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Notes on Vegetable Gardening in Small Yard Spaces


As we look forward to spring, we start thinking about our vegetable gardens. Even those of us with limited space can have fresh vegetables with a little planning. All we have to do is try to match the sun, water and soil requirements of our crop.

Most of our vegetable crops are short-lived annuals that spend a lot of energy producing a crop. The more sunlight the plant has, the more leaves and fruit it can produce. Even perennial crops, like asparagus and rhubarb, produce better with an increased amount of sunlight. We need to plant vegetables where they can receive lots of sun.

Just like a watermelon, most fruits are almost entirely made of water. Being able to easily water the garden is an important consideration when locating a space. If you have to carry water, it would be best to place a garden close to a hose or close to the house.

Traditionally, ground gardens often required large amounts of soil amendments to be tilled into the ground. That is a lot of work. Many of our small gardens are going to start out with a fresh, sterile and lightweight soil mix.

Many garden vegetables have ornamental qualities to the leaves, flowers and fruit. They can be worked into your flower beds in an attractive manner. Don’t just think that a garden has to be planted all in one sunny spot. If you have small areas within your landscape, add a tomato, eggplant, okra or fennel for their landscape qualities.

The bane of many garden vegetables is fungal disease problems. Good air circulation helps to dry leaves, so the fungus has a harder time infecting the leaves. Avoiding planting too many plants in the shade or in a crowded flowerbed.

Traditional gardens are often built with large isles — partly to allow for good air circulation, partly for easy tilling of weeds and partly to allow for the growth of spreading plants. Small space gardening uses vegetable varieties that have a more compact growth habit. You will see these smaller plants listed as petite, bush, compact or determinate.

One method of small space gardening is to use the square foot gardening method developed by Mel Bartholomew, who you may have seen on TV. He also has a very useful book titled “All New Square Foot Gardening.” There are several benefits to using this gardening technique. The garden can be built close to the house and a water source. It uses fresh sterile soil, meaning there are fewer weeds. One of the main features of a square foot garden is managing it one square foot at a time. As each crop finishes in a square foot, a new one is installed. There is no wasted space in this type of garden.

Last summer, I grew one of my own square foot gardens in a parking lot to show that they can grow anywhere. For more information, buy the book or go to

Another easy way to produce vegetables in a small space is by using an EarthBox. Filling the reservoir allows the plants to self water until you fill it again, making watering much easier. Water is not wasted as it is in regular garden plots. The EarthBox can be moved into the yard’s sunny spots, and a trellis can be installed for tall plants and vines. It uses a sterile soil mix for no weeds, and the fertilizer is installed at the beginning of the season — use regular fertilizer or the new organic version. You will get more out of this 3-square-foot garden than any other method of gardening.

Your local garden center probably has them in stock, but if not, check out

If you have just enough room for a flowerpot, go ahead and plant a vegetable in it. A larger pot is better, but many of the dwarf or compact vegetables can grow in an 18-inch pot. Make sure the pot has a drainage hole, fill it with good soil, place it where it can get lots of sun and keep it watered. It will reward you with fresh produce all summer long.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, University of Illinois Extension at To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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