Gardening in small spaces—like apartment balconies, concrete driveways and postage-stamp sized yards—can feel like an exercise in futility if you’re trying to get enough of a crop to make it worth it. Fortunately, small spaces can actually yield a lot of produce, if you plant the right things, handle them well, and manage your space with care. I spoke with Gowan Batist, an organic farmer who specializes in biointensive methods, about how to get the most out of a very small garden.
She says to start with selecting the right containers. The best bang for your buck in an urban area can be five gallon buckets, which she admits don’t look that awesome, but are great for intensive gardening. Many restaurants have extras of food-grade quality that they will happily give away—and she does advise food-grade buckets because others may have leftover toxins from their contents, or can produce dangerous chemicals as a result of offgassing. (For instructions on how to make self-watering containers in five gallon buckets that are free of plumbing, Los Angeles gardener Mike Lieberman offers a tutorial.)
Drill holes about one to two inches up the side for drainage. This ensures that your soil doesn’t get waterlogged, while creating a small reservoir to keep it moist and prevent waste. For urban areas, the best place to get soil is probably an outside source, whether recycled potting soil from a nursery or new soil purchased from a supplier. If you do use soil from your yard, Batist strongly advises getting a soil test, particularly for lead, a common contaminant. Your health department or an organization like the Safe Urban Gardening Initiative may offer this for free or a small fee, especially if you are low-income.
Building up the soil helps produce a larger yield, and one of the best ways to do that while also taking care of kitchen waste is to use worm bins. Vermicomposting, as it is known, can be done in stacking bins under the counter, and it doesn’t produce strong odors. Commercial kits are available for people who don’t want to build their own, and the worm casings can be mixed directly with the soil to add nutrients. Watch out for compostable items with seeds that might germinate, like tomatoes and melons!
For starter plants that offer high yields, one of Gowan’s personal favorites is the potato. Using a potting soil and straw mix, gardeners can grow a large number of potatoes in a single five gallon bucket, and they actually provide the most calories per square foot. Radishes offer what she calls “instant gratification gardening” because they germinate in less than a month and you can constantly reseed to keep them coming.
Bush beans, tomatoes, and snap peas are other options; bush beans in particular have a high yield and are easy to grow. Another option is a cutting mix like a mesclun blend or lettuce mix, which you can harvest as you go. Continual harvest and resowing is a key component of grow biointensive agriculture, and there’s no reason you can’t replicate it on a small scale at home.
She has a few warnings for urban gardeners; one of the most critical is herbicide drift, which can occur if people in your neighborhood are using herbicides to manage weeds, a particular problem with large lawns. If your plants develop twisted, bubbly leaves, it’s an indicator that someone in the area is using herbicides. One option for dealing with the problem is growing on a shielded sun porch, but you can also see if you can track down the perpetrator and discuss gentler options for weed management.
Urban areas also tend to have a lack of beneficial organisms, including ladybugs, which eat aphids, and pollinators like bees. You can buy ladybugs for aphid control; and there’s something rather delightful about releasing a large clutch of them into the neighborhood. To replace pollinators, you can be your own bee with a paintbrush, or consider establishing a mason bee block near your garden. These friendly pollinators don’t produce honey and don’t require much shelter, and, critically, they don’t sting.