Running the length of my driveway is a slender strip of lawn, barely three feet wide. Blessed with full sun, the grass and weeds grow fast, and because the space is so narrow and blocked in by my neighbor’s fence, it’s miserable to mow. So, two years ago, I lined up a row of raised beds along it and turned the unremarkable plot into a luscious garden where this year I am growing tomatoes, eggplant, Swiss chard, pole beans and cucumbers.
Vegetable gardens are hardy things, and do not need nearly as much space as even what I reclaimed. Steps, a stoop, a balcony, a terrace, a roof deck or even a windowsill will do. With a few containers, some good soil and plenty of sunlight, a garden can grow almost anywhere.
“You can go small, small, small,” said Jessica Walliser, a founder of SavvyGardening.com and the author of “Container Gardening Complete: Creative Projects for Growing Vegetables and Flowers in Small Spaces.” “That is one of the most amazing things about modern vegetable gardening.”
With summer fast approaching, now is the time to try out your green thumb on a tiny scale. Here are some tips on how to do it.
Get the Lay of the Land
Ideally, you want to find a spot that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day. You can grow in shady spots, but the options will be limited. Leafy greens, herbs and some varieties of flowers, like impatiens and begonias, do well in the shade. But if you want to grow an array of flowers or edibles like tomatoes, cucumbers or strawberries, you’re going to need sun, and lots of it. (Morning light will be kinder to your crop than hot afternoon light, so keep that in mind, too.)
If you plan to garden on a rooftop or balcony, consider the weight capacity. A dozen 12-inch containers full of potting soil and water can add considerable strain to a space that might not be designed to carry the load. So check before you plant. Keep walkways open, too — a fire escape might look like a balcony, but it is not, and needs to be clear of obstructions. So avoid gardening there. Also consider how you use your outdoor space, and how much of it you want to dedicate to containers.
“What are your plans for the space?” said Jibreel Cooper, the community program manager for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “If you want to keep it generally open, maybe you want to look into hanging plants or trellising. Sweet peas and cucumbers can be trellised and grow vertically. They take up less space.”
If you do not have a large enough yard, don’t be deterred — a window box makes a terrific spot to grow herbs. Kris Bordessa, the author of “Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living,” once lined her driveway with large fabric planters, reclaiming the hot asphalt slab. “It was an instant garden,” she said.
If a neighbor has unused outdoor space, consider asking if they would let you cultivate it in exchange for a share of the crop. (Full disclosure, my little driveway plot is on property that actually belongs to my neighbor, who I pay in tomatoes for the privilege of using the otherwise fallow land.)
“It’s just as simple as saying hello,” said Nina Browne, the community field manager for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “You can begin to have conversations about working together.”
Know Your Limits
Gardening is a hobby that takes time. You have to water, weed and fertilize. During the heat of the summer you may need to water daily, sometimes twice. Plant enough containers, and that could quickly become a big lift. So start small, with just one or two containers in your first year, and reassess next season.
“Don’t bite off too much,” Ms. Browne said. “There is nothing that will turn you off gardening more than having something completely peter out on you.”
Get Some Containers
Once you know where you’re growing, get some containers, aiming for a pot six to 12 inches deep. Many types of vessels will do, so long as they have drainage holes in the bottom. (And if they don’t, drill a few.)
Ms. Bordessa, who offers a video course about container gardening, suggests scouring your home for items you already own, like empty kitty-litter containers. “A five-gallon bucket is sufficient for an awful lot of things you’re going to grow,” she said.
If your ground space is limited, look up. “Vertical growing is your friend,” said Cassie Johnston, a master gardener who runs the Instagram account Growfully. With a trellis, tomatoes, beans and cucumbers can grow vertically up a wall. Consider hanging baskets suspended from a railing. Another option: Plant your crop in a tower garden, which is essentially containers stacked on top of each other. Or, make the most of a wall by affixing pocket planters to it.
Fill your containers with a mix of good quality potting mix and compost. But first, check your local municipality to see if and how you can get that compost for free.
Choose Your Crop
Look for plant breeds designed for small spaces, like bush varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “Breeders have put a lot of effort into breeding varieties that are dwarfed,” Ms. Walliser said, pointing to micro-dwarf varieties of tomatoes like Tiny Tim and Red Robin, which have high yields despite their diminutive stature. Tumbling Tom tomatoes, as the name suggests, cascade over a hanging basket.
Curate your crop, too, planting items with similar needs together. “Don’t put lavender in the same pot as a begonia,” Ms. Browne said. “One needs a lot of sun and dryer conditions, and one likes moist and shady conditions.”
Water your plants thoroughly, opting for long, deep soaks a few times a week rather than a light daily sprinkle. “People are very good at the splash and dash method,” Ms. Walliser said. “That is not watering. Watering is standing there and pouring enough water so at least 20 percent of the water that you pour in the top comes out of the hole in the bottom.”
With your garden properly planted and watered, all that’s left to do is enjoy your tiny harvest.