How to Grow a Productive Food Garden in a Small Space

Australian housing blocks are shrinking in size.  The average suburban land size for new homes has fallen from 810-910 square metres in the 1950s to 200-350 square metres in 2012.  In more established areas, traditional housing blocks are frequently sub-divided to make way for town houses or units.  Therefore, many Australians are trying to fit an entertainment area, a few trees and decorative plants, and the back yard vegetable or herb patch, into less space than ever before.

An example of someone who has taken up the challenge of growing vegetables in a small space with great success is my friend David.  In fact, David is the most successful backyard vegetable grower that I have ever met. He regularly arrives at Essential Edibles Urban Orchard, a local food swap we both attend, with large quantities of the the most glossy, fresh, delicious looking vegetables you can imagine.  What is amazing about Davids level of productiveness is that he grows most of his vegetables in an L-shaped raised bed of just four square metres (43 square feet).

Currently growing (late spring) in this small area are five capsicums (Sweet Mama), three tomatoes (Grosse Lisse and Mighty Red), six to eight silverbeet, several beetroot, one punnet of sweetcorn, two zucchini (Black Jack), two rockmelon vines (grown vertically) and four cucumbers (Bebe).   In addition, one capsicum, two cucumbers and two butternut squash are in pots.  David says his raised beds get 4-6 hours of sunlight daily, both in summer and winter.

Here are some of David's tips for growing a highly productive garden in raised beds and pots.

Soil Preparation
David's philosophy is 'preparation not fertiliser' and '$1 plant, $10 hole'.  He says everything that is important happens below the surface so soil preparation is essential. Six-eight weeks before planting he digs over his beds and mixes in compost, blood and bone with added potash, and pelletised chicken manure.  He sometimes adds a handful of gypsum for calcium and will water the soil if the weather is hot. Two to three times each growing season David waters his garden with diluted seaweed extract.  A sign that the soil is healthy is that the beds are now full of earthworms.

Crop Rotation
David never plants his tomatoes in the same place two years in a row and has not experienced nematode damage.

According to David, the biggest improvement in the longevity and productivity of his plants came when he changed from hand watering daily in Adelaide's hot, dry summer months using a watering can, to deep watering (around one hour) once a week.  Because the raised beds are laid on earth and not a paved surface, drainage is good.

A layer of straw is used to prevent the soil drying out on hot summer days.  In autumn David mulches with fallen leaves from his dwarf peach tree.

Potted vegetables
Potted vegetables such as butternut squash are housed in a mixture of commercial potting mix, mushroom compost and ordinary compost with a layer of straw for mulch.

Other tips for small gardens
  • grow vertically, not horizontally
  • pick your plants carefully for productivity and compact size
  • unproductive plants have no place in a small area - plants must work hard to earn their place in the garden
  • The left side of the L-shaped bed
    The right side of the L-shaped bed with dwarf peach (also highly productive)
The entire vegetable garden (late spring), including dwarf peach tree on the far right
The other side of the courtyard, with imperial mandarin to the left

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