I've just about decided that I'm not ever going to have another big garden again. It's not that I don't encourage them where they are practical. I just don't have enough room for one (too many shade trees in our forest of native pecans), and I get really busy in the spring at the exact times I ought to be out tilling and tending. I just find it a lot easier to grow things in smaller, more defined spaces, often alongside shrubs, perennials and other landscaping plants.
If that's about where you find yourself, let's address the crops that you'll lose and those that will move to the top of the list when you downsize your gardening. What vegetables grow to be Jack's beanstalks? Which crops are best when space is limited?
It takes a large garden to succeed with corn. Being a grass, corn is pollinated by the wind. If you don't have a large block (20 or 30 feet square -- or larger) of corn in flower at the same time, or if your corn patch is blocked from prevailing breezes by shrubs and fencing, you're going to have poorly filled ears.
Watermelons and even cantaloupes and honeydews take a lot of room. The plants sprawl widely, and there just isn't a way to grow them on trellises, since the plants can't support the weight of the fruit. Bush beans are possibilities, but it takes 10 or 15 feet of row to get a few good pickings. You need to consider if the real estate is more valuable than that. Okra is more vertical, but the plants get large, and you need a row to get enough for a really good harvest. So, okra goes by the boards.
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Crops for small plots
So, that takes us down to the manageable few. These are vegetables that can fit into almost any garden, even into large patio pots. These are the ones to grow when space is sold by the inch.
Leaf lettuce. It has to top anyone's list, because it's quick, it's easy and it's beautiful. Stick with types that mature in a hurry, and plant them immediately, so that they will finish ahead of hot weather. Once it turns really warm, lettuce leaves become bitter. Old types include Black-Seeded Simpson and Oakleaf, but there are dozens of others that are equally well suited. Purple-leafed types are especially pretty.
Cabbage. You surely have space for one or two heads. Their leaves will sprawl to 18 inches across, so don't crowd them too much. But, they'll grow and mature quickly, leaving you ample room for summer annual flowers in their places. Choose a fast-maturing variety (there are many), and consider combining cabbage with flowers or herbs in large decorative pots. It will add a dramatic flair. Like lettuce, it needs to be planted immediately.
Cucumbers. If you have a patio cover or fence somewhere nearby, that's your place to grow cucumbers. They climb freely, and they are certainly able to support the weight of their developing fruit. You don't want to let cucumber fruit grow to more than half their potential mature size, anyway, just to ensure best texture and flavor. That will also help with the issues of weight.
Peppers. These are perhaps the best of all dual-purpose ornamental and edible plants. Peppers are compact and adequately attractive, and the fruit is almost ornamental in nature. The plants grow to 18 to 24 inches tall and wide (ornamental peppers, somewhat smaller), and the fruit frequently change from green to shades of yellow, orange, red and even purple as they mature. Peppers do well alongside herbs and even annuals, and they are equally at home in patio pots.
Tomatoes. For most people, you don't have a garden if you don't plant tomatoes. They are the most popular vegetables of all time, and they can certainly be fit into a plot of very limited space. However, choose your varieties carefully. Large-fruiting tomatoes, notably Big Boy, Beefsteak, Better Boy and the huge heirloom types, quit setting fruit once temperatures head beyond 90 degrees daily. Small to midsized varieties fare ultimately better. Stick with Celebrity, Super Fantastic, Porter, Sweet 100, Porter and the many cherry and pear tomato varieties.
Tomato plants do get rather large, so plan on staking or, better yet, caging them. Better nurseries sometimes offer decorative cages that look better in an urban landscape than those made from concrete reinforcing wire. However, the cage needs to be at least 48 to 60 inches tall, to accommodate tomato plants' growth for the entire season.
Tomatoes fit into a patio garden as well. Choose large pots (7 or 10 gallons in size), and use a loose, highly organic potting soil. Tomatoes require full sun to produce well, which means the plants may dry out very quickly in May and early June. Don't let them wilt, however, or you'll encounter blossom-end rot, a disfiguring problem that ruins the fruit. Uniform watering is the key to avoiding it, especially in pots.
Herbs. Finally, this diverse group of plants deserves a page of its own. Many types remain small and blend handsomely with your other ornamental plants. Most are easy and very dependable. Chief candidates include rosemary, basil, sage, mint, parsley, chives, fennel and thyme, but there are many others. Grow herbs in beds, baskets and pots.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening 8 - 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.