How to Get the Most From a Small Garden

These sustainable gardening strategies can maximize yield in smaller spaces.

man sits on edge of raised garden bed to harvest fresh lettuce and kale

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Limited space can be a restricting factor when it comes to creating a useful and abundant garden. But as we know in permaculture, the problem can be viewed as the solution. In a small space garden, the limitations in size mean that we can focus all our energies on using every inch. The smaller a space, the more focussed our energies can be. We'll have more time to spend on increasing the yield we can achieve from the available area.

Small space gardening can have unique challenges. But there are plenty of ways to make the most of the available space and resources. Here are a few simple, sustainable small space garden solutions:

Think Vertically

wooden trellis in garden has fresh greens climbing up it

Treehugger / Dan Amos

While horizontal space may be limited, when it comes to the vertical dimension, the sky might be the limit. Embracing vertical gardening techniques is often a very effective way to make the most of small space gardens. Thinking vertically might include:

  • Choosing trees and tall plants to create vertical structure.
  • Training trees against a wall or fence.
  • Placing a vertical garden with planting pockets within it for herbs and leafy crops.
  • Erecting shelving or other support structures for the placement of containers up a wall or fence.
  • Growing climbing or vining plants up a trellis or other support structures.
  • Creating planting towers or stacking planters.
  • Using hanging baskets or other hanging containers.

The most sustainable vertical garden solutions involve embracing natural or reclaimed materials. For example, you can use bamboo canes or natural branches to make a trellis or support structure, use taller trees and plants to support those ascending from below, or create vertical gardens or planters from wood pallets or other materials that might otherwise be considered waste.

Layer Plants in Space

two hands hold a handful of bulbs covered in dirt with roots showing

Treehugger / Dan Amos

In an organic garden, no matter how large or small, biodiversity is key. We should take whatever steps we can to introduce and include as many different plants as possible.

One key strategy is layering plants in space. In other words, to create tiers of plant life – with trees, underplanted with shrubs and herbaceous plants, with ground cover plants, roots, bulbs, and tubers below.

We should think about the space in three dimensions and make sure we have populated our gardens fully, from the canopy down to the rhizosphere below the soil. Even when we are growing exclusively in containers, we can group these to provide different plants with the environmental conditions they need – placing a range of containers with herbs and flowers around the base of a planter containing a dwarf fruit tree, for example.

Layer Plants in Time

hands hold a fistful of fresh red leaf lettuce in outside garden

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Another key strategy in making the most of a small space garden is layering plants in time as well as space. We can make sure that we make the most of the space, over time, by creating a carefully worked out planting schedule for annual crops.

For example, we can sow lettuce, radishes or other quick crops between other slower-growing crops like cabbages. The fast growing crops will fill gaps between them, but be harvested before the slower growing crops need the space, water and nutrients from the growing area.

We can also use successional sowing techniques to make sure that we never leave any areas bare. And we can plant new crops as soon as any harvests take place.

Make Sure Every Element Has Multiple Functions

gardener stands next to large wooden worm compost box

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Everything you choose to place in a small space garden should be carefully chosen. From plants to growing areas or containers, to pathways, seating or other elements for garden recreation. Think about how each element can be customized to provide for multiple needs.

For example:

  • Edging for a raised bed might also be a bench seat, which could also double as garden storage, or house a small-scale composting system.
  • A support trellis might also be used as a partition, to screen unsightly elements, or to provide some shade for another growing area.
  • A pathway might not just provide access to the space. It might also become a space for additional container plants at certain times of the year. And might be made from a material with high thermal mass, which will absorb the sun's heat and release it slowly to even out temperatures in the space.
  • A rainwater harvesting system might not just provide water for watering plants. It might also feed a small wildlife pond to attract beneficial wildlife to your garden.
  • A vermicomposting system will help you prevent food waste, return nutrients to the system, and breed worms. It will provide a valuable compost, and perhaps also be used to provide a liquid feed to give container-grown plants a boost.

Of course, these are just some examples to consider.

Choose the Right Gardening Method For the Particular Space

older woman in cowboy hat tends to small raised garden bed near wooden fence

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Finally, in a small space garden, it is crucial to choose the right growing method. When choosing a type of gardening, it is important to think about the space itself and the environmental conditions it provides.

In some small space gardens, container gardening or polyculture raised bed growing will be the right approach. Even in a small space, forest gardening techniques can also often be a great idea – even if the "forest" just consists of a single fruit tree and its guild of beneficial companion plants.

In other small space gardens, however, a different approach might be best. For example, it could be a good idea to consider growing plants in water, and installing a small-scale hydroponic or aquaponic growing system.

These are just a few solutions to consider that could help you make the most of a sustainable small space garden.