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small space + container gardening guide : part 1 – plan your garden.

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After posting about starting seeds, a lot of requests for a container gardening guide came pouring in! I am so excited so many people are interested in small space gardening. It seems so many people say, “I don’t have the space to grow anything.” But I believe that everyone has space to grow their own food!

This guide started off as one post, but got lonnggggg, so I decided to divide it up and post the entries over the next few weeks. First up, we plan!

I think half the battle to using a small space effectively is planning. Each year, I get better and better at using our space in the most efficient manner, but in order to do that it means that each year I access and plan way before a single blade of grass turns green.

Truthfully, the act of planning a garden is a nice saving grace from the cold, gray days of winter. Thinking about spring and biting into your first homegrown tomato is a very nice daydream to have in the middle of a snow storm.

In my particular growing zone, I started to plan seriously in February, but it isn’t too late! I have an early garden going in this month, but for summer veggies, now is a great time to start the wheels turning.

Here are my steps to planning the perfect small space vegetable garden:

1. Know your location.

This may seem silly—of course you know where you live—but do you know what growing zone you are in? How about when the average last frost date is? If not, that is information you’ll need to know! There are a lot of great resources out there to figure out this information. Here is the chart I recommend for figuring out your last frost date, just choose your closest listed city. For where I live in Indiana, our average last frost date is May 10th. Where Babyface’s family lives in Canada, it is the middle of June. A big difference! If they planted when we did, all their veggies would die from a month of frost. If we waited to plant when they did, we’d lose a precious month of the growing season. Know your zone!

2. Know your space.

Spend a few days really accessing your outdoor space. How much sun does it get? Does rain fall on it evenly? Do you have a broken downspout that totally washes out your raised bed when it rains heavy (speaking from experience)? Maybe you have a large outdoor space, but sun only hits a small portion of it. That’ll greatly reduce the amount you can grow. It is better to know that now then to wonder why your beans aren’t growing later in the summer.

How are you going to get water to your garden (yes, you’ll need it)? Our first few years, we filled up watering cans in the bathtub and did a lot of trips back-and-forth. This past year, we finally invested in an adapter for our kitchen faucet so we could run a hose out the patio door. What about storing garden stuff? Your hose/watering can, fertilizer, trowels and other garden tools. Think about where you are going to keep all the tools that go along with having a garden.

Don’t have an outdoor space? Spend your time assessing which windows in the house get the most sun. Think about how you could possibly use window boxes or indoor pots to grow smaller vegetables. Herbs are a great place to start for indoor gardening! And they last all year-long. Fresh basil in January is a life saver. 🙂

3. Know the rules.

If you live in an apartment complex or homeowner’s association, review your lease or contract and see what the rules are. I’ve heard things as strict as absolutely no plants on outdoor spaces to places as lenient as our complex, that allowed us to till up a 10′ x 10′ piece of grass next to our patio to put in a raised bed. It never hurts to ask.

4. Plan the plants.

Start thinking about what you want to grow and how you’ll go about getting the plants. If this is your first time gardening, start small! You don’t want to get discouraged from gardening because you are overwhelmed. Think about what you and you family would love to eat. Don’t grow tomatoes just because that’s what everyone does if your entire family hates them. Grow what you like. You’ll be more likely to tend and care for your plants.

Think about where you’ll get your starter plants. Save starting from seed until you are a little more advanced, getting strong seedlings from a nursery is a great way to get an established garden quickly. Some plants prefer to be grown from seed and not transplanted. Make sure to research each variety you plan on growing. If you are growing some from seed, now is a great time to order seeds.

Do some research about works well in your growing zone. Have hot summers? Zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers are all great options. Live in a cool and mild area? Peas, spinach and kale all thrive in cool weather!

5. Plan the space.

Now that you know where the broken downspout hits and what the rules are for your outdoor space, figure out how your garden fits into that. Other things to think about: do you want to turn your space into a jungle (like we do!) or would you prefer to have space for entertaining? Are there other elements you need to have space for (chairs, fire pits, grills, etc.)? I recommend doing a somewhat-to-scale drawing of your space on graph paper. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’ll really help give you an idea of what can go where.

If you have some ground space that you can “mess with” you could put in a raised bed garden. Do some research about what method would work best for you. Our raised bed is simply cinder blocks (cheap!) formed into a garden space and filled with soil. Square Foot Gardening is an excellent resource for fitting lots of veggies in a small raised-bed space.

6. Wait.

This is the hardest part! Most summer vegetables will be planted after your last frost date, so now you have to wait for the date to come before you can get your hands dirty.

In the meantime, you can gather supplies. Many garden centers and nurseries put last year’s stock of pots, gardening tools and accessories on clearance to make room for this year’s stuff. Make a trip to the nursery while it is still cold out and you might just get a great deal. We got strawberry pots for half price because they were the 2010 model. I highly doubt there will be much innovation in the world of strawberry pots in one year. 🙂

Also start to gather a list of items you will need to buy for when it is time to plant. Pots, soil, fertilizer (there are some great organic ones out there), watering cans, a hose, supplies to created a raised bed. If you spread out those purchases over the next few months, it’ll be a lot less painful than dropping hundreds of dollars at one time, even if you don’t find them on clearance.

EDIT : A commenter mentioned I should add a note about shopping local. Local garden centers and nurseries will absolutely have the best knowledge about growing conditions in your area and what plants will succeed. They will be knowledgable and interested in helping you succeed. You are more likely to find a less-than-helpful 16 year old kid in a big box store that has no interest in gardening. Although, it should be noted that Babyface runs the garden center at one of these big box stores and is very, very knowledgable. Basically, before you buy, know who you are buying from. Which is pretty much how I feel about all consumerism.

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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12 Responses
  1. Emily

    Yes, excellent timing! I just bought a small bag of dirt and a seed starting tray at Home Depot today. Now I just have to pick out what I’m going to plant. This is my first time vegetable gardening, so I’m going to start out small–definitely basil and some other herbs, and possibly zucchini and peppers. There’s no way my crazy landlady will let me actually dig in the ground, but I plan to get a few pots.

    1. Yay for seed starting! The usually recommend that you start seeds in a soil-less mixture (you can find bags of seed starting mix near the trays), but I don’t see why the soil wouldn’t work as well.

      Basil is a MUST. So easy to grow and it takes so much abuse and just keeps putting out delicious leaves.

  2. MegsFitness

    Ugh. I checked the frost date and it’s not really until June 2 but they recommend adding 2 weeks.

    The cool thing is that my work offers square foot gardens so I think I’ll give that another go. 🙂

  3. Sarah Gold

    This is totally unrelated to the topic of your post, but I noticed in your last image that it look like you have some kind of rubber or plastic band holding your wedding and engagement rings together. I’ve never seen anything like that before; what a great idea!

    1. Yup! They are called ring snuggies and I buy mine at Walmart. I’ve lost enough weight that my wedding band and engagement ring were flopping around on my finger and banging into each other so much that I had lost two diamonds from all the abuse! Until I get to a leveled out weight and can resize my rings, the ring snuggies are perfect!

  4. I’m so impressed! I am the sales manager for a wholesale nursery and we have a garden center here. All of your advice is perfect! The only point I would like to add for a recommendation is to please try to shop at your local garden centers. Garden centers will have the knowlegeable staff to help you pick your selections, know your frost free date in your area and by shopping local you are keeping your spending in your home town! (the selection is better too!)

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