Somebody once asked me, "What's the minimum space required to grow vegetables?"
I think that any food garden is worthwhile, even if it's just a whiskey barrel with one tomato plant encircled by oregano and basil. Hey -- that's all you need for a good pizza, from a space not much bigger than the pizza itself.
(Krt Photo Bill Hogan -- Chicago Tribune)
But let's say you have room in your yard -- or in your life -- only for a 10-by-12-foot bed. You'd be amazed at how much food that space will support. It's like the old circus act where a tiny car appears and disgorges 20 clowns.
First, disregard anyone who views your garden as a mere token effort. Ignore the formula offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the two world wars to help Americans plan their Victory gardens -- 1,000 square feet of space to feed one person for a year. That adds up to a 40-by-100-foot garden for a family of four. Today, many house lots aren't even that big. It's a size based on the 19th-century farm model, where a gardener left enough space between rows for a horse to pull the seed drill or hoe. Much of the space was taken up by storage crops such as potatoes, pumpkins, beans for drying, corn for grinding -- all excellent crops if you can accommodate them.
Nowadays such staples are easy to come by, and it's truly fresh food that you will treasure, so a plot that puts just-picked vegetables on the table every day is a priceless asset. I'd get rid of the garage before I went without a garden. Even a partly shaded patch would do as long as I stuck to the leafy crops.
It's no accident that the techniques home gardeners use are great space-savers. Crops grown on poles, trellises and fences occupy a tiny footprint on the ground but can produce bounteous harvests of beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and even some greens, such as Malabar spinach. Planting crops in succession can also double the garden's space. Early crops of peas, scallions, arugula and radishes can be followed with later ones, such as fall spinach and broccoli. Interplanting is another magic trick. Brassicas such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale, though they grow on big plants, can share the bed with an early planting of head lettuce, set out a few weeks before. By the time the brassicas grow to fill the space, the lettuces have been harvested.
Catalogues are full of varieties designed for small gardens. There are mini cabbages with heads the size of grapefruits, summer squash that grow on compact plants. A broccoli, such as De Cicco, will keep forming side shoots after the main head has been cut -- so that just a plant or two will keep you in broccoli for months. Spinach, collards, kale, chard, lettuce and other greens can be picked as cut-and-come-again crops, taking leaves as needed but leaving the plant to regrow. Salad mixes, often referred to as mesclun, can be sown in succession throughout all but the hottest months -- especially if you have a cold frame where they can overwinter. They regrow beautifully, even after getting a crew cut.
I'd lay out my 10-by-12-foot rectangle in three beds, running lengthwise from east to west, with one-foot paths between them. Trellised crops, such as tomatoes, cukes and beans, would go in the north bed where they wouldn't shade shorter plants. Next year they'd stay in the same bed with their positions rotated. In the other beds I'd put a few kale, collard and broccoli plants, maybe a zucchini, and then lots of small crops planted in short rows running crosswise in the beds. These might include carrots, beets, chard, mustard, turnip greens, scallions, arugula. As soon as one crop had been eaten, a quick crop such as baby greens would go in. I'd leave the absolute minimum space between the rows, with the crops as close together in the row as possible without diminishing yields. (A carrot, for example, only needs four square inches in which to grow.)
Often the recommended spacing for plants is based on the acreage of old-time farms and yards, with the goal of producing huge specimens to show off at the county fair. Closely planted vegetables tend to be more petite, but modern cooks prefer these anyway. I'd include a row of leeks to harvest in wintertime and a row of parsnips to sweeten up in the cold soil for a spring treat. They'd be the last clown out of the car.
Interestingly, the small-is-beautiful trend now extends to farming as well. The more the big farms are expanding, the more the little ones are springing up -- sometimes on land no bigger than a generous suburban lot. To the corn-and-soybeans crowd these aren't even farms, they're gardens. In many ways they hark back to the way food was always grown before the Industrial Revolution, supporting a wide diversity of crops and using the same bag of magic tricks we'd use on our 10-by-12 plot, to coax out a continuous yield.
The old advice was good, you just have to look back far enough to find it.