccoli and lettuce that grow with a bit more shade.
Possible sunny spots: a roof top, courtyard, wall, windowsill, balcony, stoop. If a wall is your only sunny spot, try planting a living wall (see our video on Sustainable House Sydney for an example).
You can also increase the amount of light that reaches your garden by using reflective materials like aluminum foil, marble chips and white-painted surfaces, around the plants.
You can buy traditional pots or window planters or this can be an opportunity to recycle. You can use anything that holds earth and water: buckets, wooden boxes, plastic bags, food cans, yogurt containers, plastic milk cartons, deli containers, decorative metal cookie tins, etc.
1. Physical requirements for containers:
- Size: Larger plants like tomatoes, peppers and corn will require larger containers. E.g. 3 gallons for tomatoes, 1 gallon for cherry tomatoes.
- Depth: Only about 8 inches is needed for plants with shallow roots like herbs and lettuce. Though a deeper bottom is necessary for plants with deeper roots like tomatoes, squash, pole beans, and cucumbers.
- Avoid black containers as they can absorb too much sun and overheat your plants.
2. Prepping your containers:
- If the container doesn’t already have some, make holes in the bottom for drainage. Overly wet soil can breed disease.
- Prop up containers off ground- use stones, bricks, wood- to allow water to flow out from bottom holes.
Regular dirt isn’t ideal for container gardening as it’s too heavy. To allow for better drainage you can buy an organic humus, like worm compost, or a prepackaged “soil less” mix. Or you can mix your own.
- Ingredients for a good homemade container soil:
- 1 part peatmoss, leafmold or other humus
- 1 part garden loam
- 1 part clean, course sand (builder’s variety)
- An organic fertilizer: it will last for an entire season.
For plants that need a lot of nutrients such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes, Dig It magazine suggests adding the following to your mixture before you plant: 1/2 cup each of garden lime, fish meal, bonemeal and, if available, kelp meal. “Yes, you can use animal manure, just make sure it is very well aged and labeled ‘non-burning.'”
Since the volume of soil in container plants is relatively small, you will need to water more often than with a traditional garden, especially as the season progresses and the plants’ root systems expand.
A drip irrigation system will make your gardening a lot easier and you’ll use less water since the water goes directly to the plants roots and less evaporates. You can buy the pieces for a drip system at any garden supply store and make your own for very little money.
Choosing vegetables that like small spaces
Most importantly, think about the ideal vegetables for you: those that you like to eat and that are hard to find in your supermarket or local farmer’s market.
1. Consider what works best in small spaces:
- Benefit the most from being picked fresh
- Have a short growing season: spinach, radishes, peas
- Take up little space: carrots, lettuce, radishes
- Bear fruits over a long period of time: tomatoes and peppers
- Can be harvested when young: baby cauliflower, finger carrots & cherry tomatoes
2. Consider hybrid varieties that are bred to grow in small spaces. They usually are given names like: bush, compact, patio, pixie, tiny, baby or dwarf and space saver. Here are some examples:
- Cucumbers: Bush Pickle, Spacemaster, Salad Bush Hybrid, Burpee Bush.
- Eggplant: Bambino, Slim Jim
- Green Beans: Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, French Dwarf
- Green Onions: Beltsville Bunching, Crysal Wax, Evergreen Bunching
- Lettuce: Bibb, Buttercrunch, Salad Bowl.
- Melons: Minnesota Midgets
- Peppers: Red Cherry, Yolo Wonder, Frigitello, Cubanelle, Sweet Banana, Jalapeno, Robustini
- Radishes: Cherry Belle, Scarlet Globe, Icicle
- Squash: Senator, Dixie, Ronde de Nice, Gold Rush
- Tomatoes: Patio, Pixie, Saladette, Tiny Tim, Patio, Toy Boy, Spring Giant, Tumbling Tom, Small Fry
3. Try going up, not out. Plant vining crops.
- You will need a larger container, but your crop will also be larger since vining cucumbers, peppers and squash or pole beans take up less area than the bush varieties.
- You may need to stake the plants. You can buy stakes or simply use an old broom handle tied with pieces of old rags.
More on container gardening
We also have videos on growing a balcony garden: