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Grow Veggies Despite Small Space and Little Sun

Even if your garden is small and receives little sun, you can grow vegetables. Here’s how.

Full sun and rich soils are the ideal conditions in which to grow vegetables. But we all sometimes face circumstances that fall short of this. Is it possible to grow fresh vegetables in a city apartment with a small balcony, or on a deck that only receives a few hours of sunlight all day? Can vegetables thrive in containers when there’s no open ground available? Here’s how space-challenged gardeners in any setting can maximize what they’ve got.

Some veggies need less sun

How much sun do you have? The best way to find out is to clock the sun’s presence; most of us make mistakes when we rely on memory. Southern exposure, of course, is best. But limited amounts of eastern and/or western light over the course of the day can add up. Even northern exposure will do if the path of sunlight is unobstructed and lasts sufficiently.

No vegetable grows in full shade. But you may be surprised by what it’s possible to grow in less than optimal conditions. For our purposes, vegetables can be broken down into three categories: fruit, root and foliage.

Plants from which we primarily harvest the fruit, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and squash, require the most sunlight and warmth. It’s probably unwise to attempt growing any of these if your site receives less than six hours of sunlight a day.

Vegetables grown primarily for their roots and flowers require a little less. If you have as much as four hours of sun it may be worth trying to grow radishes, beets, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower.

With as little as three hours of sun, you can successfully grow leafy vegetables: radicchio, arugula, spinach, kale, chard and mustard greens. Of course all these are more productive the more sunlight they receive, but with a little care they can produce with less.

The light level in your garden probably changes if your space is affected by tree-cast shade, or simply by the changing angle of the sun as the seasons progress.

All vegetables perform best with rich, well-drained soil. Don’t stint on the soil you provide them. Enrich existing loam with compost and fertilizer. Use an organic slow-release formula. If you plant in containers, mix up to half compost with any potting soil you use. In addition, put diluted fertilizer in the water you give your plants through the season.

Use vertical space and plant closely

You can maximize both available space and light by going up. Training plants that vine to grow vertically increases available space on the ground for other crops. It’s also likely that vertical supports will enable plants to reach more sunlight. Whether planted in containers or in the ground, bear in mind each plant’s eventual height. Then situate everything to make the best use of available light, so taller crops don’t cast shade on shorter ones.

Some candidates for training up are pole beans, peas, most tomatoes, cucumbers and vining summer squash, such as Tromboncini. But experiment; in Japan, where space has long been at a premium, the commercial melon crop is grown on vertical trellises—an impressive feat that is achieved by supporting individual fruits in mesh slings.

Don’t waste valuable space on wide aisles. Narrow spaces between rows necessitate greater care when weeding and harvesting, but that’s a small price to pay for increased planting space.

Combine larger, slower growing crops with small, quick ones. Try filling the spaces between leeks and cabbages with quick plantings of mesclun mix, radishes, scallions or cilantro.

Plant different crops each season

When space for gardening is limited, it’s essential to use the entire season well. The spot you used for spinach or lettuce in April and May can be devoted to carrots or beets once the greens are harvested in June.Start as early as the soil can be worked. In spring and fall, take advantage of plants naturally tolerant of frost. Spinach, lettuces and kale withstand considerable cold when they’ve had a chance to adjust gradually. Leeks survive light frosts, but suffer in quality when temperatures get really cold. Carrots, parsnips and brussels sprouts actually improve in flavor after a few light frosts because cold encourages the transformation of their starches to sugar.

A few accessories can extend your season too. The gardening cloche, traditionally made of clay or glass, is a tried-and-true method for the protection of individual plants, particularly in early spring. Cloche are generally placed over plants at night and removed in the morning. Traditional ones are pricey, but you can fashion your own economy cloche from old lampshade frames and leftover scraps of poly. Floating row covers are another way to protect plants, and can cover entire garden rows.

As many a gardener that’s gone before you has discovered, you may find that the limitations of your gardening circumstances are in fact a springboard for your own creative solutions and strategies.

Vegetables that thrive in pots


After you get your garden started, keep it growing with Mother Nature's Cuisine Veggie & Herb Cuisine

For more guides on vegetable gardening, read Homegrown Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs and Alan Tichmarsh's How to Garden: Small Gardens