I’m very much a fan of food gardening. It’s simple, rewarding, and makes me feel like if the zombie apocalypse were to come tomorrow and I had to flee to the remotest part of the world I could find, I’d still be able to get food. Flowers are nice (I do have a few mixed in there), but food gardening has something special to it, because you get to use the products of your labours in delicious meals.
This year I don’t actually have a patch of earth to call my own (plus I’m moving at the end of this month, so my garden needs to be somewhat portable). So I’ve gone the route of potted plants, and so far all is going very well.
I’ve got climbing beans (both yellow and green varieties), cherry tomatoes, hot chili peppers, swiss chard, and mixed greens. I’ve also got a couple of pots devoted just to herbs: parsley, sage, oregano, chives, basil and thyme.
I’ve had some help from the weather in getting things started: lots of rain, and mild temperatures. I also started with a great soil mix: half organic compost, half black earth, and a little bit of organic fertilizer and bone meal mixed in for good measure. So everything’s taking root and sprouting up nice and tall. Some of the flowers seem less happy with the wet and the lack of direct sunlight, but I’m not too concerned — if any of them decide to die on me, I’ll just put a few more in to replace them once the weather gets sunny again.
Gardening in small spaces (or as I’m doing, in pots) can be a bit of a guessing game at first. You’ll notice at the garden center that most plants have written on the tag a suggested distance for planting them apart from each other — but those are big space requirements. Tomatoes, for example, are supposed to have 2 feet on every side, and many of the larger herbs (Italian sage and parsley, for example) don’t ask for much less. Some plants, like beans, are ideally suited to potted life (they only ask for 3 inches on each side), but you have to be careful in which ones you select, because some grow up to 2 meters tall. Bush beans are a nice option if you can’t get a trellis set up, but they need a bit more space on each side.
Looking at those big space requirements, the question becomes “which of these are hard-and-fast rules, and which can I fudge a little?” The answer is that most of those space requirements can be reduced by a third to a half with no ill effects, provided that the soil you’re using is of high quality and the plants will be able to get all the food they need out of the smaller patch (the one exception I’ve found being large trailing plants, like squash and zucchini — they’ll just take as much space as they please, and might destroy some other plants in the process if you’ve planted them too near). My cherry tomato plant is in a 14″ pot, and is happily thriving on much less than the recommended 2 foot distance. Same goes for my herbs, which I planted together in large pots — the final plants will come out slightly smaller than they would under ideal conditions, but by giving each one about a foot of space I’m ensuring that the competition for resources won’t kill off any of them, and I should still wind up with a good crop of fresh herbs to use in all my cooking this year.
The other big question that comes up with small-space gardening is “what should I leave out?”. Unless you’ve got a massive backyard to work with, it’s hard to plant everything you’d like to harvest that year. I’ve given up on zucchini entirely after discovering just how much space it takes up, and the same goes for rhubarb, raspberries, and cucumbers. You can manage to get those sorts of things in there, if you really desire to have them, but it may mean giving up half your available space in order to do it. This year I’ve also limited myself to just cherry tomatoes, no full-sized ones (the little ones are my favourites), and I’ve left out the carrots and radishes as well (they don’t take much space width-wise, but they’d need deep pots to thrive). The herbs are the more important part to me, and so I did make sure I’d have space for all my most-loved ones. And the hot chili peppers will be great fresh, but can also be dried and stored for use all winter. The beans and swiss chard will be delicious not only for me, but also for Ziggy, who should enjoy the greater variety of greens that summer brings to his food dish.