Growing a small vegetable garden is like living in a small house: It’s not as easy as it looks. One of the keys to success is making good plant choices. Choose compact, productive plants that take up less space yet still provide plenty to harvest.
I learned this when I moved from a 10-acre farm to a small city plot. I had to rethink my vegetable garden. No longer could I grow anything that piqued my interest. I had to become much more selective.
Every year, seed catalogs feature an expanding selection of vegetables, including many that are chosen specifically for their compact nature. While many gardeners value productivity and flavor, small-space gardeners also look for plants that have ornamental qualities and longevity.
It took a few years of whittling down my list to come up with the crops I grow every year in my small garden plot. I start with a foundation of tried-and-true favorites: lettuce, basil, and tomatoes. Yet I leave space to try a few new varieties each year. To supplement my harvest, I buy vegetables from a CSA or farmers market. Below are a few of my recommendations, along with those from seed companies that conduct extensive trials to deliver the best varieties.
Every gardener plants sweet basil, and for good reason. The tiny aromatic leaves awaken the senses, adding bright flavor to pesto, salad dressings and more. There are more than 80 varieties of basil, including a few “miniature” types that are perfect for small-scale gardens. A variety called Pistou is the most diminutive form of sweet basil, ideal for planters or windowboxes. The tight green mounds can be used for edging in a larger planter.
“Cut-and-come-again” is a welcome quality in any garden plant. Harvesting leaves actually encourages more growth. With an upright growth habit and brightly colored stems, rainbow chard works well in tight spaces.
Because chard is in the beet family, it is easy to grow from seed, but note that the seedlings will need to be thinned to ensure proper spacing. For small containers, it is easier to start with transplants instead of seeds — no thinning required.
Oriental eggplants are known for their compact habit, making them a good choice for pots and planters. Choosing a favorite among the dozens of varieties is difficult. Gwenael Engelskirchen, trials manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds, says Ping Tung Long eggplant earns a spot at the top of her list. “Slender purple eggplants hang from compact plants of this lovely heirloom variety, ” she says. “The plant stays small but has the potential of producing a lot of eggplants.” Because the 10″-long fruit is narrow, it’s ideal for slicing and cubing; skin is tender and the flavor is mild.
Fast-growing and prolific, cherry tomatoes can overwhelm a trellis in short order. However, growers have introduced compact varieties that are tame enough for smaller spaces. For instance, Cherry Cascade grows happily in a hanging basket and produces hundreds of tomatoes. The variety is recommended by Susan Romanoff of Gardener’s Supply Company, who grows them in an elevated raised bed in her northern Vermont garden. “Perfect scale! Slightly draping but not so long or heavy that they reach low to the ground,” she says. Fruit ranges from the size of a marble up to a golf ball. It has good tomato flavor — not candy-sweet like some cherry tomatoes. Plants are relatively tolerant of drought and the fruit is less prone to the cracking and blossom-end rot, which frequently afflicts the full-sized tomato varieties.
Hot peppers are the ultimate ornamental edible for window boxes and compact gardens. The plants are ornamental and the fruit is long-lasting. “It’s hard to pick a favorite,” says Nina Burokas of Sustainable Seed Company, who admits that she is crazy about all hot peppers. “Black Hungarian pepper is so colorful that it not only belongs in the garden, but on the patio in pots as well.” Purple flowers highlight the emerald-green foliage. During the season, the fruit turns green, then black and finally red. The plants can grow to about 30-36″, which makes them a little big for a window box, but fine for larger containers. For smaller plants, try their Patio Firepepper seeds. The narrow fruit grows upward, resembling flames. Color goes from yellow to orange and matures red.