Best vegetables for small gardens
For first-time gardeners, which vegetables to plant can be confusing. We take the guesswork out of planting a vegetable garden.
In part two of our four-part gardening series, we get down to the business of planting.
You’ve done the back-breaking work, and your planting beds are ready. The soil is rich with organic matter, including worms and billions of microscopic critters that help plants grow. You’re ready to begin the most exciting part of gardening: planting the tiny seeds and watching them grow into luscious produce.
But with the bewildering array and variety of seeds available, where do you start and what should you avoid? We’re here to help you suss out a list of edible plants that will grow well for you, look beautiful even in a decorative landscape, and taste wonderfully fresh when you harvest them.
Basic advice for newbies
Don’t over plant
Colleen Wilkinson, a media specialist who lives in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, says her best advice to new gardeners is not to over plant. Wilkinson lives in a condo and is into her third year of renting a 20 by 50 foot allotment garden in the rich soils of what is known as the Burnaby flats. She shares the garden’s work and bounty with several condo neighbours, who also have a plot there.
The first year Wilkinson says she had about 45 different fruits and veggies in the garden, from tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, leeks, beets, potatoes, and broccoli to strawberries and blueberries. “I was overwhelmed with the amount of produce I had. I ended up having to buy a small freezer. We cut back in the second year,” she says.
Be prepared to roll your sleeves up
Another mistake new gardeners sometimes make is not realizing how much work may be involved in growing great vegetables, says April Reeves, a small-lot gardener extraordinaire. She lectures at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden on high-yield vegetable gardening.
Reeves, a third-generation farmer who has farmed large acreages in the past, currently owns Carrot Creek Urban Farm in Richmond, BC. Her 8,000-square-foot lot is mostly taken up with house, driveway, and two massive trees out front. But Reeves uses every square inch of her south-facing backyard and side yard and is planning to put in raised beds in the somewhat shady front yard this spring.
Aside from not realizing the time involved, new gardeners may also be wary of the physical work required, says Reeves. “But I always say, if you are not healthy enough to garden, then gardening is what you should be doing.”
So for both your good health and good eating, let’s start planting.
Go for the gold
When choosing vegetable seeds, “grow the most expensive, most nutrient dense, and easiest to grow, such as dark kales, salad greens, spaghetti squash, peas, beans, and beets,” says Reeves. She also suggests staying away from cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli because they take up too much space for their yield, are slow growing, and susceptible to disease.
I grow Tuscan or black kale, collards, and rainbow Swiss chard every year. All are heavy and continuous producers of good-looking plants, and make wonderful additions to salads when their leaves are small. They’re also delicious cooked. These greens can take a bit of shade, and kale and collards are frost-hardy, ideal for any area of the country. Now is the best time to plant them.
Salad greens are a good way to start growing your own vegetables, particularly if your garden is partially shaded. Remember the rule: at least six hours of direct sun a day. Keep in mind that lettuces, spinach, and other tender greens generally do best in cooler weather. “Go for the darker lettuces, like red,” says Reeves, because they are more nutritious and easier to grow than iceberg.
Think succession planting, which means planting a few seeds every week for a continuously full salad bowl all summer. Another method is to sow lettuces and other salad greens rather thickly in the spring. Use the thinnings for early salads, and leave the sturdier specimens to grow to full glory for high-summer feasting.
Some like it hot
If there are spots in your garden that receive full sun, you might consider growing tomatoes. Most take a long time to mature, so buy sturdy plants with healthy-looking foliage and flowers.
Try to find heritage tomatoes (go online to see if there are specialty nurseries in your area that carry them). These come in a rainbow of colours and make for spectacular eating. My favourites—and I grow about 10 different varieties every year—include Green Zebra, Black Krim, German Green, and the yellow Big Rainbow. And the candy sweetness of tiny cherry tomatoes right off the vine is irresistible, so if there’s room, plant one of these.
Be warned: tomatoes do require work. They need staking and continuous “pinching” of new shoots so that the plant can concentrate on growing fruit rather than more leaves and branches.
Seeing the blight
If you’re in an area that gets a lot of rain in late summer, you’ll need to cover your tomatoes with a clear plastic roof by mid to late August or you may lose them to the “blight,” a fungal disease. Tomato blight begins with black patches on the stalk that will spread and eventually destroy the tomatoes.
If you do see the first signs of blight, pick the tomatoes immediately. If they’re still quite hard, turn them into delicious fried green tomatoes or green tomato chutney. If they’re more developed, ripen them indoors in brown paper bags, checking regularly to take out ripe tomatoes or those that may have the blight.
Most herbs are ideal for planters and can be grown anywhere you have a bit of space that gets good sunlight and not too much wind. Here are some favourites.
This summer superstar begs for marriage with ripe, juicy tomatoes. Best types are Italian large leaf basil and Genoa basil. Basil requires regular watering and feeding and lots of light but may need to be protected from direct late-afternoon sun or its leaves may yellow. Regular harvesting will spur good continuous growth.
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Yes, the song got it right. With their variety of foliage, these look spectacular growing in a large container. All can withstand some neglect. Throw in some chives, and you’re set!
Tasty space savers
When looking for veggies and fruits that do well in small spaces, go for midget or dwarf varieties, if possible.
Mesclun salad mix
Every seed company has its own particular mix that may include lettuces, arugula, mustard greens, and tender herbs, so find one that suits your tastes. Sow somewhat thickly and harvest when greens are small.
Dwarf runner beans
These look good in a container, or can be included in a small garden plot with some staking. Regular scarlet runners look great when in flower but must be trained to climb along a fence, deck rail, or some other form of sturdy staking.
Alpine or Woodland strawberries
Small but intensely flavourful when ripe, Alpine strawberries do well in containers or in the ground. They reproduce by seeds, not runners. Keep in mind that birds will love them as much as you do.