May 25, 2017

Garden Plants for the Small Family

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Small Family Gardening

Garden plants for the small family:

  • Smaller plant size
  • Moderate fruit size or weekly harvest amount
  • An extended harvest
  • Interesting colors and shapes
  • Larger seed size for small childern
  • Ease of harvest

A lot of us have seen people who will quite happily brag about the huge watermelon, the dozens of zucchini squash, or the three grocery bags of green beans they harvested. It’s nice to have bragging rights, but if your family consists of four or five people, not all of whom may eat any given vegetable or fruit, trying to use up such excessive amounts of food before it all spoils could result in angry muttering and murderous glares by the fifth day in a row you’ve served green beans.

Moderation in gardening takes two forms: 1) avoiding overplanting and 2) variety selection. The first article in this series offered some smaller garden solutions that should aid in the task of avoiding overplanting. This article will primarily concern variety selection.

There are various things to consider. For those plants that aren’t started from seed in the garden, are you starting them from seed yourself or buying plants that have already been started? You will get more variety from starting the plants yourself. Very rarely will you find your local gardening center offering more than a few varieties of any one type of plant, and some of the more unusual plants are simply impossible to find at all but the most specialized garden centers. You can also start only one or two of the larger crops like broccoli or peppers instead of having to buy a flat of six or eight or pay high prices for single plants. With all that said, there is a lot of convenience to simply buying the plants at the garden center, taking them home, and planting them in your garden. Starting plants requires a certain amount of space for mucking about in potting soil, adequate light to make sure the seedlings don’t turn out too leggy, and somewhere safe away from the dangers posed by pets and children (and the occasional rowdy adult). A middle-ground approach would be to buy some of the easier-to-find varieties already started and then try starting a few of the rare varieties you’re interested in yourself.

Picture of various seeds in baggies

Seeds (Image courtesy of Jacci Howard Bear

Next is the question of whether it matters if the variety is open-pollinated or hybrid, a heritage variety or a new introduction, and if the seed is organically grown or not. If you intend to save seed for planting in future years, you will want the varieties you select to be open-pollinated, as seeds from hybrids will not be true. You will also need to be certain to not cross two varieties in your garden. For most home gardeners, however, seed saving isn’t a concern. Do not feel guilty if it is not one of yours.

Recently, a few seed companies have started carrying seeds for genetically modified plants. Unlike hybrids, this involves molecular genetics techniques. For instance, corn could have a natural pesticide engineered into its makeup to make it resistant to certain pests, or the gene that prevents one tomato variety from bruising could be transferred into another tomato variety that ripens earlier and is less prone to cracking. There are many viewpoints on the safety and ethics of genetically-modified foods. If you object to such engineering, be sure to look for labeling indicating the variety is non-GMO.

Heritage varieties are those varieties that were grown by earlier generations and passed down through families or saved by garden seed businesses or seed saving organizations. Some of them are still quite common today, while others are extremely rare. Many heritage varieties are considered to have better flavor, but may be more prone to disease, less tolerant of variations in temperature or rainfall, or take longer to mature. However, many heritage varieties simply lost popularity because other varieties were better for crop gardeners, who were looking for varieties that were uniform in size, packed well, could be picked green to ripen during shipping, and ripened all at once– not all desirable attributes to the home gardener.

There’s rarely a noticeable difference in germination rates or plant hardiness between organically-grown and non-organically-grown seed. The gardener who wants to use organic seed will find it costs a small bit more, but many seed companies and garden supply stores offer a wide range of organically-grown varieties.

So what makes a variety good for the small family gardener? Smaller plant size, moderate fruit size or weekly harvest amount, and an extended harvest. Interesting colors and shapes can also add some appeal, especially for kids who might otherwise turn up their nose at vegetables. For those parents interested in getting their smaller children involved, seed size and ease of harvest can also be factors to consider.

So, on to the varieties:


Beans come in several varieties and functions from snap beans to shellie beans to dried beans. Pole and runner beans work well on trellises and can be quite decorative. In general, pole beans produce over a longer period of time and give a higher yield for a less garden space. For edible landscaping, look for varieties with colorful flowers or pods or strikingly long pods, like Pencil Pod, Dragon Langiere, Rattlesnake, Purple Trionfo Violetto, Italian Rose, Purple King, Royal Burgundy, Marengo Romano, Yard Long Beans or Red Noodle Beans. For containers, look to compact bush varieties and dwarf runners like Hestia, Bush Romano, Contender, Provider, Tendercrop Stringless, or Bush Blue Lake. Good container limas would be Bush Baby, Fordhook Bush Lima, or Fordhook 242.


Almost all varieties of broccoli will work in the small or container garden. Try some Purple Sprouting for a change of pace.

Brussels Sprouts

Almost all varieties will work in the small or container garden. Falstaff is a red variety.


Look for smaller-headed cabbages like Gonzales as well as the pointy-headed Caraflex or the pointy-headed red cabbage Kalibos, suitable for edible landscaping.


Since many carrots grow longer than the depth of most common containers or the 6″ depth of the usual square foot garden, finding varieties that work can be challenging. Look to “baby”, “finger”, or round varieties like Mignon, Tonda Di Parigi, Gold Nugget, Little Finger, Short and Sweet, or Thumbelina. If you have the depth, try some non-orange carrots, like Lunar White, Cosmic Purple, Atomic Red, Amarillo, or Rainbow.


Most will work in small gardens or containers. Try a colored variety like Cheddar, Violetta Italia, or Green Harmony for some fun.


Try Redventure red celery or cutting celery instead of the usual variety.


Sweet corn can cross-pollinate. Because of this, you shouldn’t plant different types of hybrid sweet corns together or what you get will not be as advertised! Normal and Sugary Enhanced varieties do not require isolation, but Mirai, Super Sweet, and Triple-cross or Synergistic hybrids require isolation from other varieties. Check the package or web page to find out what the variety is. Good space saving varieties include F-M Cross, Golden Bantam, Kandy Korn, Precocious, and Baby Blue Jade.


Most cucumbers need a trellis or fence to grow on, but some bush varieties, like Salad Bush Hybrid, Burpless Bush Hybrid, Bush Pickle, and Spacemaster have been bred for small gardens or containers. If you have a trellis, look for those with smaller fruits like Lemon or Mexican Gherkin.


Fairy Tale and Twinkle both grow to 2 feet tall or less, with white-streaked purple fruit. Suitable for containers or edible landscaping in your flowerbed. Baby Rosanna produces golf-ball-size fruits on dwarf plants and Orlando produces 2 inch dark purple fruits on 20-inch plants.


Usually a light green. Works well in small gardens. Would probably work in containers. Purple varieties like Early Purple Vienna or Kolibri can add some color to a garden bed.


Melons take space to grow and often produce a fruit too large for small family gardeners. Some melons to consider for smaller fruits or plants are Eden’s Gem, Minnesota Midget, Jenny Lind, Sakata’s Sweet, Green Nutmeg, and Vert Grimnpant.


Most onions will work in a small garden. If grown for scallions, they can be tucked into a flower bed for the shape of the green tops. Some red-bulbed varieties, like Red Baron have the color of the bulb extending up to the lower leaves for added visual appeal. For containers, look for bunching onions, which like to be crowded.


Edible-podded peas generally produce more bites for your buck over peas that have to be shelled. They should be grown on a trellis or fence of some sort. One shelled pea that works in containers is Tom Thumb, an heirloom variety from the 1850s. Check out the new varieties of snap peas or try the heirloom Amish Snap.

Peppers, Hot

Many seed catalogs and garden centers feature “ornamental” peppers. Some have fruit that is simply bland and flavorless, but others are intensely hot. If you grow ornamental peppers, be sure small children know not to pop the pretty fruits whole into their mouths! If you’re looking for some hot peppers that could still feature in eye-popping container plantings or flowerbeds, consider Black Pearl with its shockingly black leaves and black to bright red, very hot fruit; Bulgarian Carrot which produces a lot of bright orange hot peppers that strongly resemble baby carrots; Cajun Belle, with its sweet-hot mini-bell fruits; or Thai Hot with its tiny, red hot peppers. Almost any pepper plant can be extremely ornamental with its dark foliage and bright fruits, so don’t let this list limit you!

Peppers, Sweet

Like hot peppers, sweet peppers can be featured in containers and the flowerbed as well as the vegetable patch. Check out Pompeii, Redskin and Mohawk for compact plants that bear big bell peppers. Sweet Pickle, sometimes called the Christmas tree pepper, produces red, orange, yellow, and even purple sweet peppers about 2 inches long, suitable for pickling (as well as eye-catching color in the garden). Corbaci peppers, a Turkish heirloom, produce scimitar- or corkscrew-shaped fruit. As with Hot Peppers, almost any sweet pepper plant can serve and ornamental purpose, so if you’re edible landscaping, plant whatever you like to eat!


Pumpkins take space, though they can be grown on a strong trellis to keep them off the ground. Consider smaller-fruited varieties like Jack Be Little, Wee Be Little, Baby Boo, and Small Sugar.


Winter radishes don’t work well in containers. Pretty much any other variety is fine. Consider some in colors other than red, such as Hail Stone, Watermelon, or Spanish Black.

Salad Greens

Arugula: Almost any variety. Most varieties require 4-6″ in the garden, which would let you grow 9 or 4 in a square foot. This is a sharp, peppery salad green, often included in “spicy” mesclun mixes. Can harvest individual leaves and leave the rest of the plant to continue growing. Tiny seeds, somewhere around 400 per gram. A good one to share with gardening friends unless using them for microgreens, as you’re unlikely to use a whole packet before the germination declines too badly to use. If you’re fond of it, plant a square foot every 2-4 weeks to maintain a continuous harvest.

Beet Greens: Bulls Blood with its dark red leaves is appropriate for edible landscaping.

Climbing Spinach: Not truly a spinach, but resembles it in taste. Ideal for edible landscaping on a trellis.

Kale: Almost any variety will work in the garden or containers. Look for red or curled varieties for edible landscaping use.

Lettuce: Lettuce comes in a variety of shapes and colors, many of which will work in containers and edible landscaping. In general, the home gardener should avoid those that produce large heads, as they take significant amount of growing time. If you absolutely must have iceberg lettuce, Calmar is a good choice, with its ruffled outer leaves. Small butterhead or Boston types include Tennis Ball and Little Gem, and the lovely red Yugoslavian Red Butterhead. For loose-leaf types, consider adding some red varities, which will look attractive in containers or flowerbeds.

Spinach: Almost any variety will do. Scarlet is a red-stemmed variety.

Squash, Summer

Squash tends to run wild in the garden unless trained up a trellis. The few suitable for containers are Balmoral, Midnight F1, Ronde de Nice, Gold Rush, and Eight Ball.

Squash, Winter

As with summer squash, a trellis is ideal. For smaller-sized fruit, try Delicata, Sweet Dumpling, Gold Nugget, or Orange Magic.

Swiss Chard

Any variety of white-stemmed Swiss chard can be attractive as a foliage plant in the flowerbed or in containers, but notable for eye-popping colors are the multi-colored Bright Lights and Five Color Silverbeet, as well as the single-colored Golden Stem, Golden Sunrise, Canary Yellow, Ruby Red, Pink Lipstick, Oriole (orange), Flamingo (pink), and Vulcan (red).


Tomatoes come in so many shapes, colors, and sizes that it’s difficult to recommend just a few. If you love red tomatoes, try out some of the orange, yellow, pink, purple, chocolate/brown, black, white, green, and striped varieties. Children may find the small cherry or grape tomatoes or even smaller currant tomatoes to be appealing small morsels of pop-in-your-mouth summer flavor, while adults may prefer slices of a hearty beefsteak variety. Tomato plants can be determinate (they grow only to a certain height, then stop and most of their fruit ripens at once) or indeterminate (they continue to grow and produce until a hard freeze kills them). Most container varieties are determinate. Maturity times vary greatly. In general, tomatoes that ripen early are less flavorful than ones that ripen late. (But even less flavorful garden tomatoes are superior to the ones from the supermarket!) It’s worth finding a seed company that specializes in heirloom tomatoes and pick up a few varieties to start from seed. Specifically for the family with really limited space, however, there are Gold Nugget and Little Sun Yellow (yellow cherry, determinate); Sweet 100, Tiny Tim, Totem, Vilma, and Maskotka (red cherry, determinate); Sweet ‘n’ Neat Scarlet Improved (red cherry, determinate growth but indeterminate fruiting); Tumbling Tom (red or yellow cherry, determinate, “weeping” growth habit); Mega Bite (red beefsteak, takes a big container); and Russian Saskatchewan, Patio (red slicing tomatoes, determinate).


Seed companies are beginning to realize the potential of small-fruited watermelons, so keep an eye out for new varieties! Ones I know of are Sugar Baby, Yellow Doll, Blacktail Mountain, and Golden Crown.

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Copyright©2011 Lynette R. F. Cowper


  1. I really liked my Currant Tomatoes the last couple of years. I grew the first one in a big pot and the second one in a square-foot garden. They are a closely-related species to true tomatoes, but it’s hard to tell the difference. The cool thing is you can run your hand down a stem and come away with a handful of tiny tomatoes that you can throw right into a salad without having to cut!

  2. I really liked my Currant Tomatoes the last couple of years. I grew the first one in a big pot and the second one in a square-foot garden. They are a closely-related species to true tomatoes, but it’s hard to tell the difference. The cool thing is you can run your hand down a stem and come away with a handful of tiny tomatoes that you can throw right into a salad without having to cut!

  3. With the sun shining in San Francisco right now this makes me want to get out and start gardening this instant! I just moved to a flat with a backyard that is perfect for a garden, and I only have 2 roommates. I’ll definitely follow these tips to get a good garden going with a variety of veggies. Any tips for getting started? I’m sure that’s a whole other blog post 🙂

  4. With the sun shining in San Francisco right now this makes me want to get out and start gardening this instant! I just moved to a flat with a backyard that is perfect for a garden, and I only have 2 roommates. I’ll definitely follow these tips to get a good garden going with a variety of veggies. Any tips for getting started? I’m sure that’s a whole other blog post 🙂

  5. LynetteCowper says:

    @jennalanger It probably is! I’ll see what I can put together. For you in San Francisco, if you’re wanting to start any of the cabbagey plants (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) or onions from seed, you’ll want to get your seeds for those and start them PRONTO. If you’re going to pick up starts from a garden center, you have a little bit of breathing room.

  6. LynetteCowper says:

    @jennalanger A couple of resources for you: (vegetable Garden Basics from the University of California) and (How to Make Mel’s Mix– a guide for making a gardening ‘soil’ that doesn’t require that you till or dig up your own dirt and try to amend it). has other publications as well. And I found a couple planting calendars for your area– and

  7. @LynetteCowper Those calendars are amazing! Thanks so much for the resources.

  8. LynetteCowper says:

    @jennalanger You’re welcome! Good luck with the garden. I’m always a little envious of you folks in the higher numbered zones because I get garden fever round about January and I have to wait soooo looonnnggg to actually plant anything out.

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