Food forests, living walls, and hydroponic salad gardens are flooding DIY websites as seed sales hit a historic high. Many people are taking an interest in producing their own food and turning unique spaces into veggie gardens.
But, what if you’ve killed every plant you’ve ever owned?
Good news! Small vegetable or flower gardens are much easier to keep alive than houseplants or container plants.
Start a small vegetable or flower garden by:
- Selecting a plot that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight per day
- Till the soil and remove debris
- Amend with compost
- Build a raised bed (optional)
As long as you choose plants that grow well in your climate, lighting, and soil, you should be able to start a small, low-maintenance garden.
And just in case you were wanting to start a medium or large garden, don’t worry: these instructions are one-size-fits-all.
How to Select a Plot for a Small Garden
Lighting is the most important factor when you select a garden plot.
Soil quality, irrigation, and even topography can be changed or altered to support a new garden plot, but it’s difficult to change how much sunlight hits an area each day.
Most vegetables and flowers thrive in full sun, but they will tolerate part sun. Find a plot that gets 8-10 hours of light for vegetables and most flowers. Leafy greens, root crops, and some flowers can grow in plots that get 3-6 hours of light per day, but only if the light is unfiltered.
Plots can be any size, but 2’ x 4’ is a good starter size for small vegetables and a few flowers.
A small, well-maintained garden can support more plants than a neglected plot that is twice the size.
Every square foot of space can hold:
- 7+ plants: garlic, onions, leeks, turnips, radishes, carrots, beets, beans, peas, or parsnips.
- 4-6 plants: baby kale, chard, endive, lettuce, arugula, or spinach.
- 2-4 plants: basil, radicchio, cucumbers, parsley, strawberries, or chives.
- 1 plant: dwarf tomatoes, peppers, baby melons, squash, herbs, cabbage, or kale.
A 2’ x 4’ garden can support 8 square’ of plants. This is enough space for:
- 1 dwarf tomato plant
- 1 pepper plant
- 1 basil plant
- 1 chive plant
- 1 parsley plant
- 1 squash plant
- 1 baby watermelon plant
- 2 cucumber plants
- 6 lettuce plants
- 6 baby kale plants
- Garlic, onions, radishes, & carrots stuffed in bare patches of soil
This would be a packed garden space, but with consistent maintenance and the right irrigation schedule, mulch, and soil amendments, it could be quite productive.
Baby greens and root crops are good filler plants; they can be tucked under tomatoes and peppers, or scattered in with herbs and fruiting vines. These can also be planted in succession, where a few seeds are planted each week to have a consistent harvest throughout the summer.
If you want your small garden plot to be the home to colorful annuals or perennials, visit your local nursery to see what plants grow well in your climate.
There are too many annual and perennial flower options to make a comprehensive list of how many should be put into each square foot.
Don’t rule out planting vegetables and flowers in the same garden bed!
Flowers bring in butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects that pollinate and destroy pests in a vegetable garden.
Many flowers are edible and make a welcome addition to your vegetable garden:
Flowers from herbs, onions, chives, and squash are also edible and provide food for beneficial insects.
How to Prepare a Plot for a Small Garden
Once you have chosen the area for your future garden, it’s time to dig.
Till your garden once when you prepare the soil, and then once every 3-4 years to prevent compaction. Annual tilling destroys soil structure and causes root problems.
Till the Soil & Remove Debris
Small plots are rarely worth the cost of renting a tiller, but rocky or clay soils may be too difficult to dig with a shovel.
Whether you decide to till or dig, make sure the soil is moist before you begin. Soil should be damp, but not dripping. If you can form a mud ball, it’s too wet.
Remove rocks and debris, and use a soil rake to pull out the roots from grass or weeds. You may have to repeat the process a few times to remove all the old plant material, but it’s worth it because it drastically cuts down on weeding.
If you are building a raised bed or container, it’s still a good idea to till the soil. If the soil is broken up, water from the raised bed will drain freely and prevent root rot.
Make sure plots are no wider than 4’ so you can comfortably reach the center without stepping on the soil. The key to healthy garden plots is loose, fertile soil. If you step in the garden, you can compact the soil and make it difficult for roots to spread out and find water and nutrients.
Amend the Soil with Compost
Once you’ve tilled the soil, mix in 4” – 6” of compost.
At this point, your garden plot will look like a small raised bed, but once you plant and water, it should settle back down to ground level.
Outline your plot with wood, rocks, landscape borders, bricks, or any other untreated material. You don’t have to build a border, but it will prevent creeping grasses from taking over, and it will provide a clean edge for mowing and trimming.
Place stepping stones or mulch in areas where you need to step or kneel, and try to leave as much loose soil as possible.
Build a Raised Bed (Optional)
If you’ve decided to build a raised bed, fill it with a mixture of perlite, garden soil, and compost.
If the walls of your raised bed will be over 2’ tall, consider lining inside the bottom of the container with fine chicken wire or mesh to keep out unwanted animals.
Still not sure if you should plant in the ground or in a raised bed?
If in doubt, go with a raised bed; they’re easier to maintain and you can fit more per square foot.
You can find thousands of raised bed diagrams online, or you can purchase a pre-made kit at most hardware stores. Whatever you decide to do, just make sure the materials you use are untreated and that your container can drain freely into the topsoil.
How to Plant a Small Garden
Now that you’ve done the prep work, it’s time for the fun part- planting!
You have two options for planting flowers and vegetables: seeds or transplants.
- Most salad greens, root crops, and fruiting vines should be direct-seeded into the garden.
- Most tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and brassicas should be grown from seed indoors and then transplanted (or purchased from a greenhouse).
- Most flowers should be purchased from a greenhouse unless you have a dedicated seed-starting area or you are scattering wildflower seeds.
If you plant seeds directly into the garden, keep the soil moist until seedlings have emerged and have their first set of true leaves. You may have to water multiple times per day. Use the mist setting on your sprayer to prevent seeds from washing away.
For transplants, remove the flower or vegetable from the container and dig a small hole. Place the plant in the hole and lightly tamp soil around the rootball, being careful not to pile soil around the stem. The exception is leeks and tomatoes.
Leeks should be planted into a deep hole with only the top few inches of leaves poking out of the soil.
Tomatoes can be planted into a deep hole or laid sideways into a trench. Pull off all but the top few leaves and remove all flowers. Set the tomato into the hole or trench and cover with soil. Tomatoes will form roots all along the stem, which is important because tomatoes are water hogs. An extensive root system will pull up more water during fruiting and prevent drought stress.
Keep transplanted vegetables and flowers moist for the first week after planting. Once they start to show signs of new growth, gradually back off on the water until you are watering in the morning every other day.
Once the plants are established and you are done planting, cover the soil with 2” of mulch to conserve water and suppress weeds.
Wood chips are great for flower beds, but they may be too bulky for vegetables. Try grass clippings, shredded paper, or leaf litter if you’re growing vegetables, and keep the mulch away from the stems of the plants.
That’s it! Keep your garden watered and weeded, and try to avoid the urge to keep buying plants at the greenhouse. If you like maintaining a small garden plot, expand into multiple plots and start a small food forest in the backyard.
Read Thriving Yard’s guide to building a pallet garden if you want an easy design for a DIY raised bed.