Gardening with limited space

This guest post is by Jason S and entry in our non-fiction writing contest .

Living on the side of a mountain is nice, but it raises some interesting challenges to gardening. Since the land my house sits on was literally carved out of the mountain, the soil is blasted rocks and dirt, leaving much to be desired when trying to garden. My solution to this issue was to stay above ground, using pots and barrels as well as building a raised bed more than a foot off the ground.

Raised Beds

The construction of a raised bed requires some thought. Some considerations include the space you have to work with, the materials you will need, the number and type of plants you want to put in, and your ability to reach the plants once they are in the bed.

We don’t have much of a back yard, so we opted to make a smaller bed. The final dimensions for our bed are 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The bed is raised over a foot off the ground on sturdy wooden legs. The dimensions for a raised bed can be altered any way you like to accommodate your space and needs.

Since we had some money saved up, we chose to purchase all new materials to construct the bed. The frame of the bed was created using four 8 foot long boards and four 4 foot long boards. To save money, these boards were not pressure treated. For the legs, I used a pressure treated 4 x 4 cut to 5 feet long for the front legs and 4 feet long for the back legs (the bed sits on a slight slope).

Using four 8 foot long boards and four 4 foot long boards the sides of the boxes come to life. To save money these boards were not pressure treated.

For the legs I used a pressure treated 4×4 that was 8 feet long and cut it down to the desired lengths. The front legs are cut to 5 feet long and the rear legs cut to 4 feet long. One foot is used lost depth of the bed

I stapled chicken wire to the underside of the bed and reinforced it with slats of reclaimed wood on the short ends of the bed. For added support, I used left over boards spaced about 1 foot apart across the bed. The best support was given by 5 boards cut 4 foot long.

We applied 3 coats of exterior latex paint to minimize moisture damage. Then, I lined the sides and bottom of the bed with garden cloth. Garden cloth allows water to pass through the bottom of the bed and discourages root rot without the loss of precious dirt.

Before adding the dirt I leveled the whole bed on all four sides. Once the dirt was added, I checked again to make sure the bed was level. With a perfect level you don’t have to worry about the dirt running off the plant roots or piling up on low side of the bed. I also added an irrigation system to my raised bed that consisted of a pipe, a spigot, and a soaker hose.

When the bed was finished, we planted lettuce, 4 pepper plants, 4 cucumber plants, carrots, onions, and spinach. It turns out that there is plenty of extra room for more plants later in the season. You have to be careful with some plants as they want to run and can take over a bed. To get around this we planted the cucumbers in the back of the bed and added a web of hung twine for the plant to run on.

Reach is something important to keep in mind. You have to design bed so that you can reach at least the midway point for weeding and harvesting. However, if you have tall or running plants in the back of the bed you won’t be able to reach in from that direction. Another thing to consider is how much do you want to bend when tending your garden? Raised beds can be built as high or as low as you want.

Pros:

  • Flexible in design
  • Visually appealing
  • Keeps some critters out

Cons:

  • Can be costly
  • Limited space once it’s built
  • Requires some extra watering

Potato Barrels

Potatoes are wonderfully resilient root veggies. I have heard of people growing them in all sorts of conditions. The most interesting was a stack of tires. While I couldn’t get my fiancé on board with that, we compromised on the purchase of two plastic containers for our potato barrels.

Once we had our barrels, we added a layer of dirt followed by a layer of potato quarters with good eyes on them, repeating the process until the containers were full. A few months later, we have large potato plants and tiny potatoes growing. It was surprisingly easy and takes up a 5 foot by 10 foot space. If all goes well we will have a few pounds of potatoes with very little space cost.

Window Boxes

Personally I love window boxes as they are flexible, well-shaped, and do not take up a lot of space. We currently have 3 24-inch window boxes set out. One with flowers (not food but it makes the lady of the house happy), one with green onions, and one with leafy lettuce.

My fiancé planted a bunch of marigolds in the first box. They are pretty but don’t taste good.

Since the leafy lettuce can be planted closely together and then thinned we loaded it down and now have a thick patch of lettuce for salads. The real benefit is that if you do this correctly you can cut the lettuce and it will re-grow.

Green onions need almost no space to grow, and can be quickly and easily replanted. We eat a lot of these in salads and with pinto beans and cornbread, and the window box allows us to grow a crap ton (a very technical term) of them in a small amount of space. The trick is to replace a new bulb in the hole of each onion you pull to enjoy the yummy returns all season.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing I have taken away from figuring out how to garden in a limited space is that, with a little creativity, you can garden successfully no matter how small your space is. Of course, you have to pick the right plants and understand your limitations. I know that I cannot grow corn in my limited space, but I can grow enough other plants to make that trade-off worthwhile. Fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables taste better than anything you can get in the store. If you have limited gardening space, container gardening can help you experience this firsthand.

This contest will end on October 10 2012 – prizes include:

  • First Place : $100 Cash.
  • Second Place : $50 Cash.
  • Third Place : $25 Cash.

Contest ends on October 10 2012.

Comments

  1. jason, I have 5 raised beds, 8′x4′x10.5″ and have grown all types of vegetables in them. You were smart to design yours only 3 feet wide. It is backbreaking to reach into the center of a 4″ bed to harvest bush beans or any vegetable that requires harvesting without pulling the entire plant out. I have also used old rubbermaid tubs ( the old blue plastic ones) for growing lettuce and green onions. The tubs are deep enough and with 10 to 15 small drain holes drilled into the base, they work very well. Good luck with your garden.

  2. There are many , many articles and blogs devoted to urban rooftop or limited space gardening , they are all worth reading because what these people have come up with is ingenious . I’m on a Mac which allows me to convert any web page into a .pdf , I have several of the ideas in my library that these folks came up with .

  3. Great job , Jayson! Any soil ,anywhere can be improved with compost & organic fertilizer, but if you can just make your own in a raised bed you get a jump start. A very large amount of veggies,herbs,& flowers can be grown in a surprisingly small space.Being a smaller space its easier to stay on top of and not have it get out of hand. Couple of things about the containers never use pressure treated wood that will contact the soil ,chemicals will leach into the soil be taken up by the plants and then you,also be careful with types of paint , stain or sealer you use.Never use tires or containers that had chemicals in them for the same reasons. Happy gardening!

    • Hopefully we won’t have any bleed-through of the pressure treated wood. We lined the sides of our beds with rubber pond liner. That also slowed down the evaporation of moisture.

  4. Southern Belle says:

    This is a great article. My dh helped me transform our front flower bed into a mini-garden with great results. We have successfully grown tomatoes, strawberries, broccolli, lettuce, peppers, okra, and a variety of herbs. I love being able to have this amazing garden right out my front door. Hope that your garden is productive and enjoyable for years to come!
    SB

  5. Marebear, I thought about making the beds larger but the exact problem you are having popped into my fiancé’s mind and she advised against it (proving that she is the smart one). All in all it has been an enjoyable project that I plan to improve upon for the next season.

    T.R. I have seen some really cool stuff on sites like instructables. There are some amazingly creative people out there.

    Big D, I agree that the smaller size makes things a lot easier on you. I don’t always have a lot of time to water and check things out so the small size can come in handy. As for the chemicals I agree 100%. The only bits of pressure treated wood are the corner posts and those have a plastic around them. For the paint I had to recycle and use exterior house paint, not the best choice, but when you on a budget you have to compromise. I am hoping the fabric the bed is lined with will help slow down any leeching.

    Southern Belle, I love fresh veggies from my garden. Knowing there are no pesticides and that everything is safe to eat is a great feeling. I think we will do more next year in the planting. For now we are still enjoying carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Not sure how much longer they will keep growing but we will keep eating as long as we can!

    Thanks for all the comments all!

    Jason

  6. SurvivorDan says:

    Next to an article about the latest, greatest hot pistol I liked it!
    Alright, it might be better than a gun review.
    I have been giving this much thought but failed to act (other than my window herb garden). The raised bed will help keep the critters out.
    Nice article!
    Not sure I understand the potato barrels. You just keep layering (and burying) the potato quarters. How do you get them out a few at a time without digging down through everything?

    • A raised bed will NOT keep out the critters, SD. Ours is snack height for the deer. Also, racoons, squirrels and other critters can climb right up. We ended up wrapping the raised bed with netting. We used rebar shoved down in the dirt and high enough so critters could not get in. It is floppy enough they can’t climb it. We hold it in place with velcro strips and can easily remove it to weed or harvest.

  7. Raised beds are the only option we have. Small yard and poor soil.

  8. SurvivorDan, we have found that it is fairly easy to get to the potatoes without damaging the plants by carefully digging between them till we get to the potatoes. We have only pulled a small batch of new potatoes and made potato gravy out of them. When we do a full harvest we will take the whole barrel and dump the dirt to harvest the potatoes.

    • Jason, what is potato gravy?

      • Potato gravy, as I understand it, is where you boil some potatoes and make gravy out of the water using flour, cream, and salt & pepper. Its really good with some cornbread on a cold day.

        This is the first year I have ever had anything like that so I am still not 100% on what goes into it yet. Hope that helps.

        • We call that creamed potatoes. We usually add peas to it.

          • Hunker-Down says:

            Encourager,

            We have two 55 gallon food grade barrels that were planted with potatoes last spring, and are ready to harvest the spuds.

            Would you share your recipe? Thanks.

    • SurvivorDan says:

      I see. Thank you.

  9. j, nice job. i had no idea to level the beds so the water doesn’t run off/carry the soil. thanks!

  10. I really could have used a picture or 2 to see what you have done with the irrigation part (pipe, spigot & soaker hose) of the raised bed, the box should be easier to figure out.

    A “boarded in” garden is a thought I had since the soil (Michigan) here is talc like sand (glacier rock grinding) and moles (and ground hogs) tunnel thru it easy. Could also fence it in by stapling chicken fencing around the sides. With only 3 feet width – a top fence would work too.

    • For the pipe, spigot, and soaker hose I just took 1 foot of 3/4 inch galvanized pipe, 1 3/4 inch spigot, and a 3/4 inch elbow. I screwed all the pieces together with some Teflon tape and put some caulking around the joints then attached the unit with some brackets to the side of the box. It is a simple build but it works really well.

    • Michael C, how would you get into the bed to plant, weed and harvest? That chicken wire would be hard to handle. We used this awful, cheap netting that was sold at Lowe’s as “deer fence”. Right, the deer run right through it. You touch it too hard and it rips. So we bought mesh fencing for the orchard and re-used the ‘deer fence’ for the raised bed. Other than having some holes poked through, it has worked well.

      Sounds like you are above Clare. That soil grows nice pine and birch trees and that is about it!! Oh, and blueberry plants.

      • Hunker-Down says:

        Encourager,

        I’m fumbling around trying to figure out how to put a removable chicken wire fence around our raised beds. So far we have come up with driving a PVC pipe into the ground at a corner of the bed, and another at the opposite end. Cut a piece of the fence to fit one side and attach each end to a smaller diameter PVC pipe, leaving 2-3 feet of extra pipe past the bottom of the wire. Stick that extra 2-3 feet into the larger pipe at the corner of the bed. IF it works, a single side of the fence could be removed for planting and weeding. I’m thinking it wouldn’t work going around corners, so it would take four separate sections of fence to enclose everything, and each corner post driven into the ground would need to have a large enough diameter to hold 2 of the smaller posts that are attached to the wire.

        BUT the contraptions I build usually prove Murphy’s law.

  11. Just a tip on how to replant green onions for free. cut the root end off leaving aq bit more than a 1/4″ of white and the root. Replant in the same hole and in a few weeks another green onion will be there to harvest.

    This can go on endlessly with green onions forever.

    Happy gardens,
    Bebe

    • That’s a neat trick that we will need to try with our next harvest. I hear you can regrow celery by putting the base of a bunch in some water and it is supposed to take root. It is something I would like to try one day.

  12. Jim Murphy says:

    Great article Jason. I always enjoy reading articles about home food production. You can also grow “vertical” plants in limited space. I have some grape tomato plants (indeterminate) that are 12′ tall by trimming and training up poles. (good info online about techniques) It’s a young mans game when it comes time to pick the tomatoes as a sturdy step ladder is needed to get to the top ones. However, you can grow 2 plants in the same space as one. Pole beans and snow peas can be trained to grow up, up and away, too.

    • That’s kind of cool. I think we will try that next year. We are looking at ways we can expand out garden with the limited space we have.

  13. m curious too?? what is potato gravy????

  14. Thanks for the article, Jason! We built our first raised bed this spring. It is hip-high, about 4×8′ and 12″ deep. When we build another, it will be 18″ deep so we can grow regular carrots and plant potatoes. I have been very pleased with the food produced in the raised bed. This was the first year we had enough cukes to make three small batches of pickles. Plus, we have been eating Dutch Cucumbers with Sour Cream all summer. I plan on making some cold Tomato-Cucumber soup with the end of the crop. The heat did in the plants pretty much, but keeping them water helped them rebound a little.
    The pepper plants are loaded. I have never seen so many peppers on such short plants! We planted bush peppers. They are now turning bright red and are close to harvest. I grew basil but the heat made it bolt pretty quick. I was still able to make some pesto, though. I grew two ‘baby’ cabbages that headed well and were wonderful.

    I will be planting a fall crop of salad greens tomorrow. Our weather has cooled off and it is lovely outside. We still have not dug the potatoes from the main garden, the plants have not died back yet. We trenched those this year and filled the trench with shredded newspaper, composted manure, regular compost and mixed the last two with some of the garden dirt (sand). Healthiest looking potato plants we have every had.

  15. I never would have thought that a potato barrel could be used to grow plants in. What about pests though? Bugs and insects can still make their way to the plants in the garden. What is a way to prevent them from getting to the crops?

  16. Phillip! Bugs – not that’s a subject worthy of the attention of any gardener. I was surprised to learn that over 97% of those critters were “beneficials.” They are sure happy that I’m growing “the organic method.”

    Some good bug solutions I’ve found:

    1) get a bug identification book for your area as 97% of the insects are beneficials.

    2) select plant varieties they don’t like–e.g. if vine borers are a problem, then plant Tatumes; if squash bugs frequent your neighborhood, use a hard shelled or winter squash to dry up their food source

    3) walk the garden early in the morning with a spray bottle filled with soapy water – spritz it right on the harmful bugs.

    4) Gather up 10 of anything that is harming your garden – and pulvarize it – take that “goo” and add an equal amount of water. Let the brew sit in the sun for a few hours and strain it. Put it into a spray bottle and any of a similar pest will sense that your neighborhood “isn’t friendly to their kind.” You’ll have the “stench of death” which will allow you to continue gardening organically — which is the method we’ll be needing for what’s coming — trips to Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot will be over in the event of an economic collapse.

    Good luck with your garden,
    The Seed Lady

  17. i would like to have ideas re: raised beds sitting directly on an old gravel driveway. as i’ve watched how the sun moves around our yard – the only place that gets enuf sun is our front driveway. — also i was told that any wood products would leach nutrients (ie too acidic) most certainly never to use cedar of any kind.