July 28, 2017

Garden Solutions for the Small Family

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Small Family Gardening

For the family with limited space or time, here are some options to consider:

  • Square foot gardening.
  • Edible landscaping.
  • Container planting.
  • Growing microgreens.

I come from a family of gardeners. There were seven of us in my family. We had a big garden, and canned and froze most of the vegetables that we would use throughout the lean winter months. My mother was a teacher and so had summers off. She would round all us kids up, hoe lines in the garden and hand us each an envelope of seeds. “This goes about fingernail deep and you need two inches between each seed. Take this row here.” And off we would go, the smell of earth and grass and sunshine in our nostrils, planting little seeds that would become our dinner. My father loved (still does!) harvesting. He wasn’t fond of the rototilling and hoeing and planting and weeding, but he did it for that delectable harvest. Sitting out in the shade of a beech tree snapping beans with my family is indelibly etched in my memory. The year my mother sent my sister and I back into the back strawberry patch to harvest and we found the patch full of wire worms, which left us screaming and tossing infested strawberries as far from us as possible with each new discovery. Yes, not every memory is a wonderful one, but my sister and I still laugh about it. And the strawberries were still sweeter than anything we ever got from the store.

Uncle Sam poster: Uncle Sam says-- Garden to cut food costs

Garden to cut food costs

Now I have my own family. There are only four of us. There are almost no vegetables that we all four love. Unlike the family of my childhood, we are quite a bit busier in the summertime and are away from home more often. A large portion of our yard is quite shady, unsuitable for gardening, though lovely for other things. An ankle injury has made it difficult for me to kneel for any length of time without pain. The large garden of my childhood is simply impractical. Yet, to have something other than the bland store-bought tomatoes, the limp lettuces of salad blends, the limited choices from the produce section, and the rising costs of fresh vegetables drive me and many others to want that smell of earth and the feel of the hot sun on our backs.

Here then are some solutions for the smaller and busier families of today who may be stuck with small yards or no yards at all.

Square Foot Gardening

The first solution for a small family garden, if you have some portion of a yard that gets adequate sun (6 to 8 hours a day), or even a decent patio area, is to consider square foot gardening (or square meter gardening, for those outside the US). I highly recommend the book All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. For me, with my inability to kneel for long periods, the plans for building a stand-up garden in the chapter on special gardens was a godsend. I now have three stand-up garden squares, plus two on the ground for taller crops or those which require a trellis. The problem with the traditional garden, as is pointed out in the book, is that a lot of space and effort is given to maintaining areas whose sole purpose is to be walked on. And, really, what family of four needs the amount of harvest they’d get from a 10′ row of green beans when they all come on at the same time? This method reduces the size of the garden and the work required to tend it, prevents overplanting, and reduces the number of tools needed to a bare minimum. There are plans for special gardens such as the aforementioned stand-up garden, ones for working on from wheelchairs, and even ones for use on balconies or flat rooftops. Even if you don’t have a spot that works for a 4’x4′ box, the square foot method can be applied to deck and fence boxes or smaller raised beds flower beds converted to mostly vegetable use.

Check out The Square Foot Gardening Foundation’s Official Site for more information.

Edible Landscaping

The second solution, if you have only a few flower beds available, is to consider edible landscaping. Visit some garden seed sites or flip through a seed catalog with an eye toward color and form. Many herbs, especially the smaller ones intended for container growing, make beautiful and unusual foiliage plants, though be careful of herbs in the mint family including basil, thyme, and rosemary, as mint can be invasive. Tomato plants, pepper plants, and eggplants can be quite visually delightful with their colorful fruits and dark foliage while also providing tasty morsels for your plate. Look especially for those smaller varieties marketed for container or patio gardening. Some pepper varieties feature dark purple foliage and stems as well, which can be quite stunning against brighter colors. Some “greens” have pleasing shapes and a rainbow of colors. Look for Swiss chards like “Oriole”, “Ruby Red”, “Flamingo”, “Bright Lights” or “5 Color Silverbeet”; red and purple lettuces as well as those with interesting shapes such as “Oak Leaf”, “Salad Bowl”, or even something like “Tom Thumb”; red-topped beets; red and/or curled kales and mustards; and some lettuce alternatives such as orach, claytonia (miner’s lettuce), vegetable amaranth, and mache (corn salad). As long as runners are kept trimmed, strawberries can be quite a lovely sight, both in flower and in fruit. Don’t ignore the visual impact of orange or purple cauliflower, purple broccoli, or cabbages that are either red or pointed or both such as “caraflex” or “kalibos”. Also among the brassicas is the not-to-be-missed cauliflower or broccoli romanesco with its lime-green heads of fractal points. Instead of opting for the usual bushes, consider blueberries or thornless raspberries or blackberries. Grain amaranth and sunflowers can be planted in areas that would usually be devoted to ornamental grasses. Last but not least, if you have a trellis or fence, don’t forget the visual impact of runner beans, purple-podded or striped pole beans, yardlong or asparagus beans, malabar spinach, currant tomatoes, cucumbers, or summer squash.

See Edible Landscaping Basics for more ideas.

Container Planting

If you have no yard to speak of, but have a small patio or balcony, consider container plants. Most seed companies have a section of their website or catalogue devoted to this very need. Almost every type of plant has some variety that’s appropriate for containers, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, lettuce, green onions, snap beans, radishes, cucumber, various herbs, and even corn! You can also easily find dwarf orange, tangerine, lemon, lime, kumquat, nectarine, peach, and apple trees for container growing.

See this Guide to Container Gardening for good basic advice.


If all of the above aren’t options, you still have a few choices. You can grow some herbs and smaller plants in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light. You can also grow microgreens– tiny seedlets that you harvest after only a few days.

See Growing Food in a Windowsill for a good guide for the home microgreen grower. Especially good for re-using inexpensive containers!

The best solution for many people may be a combination of the above techniques. For instance, while I have some square-foot garden squares, I grow tomatoes in containers (I picked up some of those upside-down hanging tomato planters marked down last autumn and am looking forward to trying them out); use the arched trellis planter boxes on the back deck for pole or runner beans, peas, malabar spinach, or indeterminate tomatoes; and am trying my hand at microgreens and a few windowsill plants in the wintertime. Start small, so you don’t overwhelm yourself and your family and see where the experience takes you!

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