Is your garden plot so small that you can’t grow as much as you’d like? If so, high-intensity growing methods can be helpful. To cultivate more produce from a little plot, there are a variety of strategies to help you squeeze more tomatoes and green beans out of every little nook. Try these ideas to get started cultivating more with the space you have.
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Create Garden Beds
Instead of growing your garden in rows, create beds with narrow walking paths in between. Make the beds wide enough that you maximize space, yet narrow enough to be able to reach the middle to maintain and harvest the plants. This creates more space for cultivation and saves irrigation water and fertilizer in unplanted areas. It also prevents soil compaction, as you only step on the walking paths and not on the bed directly. There are a couple of different options for garden beds; raised beds and keyhole gardens are two of the best options.
When there is enough space, raised beds are a good choice. They provide ample room for plant roots to grow down and mitigate drainage issues commonly associated with compacted soils. Raised beds elevate the soil above the ground surface, typically containing it within a wood, brick, or stone frame. When building a raised bed garden on compacted soils, the Nurture Nature Center recommends 12 inches of soil, or even more if building a bed on a paved surface. You can plant your raised bed garden densely, which helps prevent weed growth while boosting moisture retention.
Sheet mulching is a technique to build up the soils in your bed. “It’s a layering system using soil amendments such as bone meal or blood meal, cardboard or newspaper, and compost, topped with a straw layer to facilitate the proper aerobic environment and components to break down into a fertile and voluminous soil structure that facilitates better plant growth,” says Kevin Erickson, urban agriculture coordinator for the Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. “This layering system can be added directly to the intended garden area in the early fall, and will be ready for planting by the next spring.”
These gardens were first made popular in Africa and are especially well suited for dry climates. Ideal for small yards, keyhole gardens maximize usable space while keeping paths to a minimum and ensuring that plants are within comfortable reach. When looking down on a keyhole garden from above, the garden has a keyhole shape, with a wedge-shaped area that allows the gardener to access the middle. A compost pile is often located in the center of the garden, introducing nutrients and encouraging moisture retention.
Bricks, stones, sticks, and other materials are stacked in a circular shape to approximately two feet high, forming a circular raised bed with a wedge on one side. Your soil can be layered, with untreated wood on the very bottom, followed by a mixture of compost, loam, mulch, and animal manure. Keyhole gardens are often six to eight feet in diameter and contain an inner basket with an active compost pile in the middle with drainage rocks underneath. Nutrients are slowly released, percolating into the surrounding garden.
Encourage Vertical Plant Growth
Creating vertical growth allows you to take make the most of limited space while promoting air movement to prevent foliage diseases. This also reduces the need to bend over while gardening, making it easier to harvest. Trellises, teepees, arbors, and fences can all provide the support needed to allow flowering vines, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and even gourds to thrive.
Get creative by using repurposed materials and look around your yard with vertical growth in mind. Carports can serve as a vine-covered arbor. Wood pallets can be repurposed for vertical gardening, but beware that they may be treated with a toxic pesticide. Whenever possible, locate your support structures on the north side of your garden beds to minimize shading on nearby plants.
High-Density Mixed Planting
Take advantage of every inch of your garden for greater garden productivity. Mix crops within the same bed, varying root depth, plant height, and growth rates for the best results. Such gardens are often easier to maintain because crops crowd out weeds and it is easier and more efficient to irrigate.
Careful Crop Selection
Keep space constraints in mind when selecting plants. Choose crops that are compact and have a large harvest for the required space. Basil, Swiss chard, eggplant, hot peppers, tomatoes, mesclun, lettuce, and pole beans are all good options for small gardens.
“Crop selection has a big role in how productive you are,” says Erickson. “You don’t see a lot of urban gardeners growing corn, melons, and cabbage. You want crops that can have high yields in small spaces or even containers.” These can include cucumbers, tomatoes, and “micro-greens.”
If you are trying to extend the growing season, consider which crops grow well in cold weather. Cool-weather crops include: lettuce, spinach, arugula, beets, carrots, broccoli, Swiss chard, kale, and Asian greens
Plant your garden in intervals with rotating crops for a sustained harvest throughout the growing season. This method, called succession planting, boosts crop yields by effectively timing your garden. It involves figuring out when different crops should be planted for a staggered harvest. Whenever plants expire or go to seed, remove them and plant something else.
Eliot Coleman’s book, The Winter Harvest Handbook is packed full of ways to get a second or even third harvest from your garden plot. Amazingly, Coleman achieves this in Maine, one of the coldest states in the country.
If farmed intensively, a small area of land can be very productive,” says Coleman in the book. “The key to increased productivity is to make better year-round use of every square foot ….Through our focus on double- and triple-cropping, we have achieved gross yields per acre that are almost double what might be expected off our small acreage.”
Gardeners in hardiness zones 4 to 6 can begin a second crop in mid-summer, for a September to November harvest. When directly sown, however, be diligent to ensure proper soil moisture and plant the seeds a bit deeper than you do in the spring. A shade netting may be helpful in particularly sunny climates to provide a cool place for seeds to grow. Because the days are shorter, the days to maturity listing on seed packets may be too short for fall crops. If possible, allow plants an extra 14 days to mature before the first frost is expected.
This is a great way to utilize decks, patios, rooftops, outside stairwells, and even paved surfaces for growing crops. Lettuce and other greens, tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs are just some of the crops that can do well in containers. Ideal for anyone with a limited amount of space, container gardens can also be the best option for renters who might want to take their plants with them when they vacate their rental.
Try to use salvaged materials for the containers, such as a broken wheelbarrow, watering can, cooking pot, bucket, or planters. The soil in your containers will typically dry out more quickly than a garden bed, requiring more frequent watering.
Windowsill Herb Gardens
Many herbs will grow well indoors, especially in sunny east, west, or south-facing windows. If your window isn’t sunny enough to grow herbs, use an energy-efficient grow light to promote growth.
Originally published on May 17, 2016, this article was updated in May 2022.