Food in small spaces

by Kat Lavers September 2022

From small courtyard gardens with potted fruit trees, to planters with herbs and greens on a balcony, or even sprouts in a jar on your kitchen sink – there’s no space too small to grow some food. But gardening in these small spaces does come with special challenges. Here are some pointers to help you make the most of even the tiniest patch.

Growing in pots

If your space has no garden beds or you’re renting, growing in pots may be your only option. Look for pots that are at least 30cm deep to help plant roots to stay cool and moist in hot weather. This is also a practical size if you need to move them. Pots can be filled with good quality potting mix, or alternatively a sandy soil mix. Remember to check the structural safety of your balcony and make sure it can support the weight of your pots

Wicking (or self-watering) pots are an excellent choice and are easy to make yourself out of food grade 10 or 20L plastic buckets, or other recycled containers that hold water. Many cafes and restaurants are happy to give these away for free. See ‘Resourceful Renters’ on Gardening Australia’s Youtube for a DIY video.

Composting in small spaces Returning your food scraps to the garden as compost will keep your soil healthy and your yields high. There are several options that can work in small spaces. Worm farms work well in highly-motivated households prepared to prioritise caring for worms. They must be located in shade during summer months, and need a plan for care during holidays. Bokashi composting can happen in your kitchen. Bokashi grain is sprinkled over food scraps so that they ferment rather than smelling putrid. The scraps are preserved in this stable form until the bucket can be buried or composted elsewhere. A small space version of regular composting can be carried out in recycled 20L food grade plastic buckets with small holes drilled in the base and lid. Compost must be layered with a material rich in carbon like wood shavings, sawdust, autumn leaves, shredded paper or cardboard, aerated occasionally and kept moist.

Dealing with sun

Sunny balconies and courtyards can be hot, dry and windy. In some cases a drought-tolerant vine on a sturdy pergola/trellis can be used as a screen. See the table below for a list of heat tolerant fruit and vegetables. To help your pot plants through hot weather, place deep saucers under your pots and fill these with water during hot weather, or bury a solid container that holds water in the base of the pot, or place a leaky bottle filled with water on the surface, or just use wicking pots as described above.

Dealing with shade

Many small spaces must contend with shade, particularly in winter months when the sun is at a low angle in the sky. Very few food plants will grow in complete shade, but some that tolerate semi-shade well are listed in the table below. Some plants may be able to access sun as they grow taller, and deciduous fruit trees that are dormant in winter will not mind if they are in shade during that time. If you can keep them watered, hanging baskets or vertical gardens can also catch the rays up high. Mirrors and walls (or movable boards) painted a light colour will reflect light into small spaces. Or grow sprouts or mushrooms indoors with no sun at all!

Growing sprouts at home

  1. Soak a few tablespoons of seeds in water overnight in a glass jar.
  2. Place a piece of cloth over the rim of the jar and secure with an elastic band. Let the water drain out through this cloth by placing on an angle in your dish draining rack.
  3. Rinse and drain twice a day. Eat sprouts when they are grown to your liking.

You can buy sprouting seeds from nurseries, or try sprouting mustard, fenugreek, mung bean, lentils and whole wheat/rye/spelt grain from your pantry.

Plant selection

Plant selection

Deciding what to grow is a balance of what you like to eat, what yields best, what saves you money, and is well suited to your growing conditions. Most people will find starting with herbs and leafy greens makes the most sense. To boost your yield you can also:

– Look for plants that you can harvest over a long time, rather than one large harvest

– Look for plants with other edible parts (eg. eat young carrot tops, beetroot leaves, leek greens)

– Trial different varieties of the same species side by side (eg. Tommy Toe vs. Black Cherry tomatoes) to find the cultivars that work best in your conditions

– Grow up poles, trellises, fences and trees to save space (eg. indeterminate tomatoes, climbing peas and beans, cucumbers, tromboncino zucchinis and pumpkins). Windy balconies and rooftops need to look for short, sturdy varieties instead

– Grow small, quick growing plants like radishes in the space around larger slower vegies while they get established, or use them to fill any gaps

– Plant two or more batches of short-lived crops to extend your harvest (eg. zucchini, bean, cucumber, corn, radish, beetroot, lettuce, rocket)

Plant suggestions for pots and other small spaces

Semi-shade tolerant food plantsHeat tolerant food plantsOther fruit ideas
Parsley, mint
Silverbeet, rocket, lettuce
Red mustard
Sweet potato (for greens only)
Warrigal greens/bower spinach
Chilean guava
Cherry guava
Red and white currant
Thyme, rosemary, lavender, oregano, marjoram, sage, bay, lemongrass, lemon balm, chives and garlic chives
Wild rocket
Warrigal greens/bower spinach
Chilli* and capsicum*
Dwarf black mulberry
Grape (on trellis)
Goji berry

*with appropriate moisture
Blueberries (need acidic soil)
Dwarf varieties of apple, pear, plum, apricot, peach, nectarine  

Planting design

To help your plants grow well and make your gardening more convenient you can:

– Get your spacing right by checking labels and seed packets

– Position taller plants on the southern side, shorter plants on northern side

– Position plants that you will pick often at the edges for convenient access

– Group plants with similar requirements (eg. netting) @kat.lavers Notes prepared September 2022