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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Growing Veggies in Small Spaces = Big Savings

When I wrote  The Potted Garden in 1997, I devoted a few pages to growing vegetables, and other edibles, in containers and other small spaces. In my newest book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegetable Gardening, I explore the concept of small space gardening even further. It's a topic that really intrigues me.

Our tiny, in-town back yard is too small and too shady for a typical vegetable garden, so for years I have grown tomatoes, kale, lettuce, spinach and herbs among the geraniums and other ornamentals in pots on the terrace.  It's easy, rewarding and inexpensive.

This morning, I was delighted to read a New York Times article about a program in San Jose that is helping families create organic vegetable gardens in their urban back yards. Organized by a Master Gardener, the program's volunteers have, so far, installed 30 raised-bed gardens, each with seedlings, new soil and a drip irrigation system, in low-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods where many residents are food pantry clients.  Each garden costs $210 to install. The program, called La Mesa Verde, also provides bi-lingual gardening classes and twice-a-year visits from volunteers to help the novice farmers master gardening techniques. La Mesa Verde plans to install a total of 100 gardens by spring.

The new gardens are producing onions, broccoli, peas, cilantro and more. One newly-minted gardener claims that the garden is saving her family $90 a month on their food budget. Since the climate in San Jose is suitable for nearly year-round gardening, that family may be saving close to $1000 on food a year. And they'll be eating fresh, organic foods that might not be accessible in their urban environment.

As the program grows, organizers and volunteers hope that gardening know-how will be passed along from parent to child and neighbor to friend. Small space organic vegetable gardening, while not a cure-all for the economy or the environment, is one of those little green and frugal steps just about anyone can take.

Do you garden in a small space? I'd like to know about it.


  1. Cynthia Waters EarleJanuary 18, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    Hi Dee,

    Love the post and it is a subject dear to my heart.

    Over the years I have lived in a succession of places where space and shade have made gardening a real challenge. Like yourself, the challenges have taught me to improvise and make the best of small spaces and poor light conditions. On a tiny deck we grow heirloom tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, parsley, tarragon and thyme in containers and window boxes hung along the rail. Nothing beats sitting out on a summer evening and plucking a ripe morsel you grew from seed and popping it into your mouth or snipping your own fresh herbs when preparing dinner.

    We use a container for our tomatoes called "The Organic Tomato Success Kit" from Gardener's Supply,38-975RS,default,cp.html
    I highly recommend it. It delivers everything they promise. Despite the initial investment I think it delivers on the frugal side because it is built to last and can be used year after year.

    I start my seeds indoors every year in early March in plastic trays with clear dome lids that I use over and over. Gardener's Supply has nice ones, but I just use my cheapy ones over and over.

    I use plant markers that are made from recycled vinyl mini-blinds. The mini-blinds are just cut into shorter lengths and cut to a point on one end. You can write on them with a sharpie or a grease pencil. You can find these markers on ebay or just make them yourself from an old blind you have in the back of some closet, from a yard sale or a cast off from the side of the road. One blind will make a gazillion plant markers.

    I purchase organic seeds from and, both are great sources for organic heirlooms. I have seeds from them that are 4 and 5 years old and still germinating well....very frugal! TomatoFest has seeds broken down by numerous categories so it's very easy to shop for your specific needs.

    I used to bemoan the fact that I didn't have a "real garden", but have come to realize that some of the disadvantages are in fact advantages. Maintenance and pests are minimal in container gardening. Potted plants can be moved around for optimal light and air circulation. You can't rotate a tomato plant that's planted in the ground. Water, of course, only goes to where it is needed. We don't have deer eating our plants..... we do get the occasional squirrel with a taste for hot peppers, but we just chalk that up to entertainment.

  2. Cindy, I would love to visit your deck garden. It sounds fantastic. Seed saving is an ancient practice and one that keeps rare and heirloom varieties from disappearing. I haven't saved seeds, but have been thinking of giving it a try. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Do you mind if I tell others about the clever mini-blind plant markers? That's brilliant!

  3. Cynthia Waters EarleJanuary 18, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    Please do tell others! I think they are cool too. If you go to ebay and put "50 New Plant Markers*Free Shipping*Free Seeds", in the search box you can see a picture of a package of them. I was looking for some markers that were reusable and the right size and came across them. When I received them I laughed out loud when I realized what they were and wished I had thought of them first. I
    I wish it was possible to paste links in the comments here. It's a little daunting to type out some of these things accurately.
    Keep blogging!