Just because you don’t have an expansive, sunny backyard doesn’t mean you can’t have your own little slice of vegetable garden heaven. You can can grow vegetables and herbs at nearly any home if you have enough enthusiasm and creativity. In an effort to show the range of possibilities, lets consider what might need to happen to create a 15 square foot garden at your home (a 15 square foot space would be 3’ x 5 or some similar variation’; a 4’ x 4’ space would be 16 square feet).
Site your garden: When creating a vegetable garden of any size, it is importing to choose the right location. Small gardens can be placed in most any site including a deck, patio, driveway, front yard, rooftop or backyard. Three things to consider when looking for the best possible spot for your garden:
You MUST have sun: The most important thing that should dictate your garden’s location is the site’s exposure to direct sunlight. Nearly every fruit and vegetable plant will benefit from getting as much sunlight as possible. It is essential that your garden receives at least 6 hours of sunlight at the height of summer.
Accessibility: Set yourself up for success by setting up your garden so that it’s easy to get to and work in. In a perfect setting, the garden will be highly visible from the house so you see it every day and don’t forget to check up on it!
Consistent watering is key: Aim to place your garden near a water source or a location that is easy to bring water to. Look for your existing outdoor water spigot (check to make sure they work) and figure out the easiest way to deliver water to the garden. You may simply want to use a watering can, or to drag a hose over to the garden and leave it sitting nearby for ease of use. If you are super eager, you can set up a simple timed drip irrigation system for the garden off of the nearest hose bib.
Small-scale garden set-up: A 15 square foot garden can take many shapes, but it is likely that you’ll need to use a series of containers or to build a small garden bed. Things to consider when purchasing containers or building a bed for the garden:
Not all containers are created equal: It is essential that the soil in your garden stays consistently moist without being too wet or too dry. Some containers dry out more quickly than others. In particular, unglazed ceramic like terra cotta can wick moisture out of the soil, necessitating more frequent watering. Some containers are simply designed with undersized drainage holes (or occasionally no holes at all) which can impede or prevent proper water drainage. Consider adding to or expanding the drainage holes in this situation before you set up the garden. If you are building a bed, make sure water can drain freely.
Soil depth is crucial: In a small garden, giving plants all the space they want can be challenging. Since you might be planting crops closer together than normal, having containers or beds with deep soil can help tremendously. The soil can’t be too deep, but a minimum of 8” is recommended. Crops will grow much better in 12” or 18” of soil.
Fill the bed or container with the right type of soil: Make sure you read the label! Some potting soils are designed for specific plant types such as cacti or orchids. You want a blend that is suitable for indoor/outdoor vegetable growing. Examine the ingredients listed on the bag. Good vegetable growing soil may have ingredients like chicken manure, peat moss, perlite, kelp meal and worm castings. Avoid potting soils that contain anhydrous ammonium nitrate or phosphoric acid.
Add organic fertilizers: Even if potting soil contains some organic fertilizers, you will want to add more when planting vegetables. Lack of fertilizer is a very common reason why people have limited success growing vegetables in pots or small garden beds. We recommend adding organic fertilizers to all vegetable plants but this is especially important when it comes to plants that are growing in containers. All vegetables will benefit from an application of balanced organic fertilizer when planted. As a baseline we recommend ½ cup of balanced organic fertilizer per 5 gallon pot before planting.
A dry fertilizer made up of many different components is called “balanced” or “all-purpose” fertilizer. Ingredients can vary but the nutrient breakdown will show approximately equal amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Fertilizers with the nutrient breakdowns of 5-5-5, 3-4-4, or 3-2-2 can all be considered balanced.
Gardens can take many forms and the exact details of every garden will be somewhat unique, but following these basic steps will propel you far down the road towards a healthy and easy to manage space. For more information on building and managing a home-scale vegetable garden, check out our book “Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard” and stay tuned for part two of this blog series: Choosing Crops for the 15 Square Foot Garden.