Small gardening tips

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 28, 2010

"I'd love to have a garden, but my yard is too small." So say many people who want to grow their own food but think it's hopeless. Yes, yards these days are tiny and often so shady that only the moss is happy. But if you have any sun at all -- no excuses! Here are 10 ways to make the most of the garden space you've got. It's the Smart Car garden: small size, great mileage.

Choose crops that yield big, but have a small footprint. A carrot needs only four square inches to grow, which translates to two inches apart in the row, two inches between rows. Other low-rent, high-volume vegetables include beets, turnips, onions, scallions, radishes and greens. Don't even consider pumpkins. Grow a zucchini plant. One zucchini plant. That's all you need.

Grow cut-and-come-again crops, such as lettuce, mesclun mixes, spinach, Swiss chard and kale. Keep picking them, and they'll regrow.

Look for words like "compact," "bush," "dwarf," "mini" and "baby" (applied to the plants, not their fruits) when researching varieties.

Go vertical. Vining crops such as cucumbers, climbing beans or cherry tomatoes, grown on poles, trellises, arbors or fences, occupy the air above the garden.

Plant successions. Whenever an early crop, such as peas, comes out, plant a midsummer one such as paste tomatoes. Follow those with a late one such as kale.

Practice interplanting. When you set out your Brussels sprout or broccoli plants in spring, there's room between them for scallions or lettuce. Those will be harvested before the larger plants shade them.

Eat all of a plant's edible parts. Broccoli stems are great with dips. Stuffed, fried squash blossoms are a delicacy. Beets and turnips are a leaf and a root crop in one.

Site the garden creatively. If some of it gets shade, put leafy crops there, saving the sunniest area for fruiting crops such as tomatoes and peppers. This might mean planting several mini-patches or rethinking the landscape cliche of front-yard shrubs and backyard vegetables. Decorate the entry with frilly lettuces and rainbow chard.

Extend the season. Plant vegetables that can be harvested well into winter, such as carrots, leeks and kale. Some even overwinter, such as parsnips and spinach. Use cold frames, either portable or permanently placed, to protect winter salads such as lettuce, arugula and tatsoi, or to give them a jump on spring.

Use lots of compost. The above steps can in effect double or even triple the size of a garden. But to get the most out of it, you must put nutrients back in. Rake compost into the soil whenever one crop has finished and before a new one goes in. Unlike the gas it takes to run an SUV, compost is a fuel that is free for the making in your back yard.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and

the author of "The Garden Primer."

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