With the warm spring, everyone is thinking of pushing the calendar and doing some gardening. From the questions I’ve been getting, the trend toward growing food will continue this year.
Although Nancy and I have a fairly large garden that we devote to vegetables and cutting flowers such as gladioli and dahlias, I’ve been thinking about gardening in small spaces since the South Portland Library asked me to speak on the topic earlier this month.
The simple truth is that you can grow a lot of food in a little space. You don’t even need access to the ground if you have an outdoor area such as a balcony or rooftop with at least six hours of sunlight a day. Just grow your food in pots.
And if you have a small yard, you should make use of every inch of precious soil by growing your food up instead of across the ground. There is no sense in letting your cucumber and squash vines ramble. The real estate is too valuable for other plants, and it is actually healthier for your produce to be up in the air.
Nancy and I have been using more containers on our patio to grow both tropical plants and vegetables, and I have been adding height to our vegetable garden for several years. But two books arrived in the mail recently that made me realize we have just scratched the surface.
“Vertical Vegetables & Fruit: Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces” by Rhonda Massingham Hart ($16.95, Storey) shows many ways to take better advantage of space. “Stand Up and Garden” by Mary Moss-Sprague (Countryman Press, $11.41) promotes a technique of using raised beds built upon bales of straw so gardeners don’t have to bend over to tend their crops and weed, but many of that book’s techniques make better use of space.
Some vegetables will grow up on anything. Plant pole beans and climbing peas rather than bush varieties, and they will climb. But with tomatoes, squash and melons, you have to give the plants some help. Yes, some of them will vine, but they need to be tied to something. Use a soft twine or rag strips so the hold is gentle enough that the plants are not damaged.
The books describe a variety of structures that will let plants grow high. You can build shelves to hold containers. Use posts or limbs to create teepees. Make trellises with leftover wood and rope. Create an A-frame with some sort of wire fencing on the two sides.
Or you can use just one side of the A-frame — the side facing south — to take advantage of the sun. I saw that method used effectively for cucumbers at the Yarmouth Community Garden a couple of years ago.
Just make sure that whatever the plants are climbing will stand up to the wind. This is just my opinion, but it seems that along with the warmer temperatures of climate change, we are getting stronger wind. Our pea fences and tomato cages have been blown over several times over the past couple of summers.
For the plants you are growing in the ground that don’t climb, forget the traditional straight rows. They work for commercial gardens because the land is planted, tilled and harvested with machines. But for hand work, you should mass-plant in squares. The size of the squares depends on how long your arms are. If you can comfortably work 3 feet in front of you, make your crop areas 6 feet square. If you can reach only 30 inches, make them 5 feet square. Create paths around the squares — as small as you are comfortable working in, but probably not smaller than 15 inches wide.
We have started double-planting a lot of ground crops. A prime example is broadcasting carrot and radish seed in the same area. You harvest the radishes before the carrots really get any size to them. Green onions and chives mix with parsley and cilantro. You can do a whole mix of greens, cutting them and then letting them grow back.
Growing vegetables in containers is getting a lot more common. Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth had an outstanding exhibit at the Portland Flower Show showing different ways to grow fruits and vegetables.
Last year, we planted two bags of potatoes and grew them on our patio. I let them get shaded out by some grasses that surround the patio, but they still worked quite well.
And if you plant the seed potatoes close to the outside edge of the bag, you should be able to reach in some holes built in the lower part of the bag and grab some early new potatoes.
We have been growing tomatoes and Swiss chard in pots for the past couple of years. They have done OK. The tomatoes have not been quite as effective as the ones planted in the garden, but the Swiss chard did fine.
But if you add a trellis, you could easily do peas or beans — lots of them. And you could do carrots and radishes, just like we do in our regular garden.
We use the large pots that nurseries use for potted shrubs for our vegetable containers. The black color retains heat, and black pots sort of fade into the background. And they are free — as long as you save them after planting shrubs.
This year, we bought a lower and wider bag made by the same company that made the potato bags, and we intend to expand our patio vegetable growing — probably with peppers, but we haven’t carved that in stone.
We use garden soil enriched with compost in our pots. We find that the commercial potting medium is too light, and sometimes the pots get blown over if we have a trellis with them. If you don’t have garden soil available, make sure to add quite a bit of compost to any commercial soil. It will need it.
Vegetables grown in pots will need a lot more watering than the vegetables in the garden. Being above ground, they just dry out faster. We have our rain barrels on the patio close to our container plants, and we water them every two days if we don’t have rain — and every day if it is hot, dry and windy.
So start planning your vegetable garden soon. And if the weather trend continues, I might even gamble on putting in some it-won’t-hurt-much-if-they-die seeds such as spinach, peas, lettuce and radishes as early as today.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: