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Growing Food and Flowers in Small Spaces

My main goal when gardening with clients is that they experience success, hence I over-stuff their gardens with an abundance of flowers and veggies from seeds, seedlings and cuttings.

Some plants might fail being planted too close to each other, or cannot reach the water, or are overshadowed by a bolder, faster growing plant, but the result is that, mostly, we have something to harvest, tend and plant every session.

4 elements are key:

1) Space

The designated veggie boxes are usually no larger than 3’x 4’ and if I’m lucky, we’ll have that x 2. This limited space, does not allow for a tomato plant to sprawl (spread) 5’ and leave room for other plants! I plant as many different plants as possible; I do try keep in mind their potential size accounting for a prune of a branch or more and perhaps a vertical support. Hence the over stuffing.

I’ve also found that there are generally many undiscovered, tucked away places that can be used, no matter how small or insignificant and when the bug bites, spaces reveal themselves. 6 hours sun? Space for food to grow.

2) Sun

It’s unrealistic for any gardener who plants in the dream of a harvest, to be planting in a 4 hours of sun per day and expect success. (If the plants are in dappled sunlight for longer this adds to the hours) But then again, there is always lettuce, that we want for its green leaves, that fries in too much sun, so perhaps can thrive in those spots. It always depends.

6-8 hours of sun is needed for plants such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers who make flowers and produce the ‘fruit of those flowers’ for us to eat (actually seeds).

Too little sun can be instantly diagnosed. Those plants are thin and spindly, the too-little-sunlight being the key that unlocks and invites disease and pestiferous insects in to the plants and the harvest is most likely poor.

I have seen how ingenious gardeners, with too little sun, angle mirrors or paint reflective colors in the area. This helps, but alas, nothing beats the hours of sun. And nature is hard to cheat…

On the up side, pests arrive in full force and that’s a great learning experience.

Down side, it’s too much to ask of beneficials who are attracted to the pests to do an effective clean up job in too much shade as in unhealthy circumstances, insects multiply fast.

Watch the sun as it travels through the sky and count those sun hours. It makes all the difference.

3) Watering

Many irrigation systems have been established long before I get to a garden and often the irrigation system has no more space for a separate valve that waters only the vegetables. To add a valve, if there is space, is a fairly costly endeavor. This means I am forced to install sprays (to match the sprays from the grass) and growing veggies on a grass cycle which is FAR from ideal but this might all be a moot point since we cannot water grass in Southern California more than twice a week and the veggies may prefer this. Hand-watering is always an option.

Personally, I love hand-watering as it keeps me in touch with my plants and as their custodian it’s up to me to make sure they live, hence am forced into the garden every day for their survival; it’s a five-minute respite and restores my energy. The benefit of hand-watering over regularity (irrigation) is rewarding for me as I get to witness seedlings the size of my pinkie finger as they go into the ground, watch them hover for days while they establish themselves and then ‘voom’, suddenly they are leafy green, 1’ -2’ tall and you can pick and pick and pick. I spy hidden tomatoes and cucumbers before they ripen, encourage tiny pumpkins to keep growing, catch borage seeds before they are dispersed (for future use), spy flower buds maturing and notice when caterpillars have pulled in! That pesky white cabbage butterfly dots its yellow eggs on the underside of multiple leaves of kale and other greens, hatches almost microscopic caterpillars, 1 or 2 per leaf and they are truly ‘VERY HUNGY’ and speedy, the gardener usually knows they are there by the damage done to the leaf (wipe out)!

Hand picking, early on is the key and yet…hand watering is not for everyone.

I do understand.

Drip irrigation is always first prize.

Drip saves water, targets plant roots directly, reduces transpiration and does not water leaves which minimizes disease. And plants thrive with a regular schedule.

I use thin tubing with holes 6” apart. And the driplines are placed at 4” intervals. Having many small drips that go directly to the root gives me the confidence that if I plant in its’ watering line, my seedling has a good chance and gives flexibility to tuck in some lettuce seedlings, commonly grown in cooler weather, to hide under the shade of cucumber vines in summer, for example, or to add a few carrots close to a tomato which has insect repellant properties and will help keep those carrots pest free (companions). I’m always looking to plant flowers such as zinnia seed, hollyhock, sunflower, alyssum, nasturtium, bachelor buttons…edible, beneficial flowers that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to create a thriving, biodiverse mini eco system in every backyard garden. And you can cut these flowers for indoor arrangement and they are chemical free.

How long should I leave the drip on for and how often? I am asked over and over again.

And as usual with gardening the answer is; it depends!

Frustrating, yes. It depends on the amount of water that comes through the drips, the size of holes, the time of year, the weather, size of plants…

Best to experiment for a week or two by checking your garden daily then adjusting irrigation length. Once you have a good balance, check every few days from then on till harvest as it’s not a one-time deal. Watching your food grow creates an appetite for the harvest.

4) Soil

My mom, an avid flower/ornamental gardener used to say to me, ‘It’s all about the soil!”

This annoyed me as a young adult, after all, I now know hubristically, that science had new ideas; fertilizer was good and the soil would be fine.



Actually, mom did know and I knew very little! (Waiting for my son to say this to me!)

The earth has been practicing and refining its systems for…ever.

And along comes ‘new knowledge’ that says different, and without long term proof, we, the modern citizens of the post-World War 2 trusted that.

Fertilizers were developed by chemical companies, who after WW2 shifted their production to pesticides and fertilizers and create economic dependency. That says it all.

Soil is a subject on its own (for my next blog) but there are some basics:

Healthy soil= healthy plants= healthy animals (this can be bypassed) = healthy humans!!!!!

I use mainly compost to feed soil that feeds my plants. And use the purest source I can find. My test being if I can smell it in my car when transporting, it’s a no! Home grown, of course, being best of all. I usually place 2/3 handfuls around the plant. Careful to leave a space between stem in the ground and compost.

And though you may have heard this, I never get tired of retelling, that while working in the soil, tiny good guy bacterium enter our olfactory system (we breath them in) and stimulates the release ofa serotonin that helps regulate mood, among other things.

Hence it explains why I am such a happy person all the time. Just ask my son.

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