Growing Food: Make The Most Of Your Space

growing-food
Inter-plant crops, plant lettuces in between your slow growing brassicas. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

In the pursuit of self-sufficiency, many of us dream of living on a country property with livestock, chickens, an orchard and a large vegetable patch. The reality is that most of us live in suburban settings, with small yards and limited space. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t grow lots of food – we just need to be smart about how we do it.

Growing food in small spaces is about subsidising our grocery needs with a variety of fresh produce. Most of us would never be able to grow enough food to completely replace our weekly shopping, but we can grow enough so it has an economic impact, saving on food bills; has an environmental impact, by cutting down on food miles and the effects of industrial agriculture; and, most importantly, has a cultural impact, where we come to value our food and recognise the importance of celebrating it.

For many people, growing their own food is about adding fresh produce to their staples. Whether it be some fresh parsley for winter soup, lettuce and cherry tomatoes for a summer salad or greens for a smoothie, almost all of us can grow something.

When deciding you want to grow food, regardless of the space you have available, there are some initial questions to ask yourself. What can I grow that I will use all the time? What can I buy that is already readily available and inexpensive? What do I eat? What space am I working with? Is it a backyard, a courtyard or a balcony?

Where To Start

The first thing to do is make yourself a cup of tea and spend some time in your outdoor space. Observe what’s going on in the space. Where does the sun rise, where does it set, how does that change through the seasons? Which direction do the winds come from? How does the water flow thoughout the space? Are there any micro climates? Do you get frost? Ideally, you will want a north-facing location (southern hemisphere) that is sheltered from cold, gusty winds. Choose a location with the most sun, as it is much easier to create shade than sunlight. Getting enough sun is important for good plant growth and to encourage photosynthesis.

Look at where the water flows and see if there are ways you can capture it and sink it into the soil. Also look and see if there are any warm north-facing walls that might create a warm microclimate where you can plant cold-sensitive plants. It’s important to have all these factors in mind when choosing where to plant your garden.

Soil First, Plants Second

Regardless of the size of your vegetable patch, soil is the most important factor in growing food. This fact applies whether you are digging up your front yard, building a raised garden bed, or planting in pots. Soil that has a healthy balance of microbes and nutrients will result in healthier and stronger plants. The ideal soil for growing food is loose, moist and rich in humus.

Understanding your soil texture is also important. Soil texture refers to the consistency of the soil, which is largely determined by the size of the inorganic particles within it. These vary from large sandy particles to fine clay. To get a better understanding of the soil texture you are working with, you can perform a simple ribbon test. A simple internet search will show you how to do this.

Plants obtain most of their nutrients through soil, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Aim to continually improve your soil, by adding organic matter to it. Add compost regularly, and use compost teas and seaweed solutions to keep adding nutrients to the soil. If you’re really serious, you could get your soil tested and add the specific nutrients that your soil requires. Getting your soil right first, will pay off in the long run.

What To Grow In

You don’t have to spend a lot of money and build a raised garden bed to grow food. The quickest and easiest way is to use an existing garden bed, or, if you have one, dig up the front or back lawn.

Double digging

To quickly get started, I would suggest double digging the soil. (See issue five for more information about this method.) Start by removing as much of the top layer of grass as possible and turning over the soil. This will aerate the soil and loosen compaction. Then add organic matter, mixing through compost and manure.

No-dig

No-dig garden beds are a quick way to build a bed without having to dig. It involves collecting the materials you need beforehand (straw, compost, manure, etc) then layering them, and your garden bed is ready for planting.

Raised garden beds

Should you choose to invest in the necessary materials you could construct a raised garden bed. This is a great option if you live in an old industrial area with potentially contaminated soil. Raised garden beds are also great for people with back or mobility issues and they keep the beds contained and tidy. They can be made of timber, tin or bricks. If using timber make sure it is non-treated. They can also be bought readymade and come in a range of materials.

Pots

Pots are moveable, cheap and inexpensive, meaning they are great for renters. If you move houses, you can move the pot. And if the plant doesn’t like a particular location, you can move it. They also allow you to grow food if you live in a small space with only a balcony or a courtyard.

Pots are readily available at hardware stores or your local nursery, but you can use just about any container as a pot. The key requirements of a pot are, first, it must be able to hold soil, and second, it must be able to drain. You can be creative and upcycle containers such as yoghurt tubs, takeaway containers and old polystyrene boxes picked up from the local greengrocer or, on a larger scale, you can use an old bath.

If you are growing food in pots, soil preparation remains important. Being limited in space will likely mean you need to purchase potting mix. Potting mix is made of larger particles of bark and coir, as well as some other components to allow the soil to remain aerated and free-draining. Buy the best potting mix you can afford. Don’t use topsoil from the garden as it will compact and restrict your plants’ growth.

Growing vertically

With limited space, it may be worthwhile growing plants vertically. There are many new and different vertical garden systems available on the market. Not all are good for growing food. Vertical garden systems are a great option for a courtyard or smaller outdoor spaces. They can be attached to a wall or fence to maximise space.

Ideally, look for a system that holds enough soil so the plants can develop a substantial root system and won’t dry out. Because plants grown vertically tend to have less soil around their roots, they can dry out quickly, so it may also be worth considering an irrigation system.

Plant Selection

When growing food, plant selection is important. Remember to choose plants that you will actually eat. When choosing a plant to grow in a small space, you want varieties that make the best use of space, providing high yields and maximising harvest times.

‘Cut-and-come-again’ varieties

Choose plant varieties that quickly establish and allow you to continually harvest. It can be pointless growing crops such as garlic, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes in a small space as these all take a long time to grow before they can be harvested. They are also cheap and readily available at your local greengrocer or farmers’ market.

Plant lots of leafy greens so you can pick a few leaves at a time, allowing the plant to continue to grow. These include ‘cut-and-come-again’ varieties such as cos lettuce, rocket, spring onions, silverbeet, kale and sprouting broccoli.

The other consideration when choosing what to grow should be what will make your home-cooked meals better. Fresh herbs can be expensive to purchase but are easy to grow at home, irrespective of the space you have available to you. Most herbs grow well in pots, including rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, parsley and basil.

Dwarf fruit trees

The development of dwarfing rootstocks for different fruit trees means it is now possible to grow very productive trees in small spaces. There are different types of dwarf rootstocks, all of which have a different effect on the overall size of the tree. Pruning is much less arduous and they often bear fruit earlier, taking less time to become established. Utilising dwarf fruit trees allows for a greater number of trees in a smaller space, increasing diversity and continuity of harvest over the year.

Propagation

Propagating your own seeds is a great way to have full control over the food you grow – you can choose the variety, including open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, and save lots of money. But it does take a bit more time and requires you to be a bit organised so you have the seedlings ready to go when you need to plant them.

Buying seedlings can be quicker and easier, especially if you are short on time. It will also decrease the time until harvest. Look out for seedlings that have a mixture of varieties. Seedlings sometimes appear to be expensive; however, you often won’t need all the plants in a punnet. In most cases, you will only need one plant per pot.

You can give away the seedlings you don’t use. Or, if you are keen to try something different, reach out to your local community and coordinate a planting program. That way you and your friends can propagate different types of plants and share them around.

Photo by Fabian Capomolla

Clockwise from top: Growing food in pots allow you to move them if need be; Hand watering your garden allows you to observe what is going on; Dig up your lawn and grow food.


growing-food
Photo by Fabian Capomolla
growing-food
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Planting Techniques

Grow in a grid formation to utilise space

The traditional style of planting in rows can look pretty, but can be a waste of valuable space. If you are growing vegetables in a garden, the best way to maximise space is to randomly plant in a grid formation and to stagger plantings diagonally. Keep pathways to a minimum. Try to plant crops close together without hindering growth.

Inter-plant crops

Look to inter-plant crops to maximise the available space. Plant different varieties of vegetables according to their harvest time. For example, radishes can be inter-planted with carrots, and onions with brassicas.

Practise companion planting

Companion plant certain herbs and vegetables together to save space. This can also help with pest control, soil nutrients and weed control. A traditional example is planting corn for beans to grow on. Sunflowers can substitute for corn and also benefit your vegetable patch, by attracting beneficial insects.

Grow crops vertically

To maximise space, look to grow crops on growing frames. Plants such as peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and some varieties of pumpkins all grow well when trained up vertical growing frames. Physical structures don’t have to be man-made. Utilise fruit trees to grow your peas on. Make sure you contain your plants so they don’t overcrowd one another.

Succession planting

Staggering the planting of seedlings means they all won’t need to be be harvested at once. Look to plant new seedlings each month to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce.

Feeding And Watering

How you are going to water your vegetable patch? Where is the nearest tap? When it comes to small-space gardening, there is no need for an automated irrigation system. Handwatering is preferred. Because your patch is small, it should not take too long to water.

The act of hand-watering also allows you to observe what is happening in your garden and make adjustments to control pests and diseases. A good idea for watering small spaces is to leave a bucket in the shower and recycle this water onto your garden.

Remember, gardening is a process of continuous improvement. Experiment with plant selection, potting mediums, soil and techniques. Due to micro-ecosystems, no two gardens are the same. Most importantly, have fun with it and grow what you love.

Recommended edibles for growing in pots or containers:

WINTER

  • Broad beans
  • Fennel
  • Kale
  • Leafy greens
  • Silverbeet / Perpetual
  • Spinach

SUMMER

  • Beans
  • Chillies
  • Eggplants
  • Leafy greens
  • Tomatoes

ALL YEAR

  • Dwarf fruit trees
  • Herbs

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