By Irene Virag
When the subject is gardens, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Especially when it comes to vegetables. All you need is a small patch of earth -- or even a pot or two on the patio.
You can get a spring or early summer salad bowl going as soon as the ground is workable. Like life, lettuce can be beautiful -- and bountiful, too. Loose-leaf lettuce is one of my favorite early risers because you can harvest the outer leaves as needed and let the rest keep growing. Transplants are usually available in March. Just make sure the soil’s not too wet. Sow a few more seeds every few weeks to replenish the bowl.
Or sow seed thickly for a green carpet and cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Pat down, water gently, and keep the ground moist for a cut-and-come-again garden. When the leaves are about three inches tall, trim them to just above the soil for a baby green salad. In a few weeks, you can cut another crop.
Spinach also thrives in small spaces. Don’t dilly-dally -- spinach bolts when the thermometer rises above 70, so you should get it in the ground as soon as weather permits. Sow seeds in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. Harvest for baby spinach by cutting the outer leaves or let them mature, then cut the plant at the base.
Follow the same pattern with mesclun greens and arugula. Early to bed will make them early to rise and grow healthy and wise.
Sow in rows four inches apart and trim when they’re pint size. Harvest arugula when the leaves are 2 to 3 inches tall, or it will turn bitter instead of giving your salad a peppery zing.
And don’t forget herbs. Small beds are perfect for herbs -- not just parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Don’t neglect dill, basil, and oregano. Add nasturtiums for an extra edible perk. If you’re really space-challenged, you can even plant thyme or oregano between the patio pavers.
You can also plant on the patio by literally going to pot. Lettuces with comparatively shallow root systems grow nicely in containers. But keep them well watered.
Many root crops are suitable for containers. Grow small-rooted varieties like ‘Thumbelina’, a tasty golf-ball-size carrot, or baby beets in as large a pot as possible. Radishes grow fast so they’re out of the ground early, making way for other crops.
Even taller plants such as tomatoes succeed in pots as long as they have adequate support. Look for a determinate variety, which will reach a certain size and then stop. They work better in containers than the large, unwieldy indeterminate tomatoes.
And if you want to save space, try growing vertically by using trellises, fences, and tepees as supports. Pole beans on a trellis take up less room and produce more than shrubby bush beans. Ditto for cucumbers and squash.
Or tuck veggies among the flowers. Lettuce makes a lovely edging plant.
If eggplants are your passion, you’ll find the purple flowers and shiny fruits hold their own in flowerbeds. And there’s always room for a head or two of cabbage.
General rules for container vegetable gardening include selecting a spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of full sun a day. Use pots 12 to 16 inches in diameter or larger. Potted veggies need to be watered more frequently than their grounded counterparts. And terra-cotta and wood containers need more frequent watering than plastic and fiberglass pots. Never let potted vegetables sit in a saucer of excess water -- it’s a good idea to elevate containers on pot feet. Don’t forget to amend the potting soil with compost or decomposed manure.
So as the weather warms, it’s okay to have big plans for the garden. Even if your garden is small.