Today marks the 44th annual observance of Earth Day, but in truth, every day is Earth Day for gardeners, especially those who grow a percentage of the food they put on the table. It’s a way to become a little more self-sufficient, waste less, conserve more, eat better, and—not incidentally—save money.
You can accomplish all that in surprisingly small spaces, as long as they get plenty of sunlight: window boxes, for instance, or containers on a deck, patio, apartment balcony, or back stoop. (If this YouTube video isn’t enough to inspire you, I don’t know what will.) I’ve seen people shoehorn in an easy-to-tend raised bed alongside a driveway, co-opt a never-used side yard or outgrown sandbox, or train a climbing crop of beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, or summer squash vines up a chain-link fence.
For beginning kitchen gardeners, it pays to keep things simple. According to Barbara Damrosch, author of The Garden Primer, the most common mistake made by newbies is that they plant too much—too many crops, too many seeds, too many plants—and the upkeep or super-bountiful harvest is overwhelming. Small is beautiful, in other words. In addition to suggesting gardeners take into account factors such as size, soil, temperature, sun, and moisture, Damrosch makes a point that seems obvious but is all too often never considered: Grow something you and yours enjoy eating.
Climate plays a big part in deciding what to grow, of course, and it makes sense to stick with crops that flourish in your region. Check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, and ask your neighbors, local nursery folks, or the experts at the cooperative extension office nearest you for advice.
In general, though, salad greens are a great place to start. In the engaging From Seed to Skillet, Jimmy Williams suggests taking the plunge with lettuce seedlings and a planter box that’s at least one-foot deep. Fill it with good-quality potting mix (his favorite is from E.B. Stone Organics), “and tuck the lettuce in tight, a mere couple inches apart. Water well and set in a sunny spot. After a few days, you can begin harvesting the outer leaves of head lettuce (they grow from the center), or with looser, leaf-type lettuce, you can cut the whole head about an inch from the base; it will sprout again before you know it.”
Culinary herbs are another confidence builder. They not only add flavor and interest to all sorts of meals, but are a real bargain to boot: Fresh herbs can be expensive, and often you have to commit to buying a hefty bunch, when all you really want is a few sprigs. This year, along with the usual suspects—parsley, basil, mint, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and tarragon—I’m making room for winter savory, which can be difficult to find fresh. Its rich, almost spicy flavor is wonderful in potato salads and bean dishes. Along with thyme and mint, bee balm does a terrific job of attracting bees and other insects that will pollinate the rest of your edibles.
Containers, by the way, don’t have to be fancy: You’ll find a range, including ultra-convenient grow boxes, at Gardener’s Supply Company and other online sources, but a large, wide galvanized-steel tub from the hardware store will do nicely. Drill drainage holes in the bottom, and put down a layer of broken clay pot pieces before filling it with potting mix. Aside from salad greens and herbs, other vegetables that do well in containers are arugula, chard, green onions, radishes, carrots (if the pots are deep enough so that they grow straight), chile peppers, and dwarf runner bean varieties such as Hestia. Large pots also work well for potatoes, but in the past few years, I’ve seen more people making grow bags for potatoes or sweet potatoes out of 30-gallon black plastic garbage bags or reusable fabric grocery bags. Tomatoes can also thrive in grow bags.
You can even cultivate a mini orchard of cherries, peaches, figs, apples, tangerines, lemons, or limes if you choose varieties wisely. According to the Dorling Kindersley’s How to Grow Practically Everything, “Almost all fruit trees can be bought grown on dwarfing rootstocks and grow well in large containers as long as they’re well watered and fed. Such small trees can be surprisingly bountiful.”
Another way to maximize what space you have is to plant crops in succession, and the longer the growing season in your area, the more successions of the same crop you’ll have. “Cool-weather spring crops such as peas, lettuce, or baby turnips can then be succeeded by ones that do well late in the season such as escarole, cabbage, or broccoli,” writes Damrosch in The Garden Primer. “Many gardeners don’t realize how many vegetables can be planted in mid to late summer to mature in time for a fall or winter harvest: broccoli, Chinese cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, carrots, radishes, turnips, spinach Swiss chard, and numerous salad greens, just to name some.”
The vast array of seeds and seedling choices in nursery catalogs, online sources, and your local garden center or hardware store can be intimidating. The Garden Primer, which is a gold mine of information, helpfully includes a sidebar on vegetable varieties specifically for small spaces. An abbreviated rundown is below. For those of you who would like the subject of compost demystified, check back with me next week.
Beans: “The flat-podded heirloom ‘Garden of Eden’ is a winner because it can be eaten at any stage—young pod, old pod, shell bean, or dried.”
Beets: “ ‘Little Ball’ and ‘Pronto’ are quick early crops that are harvested while small, then pulled to make room for something else.”
Broccoli: “Broccoli rabe grows on small plants.... ‘Cimi di Rapa’ is especially compact. For regular broccoli, grow a variety like ‘De Cicco’ that is compact to begin with and produces small heads followed by a continuous harvest of side shoots.”
Cabbage: “Look for small-headed varieties such as ‘Dynamo,’ ‘Gonzales,’ and ‘Arrowhead 11’ (green)…or ‘Savoy Express’ or ‘Kilosa’ (savoy).”
Cucumbers: “Compact bush varieties include the short-vined ‘Bushy’ and ‘Miniature White.’ ‘Bush Baby’ and ‘Bush Pickle’ are recommended for containers.”
Onions: “Most onions are good small-space crops, especially scallions and the cipollini types.”
Peas: “ ‘Little Marvel’ is a good, compact variety. Also try the short-vined ‘Knight’ and ‘Sugar Sprint,’ a sugar snap type.”
Salad crops: “In general, most greens are space savers. The smallest, such as mâche or the cresses, can be tucked in anywhere a space opens up.”
Squash: “Summer: ‘Gentry’ is a compact yellow crookneck; also try the Italian ‘Milano Black’ and ‘Lebanese Clairmore,’ both zucchini types. Winter: ‘Gold Nugget,’ ‘Table King Bush Acorn,’ ‘Early Butternut,’ ‘Sweet Dumpling,’ and ‘Bush Delicata.’ ”
Tomatoes: “ ‘Patio’ is the standard pot tomato. Try ‘Tumbler’ for hanging baskets. ‘Tiny Tim’ is a cherry tomato suitable for containers.”