Even if you only have a small yard, you can harvest a relatively large amount of food. Small garden designs that focus on interplanting, succession planting, overwintering, and closer spacing can take a small garden space to the next level – plus a couple of bonus tips. It just takes a little bit of know-how, observation, and planning ahead.
To some, a ‘small garden’ might mean a 10-foot by 10-foot space in their backyard. Others might have a larger space, but don’t know how to put it to good use, so they’re not getting the maximum harvests out of it. You can read a bit about some garden design ideas that might work for you in this post.
No matter how small a garden you want – or how small your yard size dictates – I can teach you how to get more out of it. Even if you only have room to put in a herb spiral with a 6-foot diameter, you can grow all the salad and stir-fry veggies you’ll need for your summer dinners.
If you have a bigger space, you can maybe start thinking about preserving some food – drying herbs, canning tomatoes, and fermenting greens.
The secret to increasing your harvest is to use the space wisely by overlapping your crops, and playing with plant spacing and timing. Just these two things can increase your harvest size.
Of course, the most important thing you can do to have a healthy harvest is to increase your soil fertility. But that’s an ongoing thing. You’ll be making lots of compost, and putting it on the garden each year, right? So you’ll be really pumping it full of the good stuff.
An important part of small garden designs is learning to make the most of the space; and one of the great ways to do this is by interplanting.
There are many ways you can interplant in the garden. You can take advantage of the space between slower growing plants such as broccoli, and grow some quick things like radishes and greens.
You can also do things like plant fall brassicas underneath pea plants that are almost finished cropping. By that time, you should be able to snip off the lower branches and leaves of the pea plants. This will give the brassicas space to grow and be sheltered by the peas. They’ll also get a good shot of nitrogen when you cut back the peas, which they will love.
You have probably heard of a planting design called the Three Sisters, in which squash, corn and beans are grown together in a mutually beneficial guild. Well, you can do that with all sorts of plants.
The key is getting to know your plants. You need to know the Days to Maturity of each plant. You also need to know how tall and wide it generally gets, as you will want to ensure that one plant doesn’t over-run the other.
Squash can pretty much take over an area, and beans will climb anything they can grab, and will pull it down if it’s not trellised well. So some forethought needs to happen before just tossing seeds out together.
Often, in interplanting, one plant is seeded first to give it time to get growing, and then another is planted afterward. This is usually a slow plant seeded first, with a quick crop grown and harvested before the slower crop gets big and takes over the plot.
Often, before the slow crop is done, you can plant another quick crop under it, to be given more space when the slow crop is harvested.
Utilizing succession planting in your small garden designs will reap big benefits. There are a few different ways you can succession plant in your garden.
One way is what we do when we want to stagger that harvest of something. So, instead of planting all of your carrot seeds at the same time, and having all of your carrots ready for harvest at the same time, you can plant short rows of carrots every couple of weeks.
Planting this way will ensure that you have a steady harvest of carrots right into the fall; and you can even have a winter crop of carrots that can stay in the ground in some climates.
You can use the same technique with radishes, lettuce, greens such as mustards, as well as beets and turnips. Basically, any plant that has a Days to Maturity that is shorter than the growing season is a candidate for this type of succession planting.
Another kind of succession planting is when you plant a crop immediately after harvesting another. For instance, you can harvest really early things like radishes, and then plant something else immediately after.
So, for this gardening technique, you really need to learn the Days to Maturity for the seeds you’re planting, and then do a little calculating. Planting times will be different for each climate, so I can’t give everyone a set date for planting. But I know you can figure it out.
There are actually plants that enjoy being sow from late summer to late fall, and then hanging out in the garden over the winter. Not all of these will work in all climates, but it’s worth a try.
There are overwintering cauliflowers and onions. Garlic is another thing we plant in late fall, and harvest the following summer. And you can often plant peas in late fall, and have them overwinter as seedlings, so they’ll shoot up in early spring.
These techniques won’t work too well in my garden, because it doesn’t actually get any sunlight at all in the late fall and winter. None. Zip. Zilch. It’s the 8th of March, and my garden only gets a scattering of sun, in some areas, at certain times of the day. Not the ideal candidate for overwintering veggies.
But you should try it in your garden. It really expands the growing season, and enables you to be able to harvest much earlier in spring.
Did you know you can play with plant spacing in your garden plantings? Yes, each seed packet has an ‘ideal’ planting distance; but this can often be flexible.
For instance, if you want your heads of cauliflower or broccoli or cabbage to be a bit smaller (and therefore ripen a bit earlier) you can plant them a bit closer together. Pretty simple, right?
Another way you can meddle with plant spacing is by ‘multi sowing’. This entails planting more than one seed in a spot, and letting them all grow together. I first read about this in Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower. I thought it sounded pretty brilliant so I gave it a try with the onions. It worked!
I started everything as transplants that year (2016), and did this with bulb onions and green onions. I’d plant four bulb onion seeds per block, and ten or twelve green onion seeds per block. And they all grew great!
I was super impressed, because planting out 75 seedling blocks with four onions growing in each is way quicker than planting out 300 single onion seedlings. WAY quicker.
After watching Charles Dowding‘s videos, and seeing how he used multi-sowing, I tried it again this year with a few other things. I planted two broccoli seeds per cell; four radishes per cell; four or five leek seeds per cell; and four beet seeds per cell. And they all grew perfectly well.
I think this is a great way to speed up the planting process, while making room for more veggies in the garden. And who doesn’t want that?
Vertical gardening – and beyond
Walls, gates, fences, balconies, pergolas – what structures do you have that could be home to climbing plants such as grapes, kiwis, or runner beans? Where can you hang pots full of herbs, tomatoes, and strawberries? There is always just one more place you can plant something.
Using all of your vertical space can really increase your garden output. And not just vertical space. This year we’re putting a long box along the edge of the shop roof, for growing tomatoes and hot peppers. It’s the hottest place in the yard, and gets the most sun, so I’m hoping they’ll do well there.
We’ll also be using every pot-like thing we have to grow veggies this year. Yes, this property is shady. But with a little ingenuity, we hope to really increase our vegetable production this year.
Take a look around your yard and see where you can take advantage of hot spots for heat lovers, cool spots for shade lovers, and just more spots to grow more food!
Here’s my last tip on getting the most from your small garden design. Eat everything!
There is probably more food growing in your garden than you are aware of. Did you know you can eat turnip and radish tops? And that they are actually more nutritious than the roots? The same applies to beet tops. And I actually like them better than the roots.
Carrot tops, squash leaves, the tender tips of pea plants – yep, all edible. Nasturtium leaves and flowers? Yes, peppery goodness.
One of my favorites for using in early summer salads is the flowering tops of things such as mustard, pac choi and radishes, that are sending up flowering stems and going to seed. These are tasty and nutritious as well.
And the seed pods of radishes, when still green, are truly delicious. Just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Tasty!
So if plants in your garden are going to seed, don’t just yank them out. Eat the flowers!
Trying things to see if they work
I suggest doing at least one experiment a year in your garden. You can try out a new vegetable or herb, try a few different varieties, or experiment with different kinds of compost. But I highly recommend learning how to do the above gardening techniques to really raise the harvest from your small garden.
Interplanting, succession planting, overwintering and playing around with plant spacing can all help you to increase the harvest of your garden exponentially. It takes a bit of fiddling to get the schedule just right, but if you’re determined, you’ll get it sorted out.
And finding other places outside the garden to hang pots or grow vines will also add to the harvest basket. Not everything has to grow in a designated garden area. Find those spots that are perfect for certain fruits and vegetables, and grow something everywhere! Your yard will look awesome.
You really can’t lose if you plant a garden. The beauty of gardens is that something will always grow! You’d have to really make an effort to kill off everything in your garden.
So, go ahead and try out these tried-and-true ways to expand the growing power of your small garden designs, and you’ll see how much you can get out of a small space.
If you have questions or comments, please feel free to share them in the comment box below. I.d love to hear from you.
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