Our Guide To Small Space Gardening

No matter how much space you have for growing, it’s always possible to make room for a garden! Those of us who live in urban spaces may only have access to a small patio, balcony, or doorstep, which means to get the most from our gardens we have to get a little creative. Even smaller yards may not easily accommodate the long, ground-level rows of the classic vegetable garden. By using containers, raised beds, and vertical space it’s possible to grow all the vegetables, herbs and flowers you’ve been dreaming of!

Container Gardening

Container gardening is the most space-efficient method for producing vegetables, herbs, and flowers! Many varieties of plants have been bred specifically to thrive in containers, and it’s possible to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, and many of your other favourites in small spaces. There are a few things to consider to ensure you get the most from your container garden.

Smart pot fabric planter with flowers

What size containers can your space accommodate? Most annual plants can be grown in large containers, but plants with large growth habits or deep root systems will likely struggle in small pots. Small and/or shallow containers are best suited for small plants, such as dwarf tomatoes or lettuce mixes. Whatever pot you choose, the bottom must have drainage holes to allow excess water to escape. Extra drainage holes can be drilled into plastic pots. If your container will sit on a hard surface, elevate it to allow space for water to drain.

Some of our favourite containers:

Fill your containers with soil specifically formulated for potting or container growing to ensure it has proper drainage and airflow. Topsoil and regular garden soil should be avoided in containers because it is too heavy and likely to become compacted. You can add amendments like perlite if you need extra drainage in your soil.

Place your containers in a location that receives the correct amount of sun for the varieties you’ve chosen to grow. Most garden plants do best in full sun (minimum of 6 hours per day).

Pepper plant in terracotta container

Use trellises or other plant supports to make the most of your vertical space and optimize the production of your container garden. Along with the usual peas and beans, cucumbers and zucchini can also be trained to grow up a trellis and save horizontal space. Hanging baskets, shelves, and deck rail boxes are a few other great ways to add more plants to your space. If you’re placing your containers on shelves, try to orient them to be south-facing so the lower shelves won’t suffer from being shaded throughout the day.

Keep in mind that containers will dry out quickly in hot weather and may need to be watered more than once a day. It’s important to always water your containers deeply to encourage root growth down into the soil. Shallow watering will result in root systems that spread just below the surface of the soil and are more susceptible to damage from dry conditions. Water the soil directly, below the foliage. Don’t allow the soil to dry out completely between watering; peat-based potting mixes will become hydrophobic if they become too dry, causing water to run off the surface and not penetrate to the roots. If your potting mix has become hydrophobic, soak the container in a tub of water until the soil is rehydrated. Watering aids like ollas and water crystals can help to retain water in the soil.

A note on balconies:

Before adding large pots with heavy soil to your balcony arrangement, ensure the space is graded to support the extra weight. It’s also advisable to consider what’s positioned below your balcony and plan to move pots when watering or add saucers to avoid pouring water on your neighbours. High balconies may be subjected to extra wind, which will dry out containers quickly and require extra watering.

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening

Not every plant will thrive in a container, especially if you don’t have space for pots larger than 5 gallons. Corn, pumpkins, winter squash, and watermelons are all challenging to grow in containers because of the space they require. Good choices for container growing include the following:

Vegetables (Minimum container size in brackets)

Herbs – Use at minimum 4” pot, preferably 2 gallons or larger, most herbs will grow to fill the space available

Flowers – Container size will be determined by the number of plants in your arrangement, we recommend at minimum a 2 gallon pot
Most annual flower varieties will do well in containers, but here are a few of our favourites:

Container Gardening Resources


Raised Bed Gardening

Wooden sided raised bed filled with soil on top of landscape fabric

Raised beds are permanent, rectangular plots holding soil that remains loose and rich because it is never compacted by foot traffic. While they require an investment of time and labor to create, once they’ve been established they are quite low maintenance to upkeep in the following years. Raised beds promise years of easy bed preparation and planting each spring. We recommend building your beds in the fall when the weather is cool and the demands of the growing season have slowed, and when compost can be added and allowed to break down before the spring planting season arrives. Taller raised beds can make planting and weeding much easier by eliminating the need to work at ground level. It’s also easy to attach trellises, dividers, or other planting guides to the frame of a raised bed.

How to Create a Raised Bed

Choose a location with appropriate sun for the plants you’d like to grow. Be mindful of the overhang of trees that are not yet leafed out in the fall or early spring and the shade they may cast during the growing season. Pay attention to low-lying areas where water pools during heavy rain and avoid these spots if possible. Low levels of light and excess water in the soil will contribute to poor growth for most common garden plants.

Vego garden metal raised beds with leafy greens

For your raised bed’s frame, there are many options including wood, fabric, plastic, and metal. If you’re building your bed from wood, make sure it is untreated to avoid chemicals leaching into your soil. Cedar, hemlock, or pine all make good choices for garden beds. Opt for the thickest boards you can afford to get the most life out of your beds (over 1” is ideal). You’ll also want deck or outdoor screws to connect your boards, and you may also choose to use extra supports at the corners like corner brackets, framing angles, or smaller wooden posts. For easy setup, you can buy ready-to-go raised bed kits that come with everything you need.

When you’ve chosen a location and materials and are ready to start, lay out the bed’s dimensions with stakes and string. A width of 3 or 4 feet across is a comfortable reach from either side for most adults. Lengths of 8 or 12 feet are most adaptable to the typical backyard. 4x4 beds are also popular for smaller spaces. You can get creative with your bed shapes, too; consider building an L-shaped bed tucked against the corner of your fence, or a U-shaped bed in the center of your space.

The typical method to prepare the site for your raised bed involves tilling the soil to allow easy root growth once your plants have established. Start by digging within the string at one end, cultivating the soil to a depth of at least one foot - deeper is better. If working in an area with grass, put aside pieces of sod for the compost pile. Working backward to avoid stepping on newly dug soil, turn over shovelfuls of soil and mound them in a loose pile within the measured dimensions of the bed. This is a good time to incorporate organic material such as compost, peat moss or chopped leaves into the soil.

If you prefer a no-dig approach, start by mowing any grass or ground cover down as low as possible. Cover the area with cardboard or landscape fabric to suppress further growth. If you won’t be placing your raised bed frame and adding soil immediately, weigh down your weed barrier with rocks or landscape staples.

When your bed frame is built and your site is prepared, you can add soil and get ready to plant! Choose soil with good drainage, such as a container mix or a high porosity mix. Add compost along with the soil, at a ratio of 1:1 or 1:2 compost to soil. Some gardeners will also add leaf mulch, sticks, and/or logs to the bottom of deep raised beds to fill space and break down over time. At the end of the growing season, you can mulch over your raised beds with straw to help suppress weeds in the spring.

Raised Bed Gardening Resources

Vertical Gardening

Growing food vertically can essentially double your growing area. Combined with raised beds, the potential for dramatically increased production with vertical growing is enormous. Plants grown vertically can be spaced more closely together and produce more in the rich soil of a properly managed raised bed. Because each plant takes up only a few inches of surface soil, tons of space is left to be intensively planted with low-growing vegetable plants. Orienting beds on a north-south axis assures that plant-laden trellises do not block the sun from lower-growing plants as it moves from east to west across the yard during the day.

Cucumber vine climbing trellis net

Vertical gardening allows for better air circulation between your plants, lessening the risk of fungal infections and pest infestations. Plants will dry more quickly after rain, have better access to sunlight, and crops will be easier to harvest.

As with constructing raised beds, trellis systems require some work up front in exchange for years of easy growing. Free-standing trellises provide flexibility in placement, but they can be precarious and liable to collapse later in the season from the weight of maturing crops. Consider attaching your trellis frame to the frame of your raised bed for greater stability and easy setup and tear down.

Options for securing your trellis frame are many! One tried and true method is to fasten 12" lengths of PVC pipe, 1½ to 2" in diameter, with plumber’s brackets at four-foot intervals along the insides of the length of the bed. Dig the PVC pipe into the soil so the opening is flush with the top of the board. Sturdy vertical poles, wooden or PVC, up to 8 feet tall, fit easily and quickly into the PVC pipe fixtures for instant stability. Since their first 12 inches sit in the fixture below the soil level, the trellis will be 7 feet tall, about maximum reach for most adults.

Beans growing up wooden trellis with twine

Alternately, use pieces of rebar similarly dug into the soil and bracketed to the long side of the bed to provide attachment points for your trellis. This works well for metal trellis systems or arches that stand up on their own but need to be supported at the base to remain in the correct place.

Another option is to build a frame with lumber across which plastic or twine trellis netting can be stretched. This frame should be in the shape of an upside-down U and may include nails or eye screws spaced along the inside of the boards that trellis netting can be tied to. Including an extra board across the top of the trellis helps provide extra support for heavy crops and keeps your trellis taught. This method makes it easy to replace your netting or take it down for storage at the end of the season. Alternately, twine can be tied to the top of this trellis frame and stretched to the bottom for climbing, vining plants to grow up. 

Trellises may also be built with bamboo poles, large sticks, scrap wood, cattle panels, pallets, salvaged window frames, and many other materials you may have available. 

The trellis material itself may be hand-strung wire or twine or commercial netting made of nylon or plastic. Mesh with 4x6" holes allows for easy access when picking large vegetables such as tomatoes. If you prefer to not use netting, supports may be built with bamboo poles arranged in a cone/pyramid shape, frames with crossed boards, or galvanized metal panels.

Our Favourite Veggies for Vertical Growing

Cucumber plants growing up bamboo trellis


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