Small spaces, surplus food: how to grow a lot with a little.

Over the past nine years that I have been cultivating this little patch of ground, I have learnt how to cram more and more production into our limited space. Our whole property is just 350 m2, so with the house and a little lawn, our entire food growing space is no more than 100 m2. But it seems that each time I think I can't fit anymore in, I find a way, by going up, or multi-layered, or out. I have also discovered some lesser known crops that have become year on year staples. So it's a good time to share the knowledge, and perhaps encourage others who share my passion for food-growing, and the challenge of a small urban plot. Here are my top tips.
  1. Think of every space and surface as potential food production. Vines and espalier on fences, fruiting ground-covers under clotheslines, chickens under fruit trees, choko and pumpkins over the tops of sheds. I recently had the epiphany I have the space to keep bees, if I can think of a way to get up onto our carport roof!
  2. Some crops can be multi-layered, so two crops can be grown in the same space. I have summer salad greens growing in the shade of citrus, and tomatillo under the espalier apples.
  3. Crops can be overlapped in time by starting a crop in seed trays while the previous crop is grown and harvested. I start growing the next crop in trays 4-8 weeks before the planting space becomes available. The next crop then goes within a day or two of the previous one coming out. 
  4. As you learn what thrives in your garden, grow more of what succeeds, and give up on crops that repeatedly fail.  Try as I might, I can't grow melons, so any space I allocate to them is wasted. I might try again when I live elsewhere, as I'm not sure if the failure is due to me or where I live!
  5. Each year try at least one crop you haven't tried before. Some will be outstanding and some you will never want to try again. But because of this approach I have a growing list of odd or obscure vegetables that to me are absolute gems (for factors such as flavour, reliable production, versatility, or winter hardiness). Tat soi, manglebeet, Dalmatian climbing bean, tomatillo, corn salad, mizuna, and miners lettuce are vegetables I wouldn't do without. 
    Myoga Ginger
  6. Plant, tend, and harvest from your garden every month of the year. I know some gardeners do a burst of gardening activity in the spring, harvest during the summer, and then buy vegetables during the autumn, winter, and spring. But in New Zealand's relatively benign winters we can eat from our gardens through all of the seasons. It takes some forward planning but its worth it. For example through the winter months we eat parsnips and carrots sown in January, beetroot and broccoli sown in February/March, and salad greens sown in the autumn and winter. We also grow our own garlic, which when harvested in January will keep for a year when strung up in a cool, dry place. 
  7. Japanese quail can provide an efficient supply of eggs in a tiny space. Our Japanese quail coop is 1.2 m long x 0.4 m wide and is home for three females and a male. Even city balconies can be utilised for egg production. 
    Our Japanese Quail coop
  8. A surprising amount of fruiting plants can also be crammed in to small urban sections. As well as our vegetable garden, we have raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, rhubarb, espaliered apples and apricots, peaches, grapes, lemon, lime, and orange.
    Apples grown flat along the vegetable garden fence (espalier-style).
  9. Plant in blocks rather than rows to increase production and reduce weed growth. Some crops are quite happy sown densely in blocks, with subsequent thinning to wider spacings as required. This will fit more plants into a small area, and there will be less soil exposed to grow weeds. Vegetables that can be planted in blocks include beetroot, garlic, carrots, parsnips, salad greens, kale, and lettuces.
    Block-planted beetroot (with some self-sown purple amaranth that we will use in salads).

    Learning how to grow so much with so little is a never-ending journey. Each year I find a way to produce more, either through my own trial and error or  learning from others. Please feel free to comment, or share what you have learnt, in the comments section below.

    Till next time,