3 Ways To Make the Most of Your Vegetable Garden Space

Get the most bang for your buck, regardless of your growing space.

It's easy to romanticize kitchen gardens. When friends wax poetic over their perfect homegrown tomatoes, they rarely mention how much care and feeding went into their blissful summer feasts, or how much of a bump they got to their water bill. Not that you shouldn't grow tomatoes, but when mapping out garden space, a bedrock layer of practicality won't go amiss.

Choosing what to grow goes beyond where you live, and gets into how you eat — and how to get the most value from your homegrown produce. Here are three ways you can make the most of the growing space you have, no matter how large or how small.

1. Invest in perennials

scallions growing in a garden bed next to squash plant

Perennial plants come back year after year all by themselves, and what's not to love about lazy gardening? The one-time investment in a perennial is appealing as far as budgets go, and sweat equity tends to be lower than it is for annuals. Not only can you tailor your choices to what best suits your planting zone, you can prioritize anything from disease resistance to flavor to biggest harvest.

Those who won't uproot themselves for a few years should check out perennials like rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes, green onions (a perennial bulb) and berry plants. All but the green onions take a couple years to mature, so you won't see a regular harvest until the third summer. After that, they're unstoppable, to the point where you'll be able to bypass them entirely in the produce department.

freshly cut red and green rhubarb stalks on a wooden cutting board

Growing your own gives you greater access to variety, too. Take rhubarb for example: There are far more varieties to choose from when you purchase a plant to grow than you'll find in the grocery store. Some of the less common rhubarb varieties like Victoria are bright green, with a delicate citrus flavor, whereas in the grocery store you might be limited to the familiar red stalks.

When it comes to berry plants, you can go with shrubs like currants or blueberries, or container-friendly groundcover plants like lingonberries or strawberries. Some varietals, like Tulameen raspberries or tayberries, can be a little tricky to manage because of underground spreading roots combined with 8-foot canes, but the size, sweetness and abundance of the berries can make them worthwhile.

2. Plant what you'll actually eat

sugar snap peas growing on a vine

I love snap peas so much I used to shell out a ridiculous amount of money for them at farmers' markets. Now, thanks to an annual $3 seed packet, I harvest from April to June, with rarely a need for additional water. It's an absolute bargain, tailored to my personal preference — ok, obsession — and backyard climate.

varieties of lettuces grown in a garden bed

Lettuce and other salad greens are easy to grow and worth every square inch you can spare. Because they have a fairly short life in the crisper drawer, they're a common form of food waste, so growing your own just makes sense. Most varieties prefer cooler growing temperatures, and wilt or bolt in midsummer heat.

  • Try growing your favorite salad mixes in containers where you can easily harvest a salad or sandwich's worth with scissors and sprinkle in a few more seeds every few days.
  • One seed packet can provide a few seasons of greens, if you grow just a bit at a time for each week your local weather is conducive to lettuce.
  • Small containers will let you move them out of hot afternoon sun as needed.

Not all favorites make sense to grow yourself:

  • Potatoes only need effort at planting time and again months later at harvest, but they are so inexpensive in most of the country it doesn't seem like the wisest choice.
  • Corn is a different challenge — deer, squirrels and some birds love it as much as humans, and between animal-proofing and its water demands, the cost per ear can make grocery store or farmers market prices look like a steal.

3. Treat yourself to a tree

cherries growing on a tree

A small tree creates a beautiful centerpiece for a kitchen garden, and there are stellar choices for every climate and garden size. Trees cost more up front than seed packets or vegetable starts, but can last for your lifetime and beyond — and typically, you can find them in a range of sizes to tailor the price to your budget.

What are the options?

  • Cold-hardy citrus like yuzu can thrive as far north as Seattle.
  • Once you experience the fragrance and flavor of fresh bay leaves, you'll wonder why dried bay ever became the standard.
  • If a particular fruit is hard to find in your area, you might be able to grow them — think of luxury-priced kitchen superstars like Morello sour cherry, fig, persimmon or Asian pear, and check with nurseries in your area to see what works.
  • If you have substantial space, branch out from the expected and consider hazelnut, chestnut or elderberry.

Some smaller trees or dwarf varieties can be grown in large containers, so they're suitable for patio gardens or areas with harsh winters. As with perennials, you do need to be patient for the first few years, but the result will be a lasting joy.


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