Small-space gardening harkens back to earlier days

By Tom Seymour | Nov 19, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Sage, an easy to grow herb, can be a staple for gardeners.

I recently visited a business contact and was impressed by her small but flourishing garden. Everything from herbs to vegetables and flowers were present.

The secret to a successful, small garden is to not plant too much of one thing. That is easier said than done, since it's a natural tendency to over-plant. Consider Swiss chard, for instance. Most of us plant great, long rows of chard, only to utilize a small portion of the bulk. But chard, if spaced far apart, can grow to huge sizes. So really two or three chard plants are all one or two people need to grow. It boils down to the fewer the plants, the more widely spaced, and the bigger each individual plant becomes.

Of course for any garden to succeed, the soil must be nutrient-rich. Compost of all kinds adds nutrients and also keeps the soil loose, or in other words, encourages good tilth.

In a small garden, it’s easy enough to go around and dump a bucketful of compost at all the different planting points. Mulching with straw (hay contains weed seeds, while straw doesn’t) helps to keep the soil moist, something needed in summer’s heat.

Big Versus Small

All too often, we over-plant our gardens, especially full-size gardens. In that case, we need to thin aggressively in order to give each plant room to grow. Even then, unless the soil is super-rich and the garden gets the maximum amount of available sunlight, plants seldom achieve their full potential.

Putting few plants in a small space, as opposed to the “French intensive method,” where plants are crowded together, is a difficult concept to embrace. It helps to think of the chard illustration. It also pays to recall planting seasons gone by, where we planted our rows too thickly. We still realized a good harvest, but the produce was smaller. When planted too close together, a garden becomes harder to weed. But a small garden with single plants or clusters of plants here and there is a snap to weed.

So one of the things about the small-garden concept is that in the small garden, we can think about plants in numbers rather than rows. For instance, instead of a row of winter savory, we just plant one savory plant and give it the maximum amount of sun and nutrients. The result will be a huge, spreading savory plant that will fulfill our needs.

Cottage Gardening

When discussing gardening in small spaces, cottage gardening comes immediately to mind. A garden style practiced by people living on small parcels of land in Britain, cottage gardening embraces everything and is all-inclusive. People living in cottages needed to take advantage of every inch of space.

But more than that, cottage gardening wasn’t limited to just vegetables. Herbs and even flowers were important components of any cottage garden. The difference was, everything was planted in moderation. Nutrients in British cottage gardens were often provided by poultry manure, since small, moveable coops of insect-eating poultry were another essential part of cottage gardens.

It impresses me that people with limited means, living on small plots of land, felt that ornamentals were valuable enough to take up valuable space in a tiny, cottage garden. Even today, this blending of the aesthetic with the practical sets home gardeners apart from their commercial counterparts.

It’s easy enough for a writer to sit at a desk and write about paring down garden size, but that is exactly what I'm doing. Last summer I tried plunking a few scattered examples of this and that at various points in my garden. Guess what? Those few plants, bunching onions for example, excelled.

If the small-garden concept has you intrigued, why not give it a try this coming season? Just select a small area and put a few plants in it, making sure they have plenty of space around them. I’ll wager that the results will have you looking closer into this easy and efficient gardening method.

Tom’s Tips

With an early onset winter, the walk to the compost pile or composter becomes difficult. But if you have a garden bed close to the house, simply top-dress it with vegetable waste.

You can even leave your soon-to-be compost atop the snow and it will absorb the sun’s heat and sink down to ground level in a short time.

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