P. Allen Smith: How to Grow Your Own Groceries In a Small Space

Ihave always been a fan of knowing where my food comes from, and that’s most easily done when I grow it in my own yard. While my own appetite for homegrown produce and herbs has continued to expand over the years, the fact is you really don’t need much space to grow food.

One of the comments I hear most often is that people don’t have the space to grow a garden. From my young friends moving into their first small home or television viewers writing from their New York City apartment balcony, people just don’t think they have the room, tools or time to grow good food. At the end of the day, though, gardening is easier than you think, and there are plenty of ways to get started on your own small-scale garden, even from your kitchen window. 


Raised Beds

I’ve used raised beds in my garden designs for years for one very simple reason: they make gardening easy. Unlike tilling up the soil in a large patch of land, raised beds rely on soil you bring in, which greatly decreases the amount of maintenance needed for weeding and fertilizing. 

To get started, you want to make sure you can reach every point in your raised bed without having to step into it, so I recommend a bed no larger than 4-by-4 feet. In my urban garden, I have four square and four triangle beds — they’re not only functional, but attractive, too. 

To build the bed, western cedar is a good choice; it’s slow to rot, and it’s easy to assemble four pieces of 2-by-8-inch lumber with wood screws and a drill. Then, choose the place where the bed will go, and fill it about one-third full with soil, add a layer of compost and fertilizer, then top with soil up to the lip of the frame. Just like that, you’re ready to plant!

You can grow enough food to feed a family of four in a 4-by-4-foot raised bed. No matter how poor your existing soil is, you can use nutrient-rich soil to ensure lots of healthy vegetables. It’s also easy to rotate crops through the seasons. 



Growing food in containers isn’t a new concept, but it is one that, I feel, is underutilized. There are several different options, depending on what you’re growing.

Blueberries, for example, do well in large pots. On my back lawn, I have five 10-gallon containers with three different varieties of berries because you need two varieties to get cross pollination. Make sure there is a hole drilled in the bottom of the pot for drainage, and, in turn, be sure to place a saucer beneath the pot so your porch or sidewalk doesn’t get stained from draining soil. 

When growing root vegetables or leafy greens, the combinations that can co-exist and perform well in containers are virtually endless. I recommend planting one pot that contains several different herbs, another pot that is an assortment of leafy greens and another that is purely ornamental, like coleus and old-fashioned roses.  

Dwarf fruit trees require a bit more sunlight and water, and their pots will certainly need to be larger, but you can create quite the decorative assortment of pots without ever having to dig up your lawn.

You can grow everything from herbs to berries to trees, and you can move your containers inside when the weather gets cold.


Non-traditional Gardens

When I lived in England, I was lucky to study the sweeping historic gardens that characterize the countryside because I lived in a tiny apartment, and my gardening powers were limited. Since then, though, gardening innovation has created plenty of ways to grow with only a bit of sunlight. 

Windowsills are an example of a non-traditional garden. You’re limited to what fits on your kitchen windowsill, but I like the look of a row of pots planted with herbs, like chives, parsley and mint, that grow well indoors. You’ll need to be watchful: the plants are susceptible to rot if they don’t have a good drainage system.

Hanging baskets are another useful way to garden. If you have a fire escape, this is a great option. One hanging basket can grow two heads of lettuce, a slew of herbs or virtually any root vegetable, and since it stays outside it likely gets plenty of sun and rain. The downside to hanging baskets is that your mini-garden is susceptible to all kinds of interruption, like neighbors and birds. You also can’t grow anything with a stalk. 

A pallet garden is one method I haven’t yet tried, but that seems like a great idea. It requires you to get an old shipping pallet — make sure it’s one that is made of untreated wood — and box in all four sides. You can either hang the pallet on the wall for a space-saving vertical garden or position it on the ground. You then fill the inside with soil and plant your vegetables in the open spaces between the slats of wood. You can grow a good amount of food and only give up a small bit of your outdoors space.


Easy Does It

No matter where you decide to start, there are a few tricks of the trade that are helpful in any small-space garden. I suggest considering an old concept called intercropping, which involves combining plants in close quarters to save space. For it to work, though, the plants you choose must have similar cultural requirements and growing habits. 

For instance, deep-rooted carrots make good companions to shallow-rooted lettuce, and corn, squash and beans do well when planted together. The squash shades and cools the soil, the corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, and the beans add nitrogen back to the soil. 

Another trick I rely on is planning two seasons at a time. While planting your current seeds or seedlings, consider the size of things that are growing. This spring, I’ll plant lettuce as a ground cover and snap peas to grow up stakes, but once the weather warms up I’ll plant tomatoes in between the snap peas. When the snap peas are done, the tomatoes will have plenty of room to grow up the stakes, and once the lettuce is harvested I’ll have room to plant snap beans.

Whichever option you choose, be sure to plant things that you want to eat so your fondness for gardening may grow to a larger pot, plot or lot. 



Container “Recipe” 

I’ve written an entire book on container gardens, but this Bold Lettuce and Spring Flowers recipe is one of my favorites for spring because it incorporates function and beauty. 


• 1 small terracotta pot (12 inches 

  diameter by 11 inches deep)

• 1 1-gallon “Evergold” sedge

• 1 1-quart strawberry foxglove

• 1 6-pack ‘Red Sail’ lettuce

• 1 bag of potting soil


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