In the Seattle urban farming scene, there are a couple of guys – Colin and Brad – who seem to be everywhere. They run the aptly named Seattle Urban Farm Company, and under that moniker set-up and maintain edible gardens in backyards and on restaurant rooftops around the city and teach countless workshops for beginning new gardeners.
I’m not sure where they found the time, but they also wrote a book. It’s called Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Crops at Home and it’s an excellent reference for the beginning small-space gardener.
Since Colin and Brad are experts in the area of small space gardening, I was eager to ask them all the questions I hear most often from new urban and container gardeners. They were kind enough to obligue with the following thorough and informative answers.
Q: What are the three rules a limited-space urban gardener should follow for maximum harvest?
Sunlight Is King. Think about your plant’s access to sunlight and water before setting up your garden. Your garden must receive at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day for healthy growth and productivity. Think about your options for garden locations and consider sun exposure as the number one priority. Second priority is to make sure that it will be easy for you to get water to your plants on a regular basis. It is easy to end up carrying buckets of water through the house or knocking over pottery with an unwieldy hose, so take the time to figure out a watering system beforehand!
Feed Your Crops. Vegetables are “heavy feeders”. This means that they absorb large amounts of nutrients from the soil as they grow. In order to produce a maximum harvest, each crop needs an adequate supply of nutrients. Nutrients are supplied by compost and organic fertilizers, and both should be added to your soil before each season begins (and if you are planting in a space more than one time in a season, add them again between each planting).
Space Plants Appropriately. Make sure to follow the plant’s (or seed’s) recommended spacing requirement. Many beginning gardeners assume that, if they plant their crops closer together, then they will get more food per square foot. But…that’s not quite how it works: When crops are planted too closely together, they compete for sunlight, water and nutrients. When forced to compete, plant growth is stunted, production is limited and crops are more susceptible to pest and disease pressures. Remember, since the dawn of civilization, every gardener’s goal has been to maximize productivity in their given space. Spacing requirements have developed through generations of trial and error, so take advantage of this experience and listen to your seed packet!
Q: Which vegetables and specific varieties are great for small-space and container growing?
Certain crops give a higher yield per square foot of planting space, but it is also important to choose plants that you are really excited about growing (that will make them easier to take care of).
In smaller gardens we recommend planting (some of our favorite varieties in parentheses):
- Head Lettuce (Deer Tongue, Flashy Trout Back)
- Arugula (Rocket, Surrey)
- Bush Beans (Provider, Royal Burgundy)
- Summer Squash (Jackpot Zucchini, Zephyr)
- Radishes (Cherriette)
- Cilantro (Calypso)
- Basil (Genovese)
- Tomatoes (Sungold, Black Prince)
Q: What containers can small space gardeners use? Should anything be avoided – are those tire towers and pallet gardens a safe option?
Almost anything can be used as a planting container as long as it holds soil and has adequate drainage. That being said, certain materials are probably better than others. It is hard to know the stability and safety of many plastic containers, so we often steer towards untreated wooden containers (especially rot-resistant woods like cedar) and clay pots (glazed pots will not dry out as quickly as unglazed terra cotta). Found and repurposed items like old cast iron bathtubs or even old trucks can make great large-size containers as long as drainage is attended to.
Pallets are typically made from untreated lumber, so they should be safe to use. Avoid using chemically treated lumber in your containers or beds. Our tendency is to steer away from any materials that have an ongoing dispute about safety (pressure treated lumber, galvanized steel, random plastics, etc). Many people say that tires are very stable and shouldn’t be a cause of concern, and it is always tempting to use materials that are otherwise going to the landfill, but we prefer to use materials in which we have a high level of confidence about their safety.
Q: What techniques do you use to maximize the harvest in a limited footprint?
Interplanting. Interplanting can take advantage of otherwise unused spaces. A classic example is interplanting tomatoes and lettuce. Tomatoes are a tall, long-season crop (they take several months to grow to maturity) and lettuce is a short in stature and short-season crop (it grows very quickly). When planting your tomatoes, you seed or transplant lettuces around the base. The lettuces will grow to maturity without affecting the growth of the larger tomato plant (and may actually benefit from some of the shading the tomato will provide).
Add flowers. Find room to add a few flowers. Many annual flowers will attract “beneficial insects” to your garden. Beneficials are insects that prey on common garden pests. By encouraging these helpful insects to your yard, you will reduce pest pressures on your crops, leading to healthier plants and larger yields (and a prettier garden)! Good flower choices include:
- Bachelor Buttons
- Cilantro (if you leave it in the garden to flower after harvesting the leaves)
Succession plant – sow little and often. Plan for succession plantings. If you have an understanding of each crops lifespan (a basic guideline will be noted on seed packets as the “days to maturity”), then you can plan to fill in holes in your garden throughout the season as crops are harvested. Many of the most popular crops have a short lifespan and can be planted in the garden numerous times in the course of a single season.
Good examples of crops to succession sow:
- Lettuce and other salad greens (arugula, mustard greens, spinach)
- Bush Beans
- Kale and other cooking greens (chard, collards)
A huge thank you the Brad and Colin for taking the time to lay out what beginning small space gardeners need to know to get the most from their backyard farm, even if that farm is only a few pots on the patio.
Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard – About The Book
Colin and Brad hit all the key concepts for successful veggie growing in this book, and while many gardeners will find this work helpful, I think it really speaks to the unique needs of beginning, small-scale growers.
How do I shoehorn a tomato patch into my driveway if that’s the sunniest space I’ve got? How do I keep my crops watered in August if I want to go camping for four days? How much garden should I grow if I’m the only real veggie eater in the house? What about if all six of us love veggies? How do I build a raised bed? Ok, I built a raised bed – now how much soil do I need to fill it? Why did my lettuce plant grow a really long stem all of a sudden? How many beets should I grow?
These are questions I hear over and over, and Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard answers them and more, then throws in a pretty comprehensive crop profile encyclopedia at the end too. If you are in your first couple seasons of growing and you find yourself with more questions than answers when you look at your raised bed, or if the idea of vegetable gardening sounds great – until it sounds way too overwhelming to try – then this is the book for you.
More experienced and confident gardeners will probably already have much of the information in the book internalized, or may have already collected various references that go into similar content. It’s greatest strength is in demystifying the basics and presenting them as a comprehensive overview.
Get Your Own Copy
I’m always excited to do book reviews, because I really love books, but I’m happiest when those reviews come with goodies for my readers. The publishers of Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard are sending out a free copy of Colin and Brad’s book to one lucky NW Edible reader. To enter, leave a comment below with your biggest newbie gardening question. Hey, maybe if we’re lucky Brad and Colin will even drop by to answer a few of them! (No promises, though.)
And though it’s not strictly a requirement of entering this giveaway, I highly encourage you Facebooker’s to “like” the Seattle Urban Farm Co.’s Facebook page….not least because yesterday they gave away a $100 gift certificate for Bogs boots (possibly the best gardening boots in the world!). That’s a Facebook page that’s not joking around.
Contest open until Thursday, June 21st at 9 pm. Continental US residents only (sorry International readers – it’s only because of shipping). You can ask as many questions as you want, but only one entry per person will be counted. Good luck!
Update 6/21: Contest now closed. Winner to be announced soon. Thank you to everyone who entered – everyone asked awesome questions!0
I seem to have some sort of wilting blight that first killed the peas and now the tomatoes don’t look good. Do I have to exchange out the soil in my raised beds or is there something less expensive I could do?
Gean Ann says
Will your book convince me that my space available, sun available, time available is best spent growing food? I grow antique roses and perennials and while I have a miniscule portion allotted to vegetables, it seems to me the return isn’t worth the effort. If your book will show me I’m wrong I’m interested in having it.
I’d say this probably isn’t your focus point then! 🙂
Theresa W. says
Wow, I made the contest this time. Yeah! Count me in. This looks great.
What hasn’t been a newbie question coming from my mouth? LOL! I think the one that you ( Erica) have helped me with the most,is cantaloupe. I was so newbie I hadn’t ever been apart of a blog! So when my friend sent me a link to your page,well I froze! I just couldn’t join right away, not me! So I cheated and sent you an email wayyy back in January about growing cantaloupe in containers in this bog of an area western washington. I knew you would write, and if you did your response would be full of the ” are you kidding me’s?” But you did write, and you kept the ” this person must be brain damaged” tone out of your email. So I have been dreaming of this project since then and am almost there! The only thing you did tell me that well scared me was to ” make sure the trellis can handle the weight of an elephant” WTH?!? So I have had the time to find the perfect one, a wayward chain link gate awaits the vines that I pray will climb to the roof!
I have a question!
Is it possible to create your own compost system in an extra small space? Are there certain types of organic waste that will compost more quickly than others? I live in an apartment with a small balcony, where I grow beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, herbs, and more! I want to “feed” my edible plants and reduce my kitchen waste, but I am afraid to try composting when I have such limited space!
Oh my gosh yes – vermicomposting is made for your situation. You can do it under your kitchen sink!
How did I not know about this before???????
Okay, that leads into a second question that someone may know the answer to:
A google search shows that most people are DIY Vermicomposting in large rubbermaid-size bins. Although this is admittedly smaller than anything I’ve seen before….it would still be a pretty big space imposition in my tiny 1 bendroom, and DEFINITELY wouldn’t fit under my sink! Is it possible to replicate the same idea in, say, a 5-galleon pail? Or even something smaller?
I’d say probably. It’s just a question of how much food waste can be handled at that size. You might not be able to handle all your food scraps with a small bin but it should still work in practice. Do you have a patio? You might think of keeping a few buckets and rotating them outside if it’s nice enough while they “finish” and just keep an active bin under the sink.
Nice tips! What I want to know is when to harvest my Walking Onions and how to use them? I started growing them last year, but mostly I’m just producing more plants. Also, I’m new-ish to gardening in the NW. How does anyone keep up with the slugs and snails? I have been using sluggo, but it is getting expensive!
Sluggo is available at costco – ask me how I know. 😉 After a few seasons the slug population gets knocked back and you don’t need as much. Hand snipping at nightfall is fast and chemical free too.
How do I deter deer naturally, without building a fence? I heard somewhere that human urine will do the trick but would love to know what options are out there. Sweet giveaway!
Sounds like a lovely book! I have mud problems….which means I have drainage problems. Mulch? Ground cover? I don’t know!
First, figure out why you have drainage problems. Is it a natural low-spot? Is the neighbor dumping their rainwater into your yard? Do you have an irrigation leak? Do you have a yard made of clay so drainage is just….suuupppppeerrrrr…..slllllooooowwww?
Answer why your ground is wet to get an idea of how to address it. If it’s not something you can mitigate, raised beds will be your best bet. In my river bed-wet gardening area, my beds are raised 20 inches.
I have been living in Thailand with my family for the past 6 months, and am returning to Portland, OR, beginning of July. Our goal is to return home, and really get serious about urban farming. We currently have one raised bed, but have a decent amount of space to add 4 or 5 more. What are the best vegetables to plant in July? Also, where is the best place to plant raspberries or blackberries? Would love to win a copy of this book…I think it could really help us get our garden started right!
check out my year round gardening calendar (under the downloadables tab) to see what can be done in july – lots!!
I tried to start an asparagus bed with one year crowns about 5 weeks ago. Unfortunately, no growth. I spot checked a couple crowns and they are not rotten, but don’t really appear to have any growth. Is this a fail or should I wait a little longer?
I’d give it another year. Asparagus is a crop for the patient, and they are usually planted earlier in the year, like February. Gently dig down early next March. If you see root growth (thick whitish roots radiating out from the crown) your plants are fine. If you don’t find anything, you should replant. In the meantime, covercrop that space with something edible like lettuce or kale so you get something from the space this season.
I JUST made beds and so am starting late to the season of veggie growing… I plan on planting this weekend and have rounded up some advice from friends etc… this book would be SO HELPFUL! As a very beginner, it seems so confusing about what to plant when/where… what crops can I still direct sow at this late date, and which ones should I buy starts of????
No you are fine…this is the perfect time to start in with your fall and winter crops. Short season summer stuff like cukes can still go in now too. Check my year round veggie planting chart under downloadables, or look at the monthly to do lists.
I JUST made beds and so am starting late to the season of veggie growing… I plan on planting this weekend and have rounded up some advice from friends etc… this book would be SO HELPFUL! As a very beginner, it seems so confusing about what to plant when/where… what crops can I still direct sow at this late date, and which ones should I buy starts of???? Oh, I forgot to say we live in Seattle.
I have trouble not over or under fertilizing. How do I know when enough is enough or not enough? Thanks for the chance to win this book.
Watch your plants. If they are growing strongly, they don’t need fertilizer. If they aren’t, they *might* need fertilizer…or they might have something else like water or root maggot issues going on. That said, a big handful of organic 5-5-5 per 4×8 bed in spring seems to be about right for me, plus a bit more on replanting.
Katherine Ropp says
What is the best fertilizer to use and hoe often do I use it?
If you are just starting out, get a balanced organic fertilizer (usually 4-4-4 or 5-5-5…something like that). Whitney Farms makes a good one. Don’t use too much. I do a big handful per bed in spring, maybe a bit more later on if I replant with heavy feeders.
What is the best use for my abuntant amount of leachate in my garden?
I would love to learn more about what types of veggies to plant under larger/taller vegetables. Companion planting? I cannot figure out how to maximize my produce from my tiny garden box with the little sunshine we get as well as the success of the seeds I have planted. (Struggling with my seeds this year for cucumbers and squash. Arg!)
Karen Ercolino says
I’m confused about fertilizing – how much, how often?
What are the best veggies to grow for the beginning home gardener?
I’m in S. California and growing corn in my garden for the first time. The corn is about 15 feet tall now! And some of the stocks are falling over or getting knocked over by the wind. If I grow corn next year, what can I do differently in planting or staking before it gets so big?
What a nice problem to have! 🙂 I’m not sure – 15 foot corn is unheard of up here. Hopefully one of our high-heat readers can weigh in.
Max Morgan says
I’m plagued with root rot nematode. What’s the best organic way to eliminate with it?
Oh God, Max, I’m sorry. I’ll let you know if I find anything….I think I’ve read that there are some botanical / fungal controls that show a lot of promise. Otherwise, plant things with agressive root systems, I guess. 🙁 I will get in touch if I hear of a good control.
What a fun interview. Thanks! I have a question about making my own compost: I have no trouble collecting “green” scraps to put into my compost pile, but since I rent my place, I don’t have access to many “browns” (like dried leaves or grass clippings). What are the best “browns” to use in this case?
Also, how do I keep that horrible chipmunk from terrorizing my patio garden?
Junk mail. Seriously, as long as it’s not shiny or coated, tear up or shred waste paper, newspaper, etc. and you’ve got a good “brown” to balance your greens.
Yvonne Herbst says
I live in Everett, and have two issues I just cannot seem to overcome after years of trying myself at gardening. First off, fertilizing! It seems every plant needs different nutrients and if they are planted right next to each other one may need more than the other (even with companion planting in mind). Second our micro climate drives me bonkers. Down my street a neighbor may already have ripe tomatoes and mine are still green. Anyway, I won’t give up and still dream of my little suburban farm ; )
I’m going to moving to a house with a yard in August. Will it be too late to plant tomatoes by then? I live in the Northeast US.
Yes I think that will be too late, but tomatoes handle (large) containers well. Can you plant one now and take it with you?
I didn’t read through all the questions so this may have been asked already…
When reading the spacing on seed packets, it will usually say something like, “Plant seeds with 3″ spacing in rows 36″ apart; thin seedlings to 6″ when…”
As we are growing our garden in 4’x8′ raised beds, spacing the rows 36″ apart for something that is able to tolerate a neighbor six inches away in the other direction just doesn’t make sense to us. We will do that in the front yard where we don’t have raised beds and need to actually walk between the rows, but in the raised beds we would plant the above example in rows 6″ apart (since that is the final spacing recommended within the rows). Is that reasonable? Are we harming our production? We’ve done this the last couple years and it seems to be fine but who knows if we could be doing better?
Yes, that is the rule of thumb with raised bed growing – you go the “space between plants” distance apart in all direction. You’ve got it. If things seem really crowded at that spacing (like I’d never do beets at 2″ apart final spacing, I like them at about 5″ final spacing) just give a bit more room. It sounds like your method is working well. 🙂
sweet dick d says
what are the best ways to deal with late blight in an organic way in a (very) small space garden in San Francisco if one wants to have nightshades more than once evry four years?
If your garden is really small, these easiest way to dramatically reduce late blight is to never let your plants get wet. Blight thrives in cool, wet conditions and (I think) requires those conditions to “bloom.” Put a soaker hose on your bed or a dripper on your pot, lay clean plastic or organic mulch (like straw) over the soaker, and erect some sort of cloche to prevent rains from hitting your plants. Make sure to leave lots of airflow space. This should help a lot. Even rotation isn’t as effective as you’d hope, because the spores are airborne, not soil borne, as I understand it.
Joetta Napolitan says
How do you keep ‘pests’ such as flea beetles contained and prevent spreading in a small space garden? We have a few raised beds but one bed has had all the Cauliflower, Broccoli, Cabbage, and Brussel Sprouts decimated even though they are separated by things the beetles haven’t eaten. I’m afraid to replant until we have it under control but at the same time I’m afraid they will migrate to my squash, pumpkin, cucumbers and radish beds if I don’t as I’ve already started seeing them in my peas and bush beans. We are currently treating with an organic mix containing onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, baby shampoo and skim milk and have discussed trapping them with duct tape or fly strips. I’d rather not lose the whole garden but I don’t want to dump a bunch of chemicals on it either.
Debby-Lee Ellis says
If I could focus on one type of fertiliser would you recommend getting a rom farm, a compost bin or access to chicken poo and which one of these would be the most all round useful?
Debby-Lee Ellis says
*worm farm doh
What is the best way to get rid of crabgrass? I have a decent size lot on the side of my house and I have my veggie garden toward the front where the south sun is. I also have a corner of 2 streets planted with a manzanta and a maple for decoration for the street. In the corner planting we put down black plastic (early in my gardening years), the veggie bed we just put dirt on top with at least 8 +inches in the raised bed. Every year I go out and turn the dirt, pull the weeds and CRABGRASS and add amended soil. What else can I do? I really would love to make a lovely English garden type lay out with veggies, annuals, perennials and year round plants, but not if I have to pull crabgrass all the time.
T Schladensky says
I started gardening last year in a 48 square foot box. This year, my wonderful husband expanded the garden to around 750 square feet complete with stone walls and walkways. Our back yard in now entirely garden. We sifted and composted the hard clay soil, then trucked in organic garden soil to top it off. The plants are all thriving. It’s my oasis. We want to also garden during the winter months. I’m still learning and appreciate your wonderful blog and books like Colin & Brad’s. Thank you for helping all us newbie’s along.
Great job! Check out Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long and other books by Eliot Coleman for great info on 4-season growing.
Lindsey S says
I would like to know how to deter pests and neighborhood cats from using my raised bed garden as a litterbox. I’ve put up netting but they claw through it. And for pests I have slug drool on strawberries and holes in my bean leaves 🙁
How in the world do I get rid of loads of bindweed without having to spray?
An excellent question. 🙂 You’ll never get rid of it, but dedicated regular pulling will slow it down enough that it isn’t killing everything else. Sorry, it’s a doozy of a plant once it gets established. But don’t feel too bad, I don’t even thing spraying would be a permanent solution – you’d still end up pulling.
Crystal Wayward says
What’s the best way to ensure a prolific berry harvest? We have had blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and jostaberries for two summers. Do we just need to be patient for another couple years in order to expect more than a handful of berries? (Our garden is in Missouri.)
Berries on bushes will give a better and better harvest as they get older and stronger. Cane fruit should give you a good yield from year 2 or 3 on. Make sure to prune – cane fruit needs pruning – and feed them. Having bees around will help, too, so make sure you have a good native population of pollinators or start keeping mason bees (they are very easy and cheap compared to honeybees). I throw coffee grounds all around my blueberries. It seems to help. Also, some years are just better than others for fruit, and that’s not in your control. 🙂
I am a reluctant gardener who doesn’t know where to begin. How late in the season can you start a herb garden?
Perennial herbs can be started anytime from transplants. Basil should go in now from transplant.
Sounds like a good book! my question is is it really nessesarry ro remove the suckers from a tomato plant? one year I didn’t and the suckers actually grew tomatos on them.
I remove suckers from indeterminate tomatoes but I just let determinates do whatever they want. There are as many ways to train tomatoes as there are gardeners. If your way works for you, it works! 🙂
Chuck Root says
I just planted my first square foot garden this year, and I will definitely be reading everything about what you are doing …. keep up the good work and so far I really enjoy what I’m reading …. this is all trial and error …. I would attach a picture, but I don’t know how 🙂
I have some sad little kale seedlings that just can’t seem to get a leg up. They get plenty of sun and water, but they only grow a few centimeters before they start to look sickly and just seem to give up and lie down. Any ideas what might be going on, and if there’s anything I can do to help them out?
Yes, I have an idea. You probably have root maggots of some kind. They seem particularly bad this year to me. Dig one up with a good size root ball and the soil around the roots, move it someplace away from your garden, and start investigating the roots, particularly near the tap root. Look for little white grubs. If you have root maggots, there are some nematodes that are supposed to help, and you’ll want to use a paper collars and some kind of a soil-protector made from sawdust or an old carpet pad or something when you plant brassicas from now on.
The book looks wonderful! I would love to know if there is any way to deter deer and rabbits without a fence??? We live in an area where the deer have lost a great deal of their natural habitat and seem to have chosen our garden as a munch stop….
Lynn, look at the book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. The author talks about building a deer “hedge” to basically encourage deer to go where he wanted, not where he didn’t. I’ve also heard predator pee can deter, but I don’t have direct experience with deer.
It’s still raining in NW Oregon and I missed spring planting. Going to start in with fall crops on a patio. What are the best veggies for patio container crops in a place that gets noon til setting sun, what little sun we have. All is under a 10×20 ft greenhouse clear glass roof, but windy still.
I would love to know which crops are most cost effective for home gardeners…especially in Seattle. Thanks for your awesome work!
Herbs, without a doubt, are the best bang for your buck in terms of cost at market and area of space needed to get a good harvest. I would say, after the perennial and annual herbs, the salad greens and the cooking greens like kale, collards, and chard.
Darla Shannon says
How deep do containers need to be to grow tomatoes?
16×16 is a good rule of thumb. Make sure to have support in place *before* your tomato gets big.
LaRue Cobb says
When it comes to those coffee grounds-I have alot-If you compost them will they still help the soil?? And do they still make the soil too acidic?
How does one grow healthy basil in the PNW? I come from interior Alaska, where I never had a problem growing beautiful bushy basil – I’ve been here in Seattle for 10 years now, and have not had success yet… Thanks!!
Where exactly do earwigs fit in the food chain scheme of things? I mean really. I never see a bird eating them, my dog won’t eat them, are they high in protein and we should eat them? We can’t have chickens here, so I’m not sure if they would eat them anyway. I’ve got plenty to share if anyone wants some! :o) Seriously, I guess my question is… how do you really get rid of the things?
I grow only container gardens (apartment living), I add coffee grounds and tea leaves to the containers, could this be why my basil looks very yellow. On a side not I live in western oregon, too little sun perhaps?
Do you have a schedule/calendar of what you plant and when? Does it include seed starting and what is ok to direct sow as seed?
http://nwedible.com/downloadables Scroll down to “Year Round Planting Guide”
I live in Chicago and our soil has a high pH. What is the best way to make our soil more acidic?
WoW the book looks good. My question is how to garden in the front yard? My front yard has the best sunlight available, but I get a ton of people and dogs who like my yard for different reasons. I would like to put a full garden out front, but I have to keep aesthetics in mind as well as exposure to problem people or animals.
Holly R says
My radishes were tiny this year. I have never had that problem. They grew so slowly until it finally got hot enough and they bolted! They were woody and hot from being in the ground for so long. I planted them a few inches apart, seemed like proper spacing. What could cause this? Anyone have any ideas?
I enjoyed your blog, and the book looks like something I would get alot of use out of.
I’m growing beets for the first time, amongst the rest of my first-time garden, and was wondering, if/when I could harvest some of these beautiful leaves for a salad? Do I just take one per beet, can I take more? Does it harm the growth of the beet if I remove too many?
I know, that was more than one question, but I’v only grown herbs and tomatoes before, so I’m pretty new at this!
Thanks for any insight.