One of the most revelatory moments to be had as a home gardener is realizing the incredible volume of food that can be grown in a small space. A large container or two on your front or back porch, window boxes, and narrow in-ground planting beds can all produce food for you to enjoy. Window boxes and narrow or side-yard planting beds are usually close enough to your kitchen or front door to make them easy to use and maintain.
When space is limited, make every inch count. We will discuss how to utilize the same design principles to create a beautiful edible garden that is scaled down to fit these specialized spaces. Regardless of whether you are maximizing the productivity of smaller spaces within your larger landscaping or utilizing the only space you’ve got, you can grow plants that will work for you.
Choosing a Container that is Right for You
Before you get caught up in the excitement of picking out plants, remember that, edible or not, your plants need something to grow in. If you live in an apartment or have some deck or patio space, that something is going to be a container. As you are choosing your container, keep food-safe materials in mind; if you really like a container but it is not food-safe, you can still include it in your design, just fill it with beautiful flowers.
Above all, remember that the containers need to provide enough space for a plant’s roots to grow and hold enough nutrient-rich soil to feed your plant. There are always exceptions, and some plants do not require a lot of depth for their roots, but the minimum container size for most vegetables and herbs is a diameter of eight inches and a depth of twelve inches. A diameter of twelve to eighteen inches and a depth of at least fifteen inches is preferable, because the larger size can better accommodate the necessary volume of soil and water.
Growing Conditions for Containers
Place some of your largest containers in your sunniest spot. These will be the ones that you’ll be planting up with larger edibles. A minimum of five to six hours of direct sunlight is ideal for edibles like snap peas, shade-tolerant edibles like lettuce and mint, or for ornamental plants. As you’re placing the containers, remember also that you’ll want to be able to easily access the food you’re growing, especially greens and other annual vegetables, to harvest and to refresh the soil they are growing in.
Most vegetables are heavy feeders. Because nutrients are always draining out of your container soil, the key to success with container gardens is to start with a mixture of high-quality organic compost and potting soil, and a regular fertilizing regimen. Fill the pot with a combination of one-half organic potting soil mix and one-half organic compost.
Planting Beautiful Productive Containers
Your space is limited, so you’ll need to use it wisely and grow plants that are really transformative to your eating and cooking experience. You’ll also want to choose plants that are well-suited to containers. This criteria can yield any number of combinations of plants for your garden — here are a few that no cook should be without:
- A full range of culinary herbs, including herbs for teas and cocktail infusions
- Salad and braising greens
- Citrus, especially lemon or lime
- Easy-to-grow, highly productive annual vegetables such as bush green beans, peppers, cherry tomatoes, chard, and kale
- Harvest as-you-need-them annual vegetables such as scallions, shallots, and celery
As you can see, this list of indispensables focuses on ingredients that are used often or regularly in most kitchens, and also on plants that do not need a lot of root space or heavy feeding. It does not include a lot of larger annual vegetables because, for the most part, vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cucumber, squash, and beefsteak tomatoes do better in the ground where they are assured plentiful root space and nutrients.
If you do want to give one of those a try, though, choose smaller, less sprawling varieties of annual vegetables. Determinate, small-fruited, or cherry-size tomatoes are best. Be sure to use a teepee-like trellis that will not only support the plant but also keep it tidy. Likewise, look for smaller growing bush varieties of vegetables like summer squash and cucumbers. It can be convenient to separate your perennial and annual plantings so that you have some containers that can be left alone and counted on to look good while you spend time maintaining the others.
Annual vegetables such as scallions, shallots, bulbing onions, celery, chard, kale, lettuce, peppers, and bush green beans can all be included in a mixed ornamental plant container. If you choose edibles with long harvest seasons (like onions and shallots) for container plantings they will last for six to nine months; celery, kale, and chard, if placed in a shadier spot, will last through the growing season, making them great choices if you can’t harvest them right away.
Lastly, finish off with low-growing edibles in smaller spaces next to the container’s lip. Herbs like groundcover thyme or oregano, or edible flowers like nasturtiums, will cascade over the container’s side, creating a beautiful arrangement. You can also tuck colorful, variegated sage into any number of small spaces. If you want to soften up the look of a planter with a dwarf tree in it, add an underplanting of mint, viola, and dangling strawberries. For a modern look, a simple underplanting of groundcover chamomile, succulents, or gravel mulch does the trick.