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Top Crops for Compact Gardens

Vegtrug

You can grow fresh food, even in compact spaces. Just choose the right plants to maximize productivity.

Pistou basil

Pistou basil. Photo: Urban Farmer

GROWING a small garden is like living in a small house: It's not as easy as it looks. One of the keys to success is making good plant choices. Choose compact, productive plants that take up less space yet still provide plenty to harvest.

I learned this when I moved from a 10-acre farm to a small city plot. I had to rethink my vegetable garden. No longer could I grow anything that piqued my interest. I had to become much more selective.

Every year, seed catalogs feature an expanding selection of vegetables, including many that are chosen specifically for their compact nature. While many gardeners value productivity and flavor, small-space gardeners also look for plants that have ornamental qualities and longevity.

It took a few years of whittling down my list to come up with the crops I grow every year in my small garden plot. I start wtih a foundation of tried-and-true favorites: lettuce, basil, and tomatoes. Yet I leave space to try a few new varieties each year. To supplement my harvest, I buy vegetables from a CSA or farmers market. Below are a few of my recommendations, along with those from seed companies that conduct extensive trials to deliver the best varieties.

Basil

Every gardener plants sweet basil, and for good reason. The tiny aromatic leaves awaken the senses, adding bright flavor to pesto, salad dressings and more. There are more than 80 varieties of basil, including a few "miniature" types that are perfect for small-scale gardens. A variety called Pistou is the most diminutive form of sweet basil, ideal for planters or windowboxes. The tight green mounds can be used for edging in a larger planter.

Basil is easy to grow from seed, and available from most seed catalogs. More: Learn how grow basil in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Chard in a windowbox

Brightly colored chard shares a windowbox with osteospermum daisies.

Chard

"Cut-and-come-again" is a welcome quality in any garden plant. Harvesting leaves actually encourages more growth. Combine this with its upright growth habit and brightly colored stems, Rainbow Chard works well in tight spaces. Johnny's Seeds offers Bright Lights, which has stems in pink, yellow and ruby red.

Because chard is in the beet family, it is easy to grow from seed, but note that the seedlings will need to be thinned to ensure proper spacing. For small containers, it is easier to start with transplants instead of seeds — no thinning required. More: Learn how grow chard in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Ping Tung Long eggplant from High Mowing Organic Seeds

Ping Tung Long eggplant. Photo: High Mowing Organic Seeds

Eggplant

Oriental eggplants are known for their compact habit, making them a good choice for pots and planters. Choosing a favorite among the dozens of varieties is difficult. Gwenael Engelskirchen, trials manager at High Mowing Organic Seeds, says Ping Tung Long earns a spot at the top of her list. "Slender purple eggplants hang from compact plants of this lovely heirloom variety, " she says. "The plant stays small but has the potential of producing a lot of eggplants." Because the 10"-long fruit is narrow, it's ideal for slicing and cubing; skin is tender and the flavor is mild.

Sow seeds indoors and transplant to pots and planters when warm weather arrives. Tip: When starting seed for eggplants and peppers, use bottom heat for better germination. Place seedling trays on a germinating mat set at 85 degrees F., or on top of the refrigerator, where the heat from the appliance will provide warmth. More: Learn how grow eggplants in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Black Hungarian pepper

Black Hungarian pepper. Photo: Sustainable Seed Company

Hot Peppers

Hot peppers are the ultimate ornamental edible for windowboxes and compact gardens. The plants are ornamental and the fruit is long-lasting. "It's hard to pick a favorite," says Nina Burokas of Sustainable Seed Company, who admits that she is crazy about all hot peppers. "Black Hungarian pepper is so colorful that it not only belongs in the garden, but on the patio in pots as well." Purple flowers highlight the emerald-green foliage. During the season, the fruit turns green, then black and finally red. The plants can grow to about 30-36", which makes them a little big for a windowbox, but fine for larger containers. For smaller plants, try their Patio Fire pepper seeds. The narrow fruit grows upward, resembling flames. Color goes from yellow to orange and matures red.

Sow seeds indoors and transplant to pots and planters when warm weather arrives. More: Learn how grow hot peppers in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Cherry Cascade tomato

A Cherry Cascade tomato, tumbling over the edge of an Elevated Raised Bed.

Tomato

Fast-growing and prolific, cherry tomatoes can overwhelm a trellis in short order. However, growers have introduced compact varieties that are tame enough for smaller spaces. For instance, Cherry Cascade grows happily in a hanging basket and produces hundreds of tomatoes. The variety is recommended by Susan Romanoff of Gardener's Supply, who grows them in her northern Vermont garden. "Perfect scale! Slightly draping but not so long or heavy that they reach low to the ground," she says. Fruit ranges from the size of a marble up to a golf ball. It has good tomato flavor — not candy-sweet like some cherry tomatoes. Plants are tolerant of drought and the fruit is less prone to the cracking and blossom-end rot, which frequently afflicts the full-sized tomato varieties.

Start from seed or find plants in a local nursery. More: Learn how grow tomatoes in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Mesclun

Mesclun growing in our display garden

Mesclun

The word mesclun means miscellaneous greens, attributed to wild weeds once foraged by peasants in Europe to supplement their limited diets. Many of the mixtures found today are made up of quick-growing arugula and mustards, not ideal for containers. However, you can create your own container-friendly mesclun. Consider Italian endives and escaroles, which can be harvested leaf by leaf. Or, try purslane, which has unusual, succulent leaves that are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Seed companies offer mixes that are suited to the season, so you can start with a spring mix. After harvest, replant with a blend that can withstand summer heat, followed by a third planting of fall greens, such as cold-tolerant kale and collards.

Seeds for mesclun is widely available, with an especially good selection at Wild Garden Seed. Here you will find everything from Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress to Purple Rapa Pop Mix. By the way, Purple Rapa is a cold-season salad mix selected for solid purple leaves, cold hardiness, and disease resistance. "Best color will manifest between the fall and spring equinoxes." More: Learn how grow greens in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Lolla Rossa lettuce

Lolla Rossa lettuce. Photo: High Mowing Organic Seeds

Lettuce

Lettuce comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, yet the key to a great-looking container garden is to mix it up. Plant different types of lettuce, starting with Little Gem, a mini romaine that forms a sweet, dense heart. Add some Merlot, a striking red butterhead, and Lolla Rossa, a loose-leaf type with frilly leaves.

Lettuce typically grows from seed to salad in 45 days, plan to harvest them leaf-by-leaf to stretch out season, or have a successive crop ready to fill in the gap.More: Learn how grow greens in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Calendula

Calendula

Edible Flowers

A natural choice for containers and small-space gardens, edible flowers add unmistakable charm. My favorites include nasturtiums, violas, and calendula, which can be planted early in the season and will continue all summer long if kept picked. The signet marigold, Lemon Gem, is a mainstay in my garden because of the aromatic ferny foliage that releases a lemon scent.

If you don't find transplants, most edible flowers are easy to grow from seed. Just push the seeds into the soil where they are to grow. More: Learn how grow calendula in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Pole Beans

Another way to make use of space: grow vertical. Choose a vine, such as pole beans, which will happily climb a bamboo teepee. My favorite is the Italian heirloom Trionfo Violetto, available from Botanical Interests, among other seed catalogs. This ornamental and edible plant has lush green foliage with purple undersides. By midsummer, a multitude of lavender flowers appear, followed by thin, purple-podded beans.

Pole beans are easy to start from seed, planted right where they are to grow. More: Learn how grow beans in the Vegetable Encyclopedia.

Ellen Ecker Ogden

Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of five books, including From the Cook's Garden, based on the catalog she co-founded in Vermont, and The Complete Kitchen Garden, which features theme designs for cooks who love to garden.

She is dedicated to growing ornamental edibles and has been a guest chef on PBS's Victory Garden, and HGTV's Garden Smarts, where she is known as the "baroness of basil." She combines her love of good food with a background in fine art to create kitchen garden designs that turn work into play. For more information: ellenogden.com

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