By Mary Glazer
From apartment balconies to backyard gardens to micro farms, plant enthusiasts all ask the same question: Which crops grow best in small spaces? At first, my imagination visualizes Lilliputian-type crops, and hazy memories of Jonathan Swift’s book from the 1700s, “Gulliver’s Travels,” come to mind. But, luckily, I don’t grow crops that small.
For me, small spaces can be anything. Think a narrow flowerbed, a raised or elevated vegetable garden, or even a simple potted plant. But I like to mix it up a bit. I fill a 20-inch-wide pot with petunias in the winter, but as those annuals die off with warmer weather, I switch to tomato plants in the spring. Basil also grows well in pots.
For veggie growers with limited space, try Malabar spinach, shitake mushrooms, culinary ginger, or culantro, a totally different herb from fast-bolting cilantro. Culantro is a staple in Caribbean countries. This crop grows in organic soil and tolerates heat and sun, but it should be grown in a shady location for larger tastier leaves. Flavor-wise, it tastes like cilantro.
Malabar spinach does well in hot, humid climates. Like many food crops, it needs full sun and an organic, well-drained soil. This is a terrific crop for a small space because can be grown on any vertical structure. Don’t be fooled by that diminutive young plant, however. It can grow to be 8 to 10 feet. I made the mistake of growing mine on a trellis next to a flowering vine. The two fought each other all season. The flower won.
Culinary ginger, not to be confused with its showy non-edible cousins, is a small, plain-looking plant that loves humidity.
For shiitake mushrooms, all that’s needed is mushroom seedlings (spawn), a section of an oak log -- 3 to 4 feet in length -- shade, moist conditions, and time. Anywhere from six months to a year is required to produce this crop.
This Florida gal can’t resist mentioning one citrus tree: Meyer’s lemon. This dooryard fruit tree is thought to be a cross between a true lemon and a sweet orange, resulting in a less acidic flavor. As far as trees go, their mature height of 6 to 10 feet might fit the bill of a crop for a small space -- but don’t ask an inhabitant of Lilliput Island.