By Marty Ross
The Midwest is the home of wide-open spaces, and agriculture in our region emphasizes large-scale farms. But you don’t have to own a farm, large or small, to cultivate a satisfying harvest. In a small-size plot, or even in a pot, you can have a wonderful time growing your own vegetables.
Size is in the eye of the beholder. Don Schreiner, a gardener I know in Overland Park, Kansas, has six raised beds, each 6x6 feet -- plenty of room for his tomatoes, lettuce, okra, and beets. He devotes an entire raised bed to basil. But even a single raised bed just 4 feet on a side produces an impressive harvest of beans, greens, and tomatoes. You can grow lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers in flowerpots on a patio. In a window box on a balcony, you have plenty of room for leafy greens of all kinds, an impressive crop of radishes, and for lots of culinary herbs.
If you grow vegetables in a pot, choose a large one, at least 18 inches in diameter. Larger pots hold more soil, so there’s more room for plants’ roots to grow. Large pots also hold more moisture. You still have to water frequently in the heat of a Midwestern summer, but your plants don’t wilt between waterings. Start with a bag of fresh potting soil. Since potting soil is a sterile medium without nutrients, you also need some fertilizer.
To be really successful your garden, in a container or in the ground, should receive a minimum of eight hours of sunlight. Ben Sharda, director of Kansas City Community Gardens, taught me that vegetables growing in full sun are sturdier, healthier, and more productive than plants struggling in shade.
Before you plant, “Take the shovel test,” Sharda recommends. Dig a hole: The soil should be dark, and the texture should be loose. If not, add organic matter. Incorporating compost or a 50/50 blend of compost and topsoil adds nutrients and micronutrients, improves the drainage, and also increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture.
After preparing your soil, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying too many crops. You probably want a tomato plant or two. (Buy sturdy tomato cages to support them.) Transplants of pepper plants are also a good choice for beginners. But you should plant some seeds too. Beans, peas, okra, and squash are easy to grow from seed. Whether you grow transplants or seeds, water them well; thin seedlings according to the instructions on the seed packet; and fertilize about once a month.
Small vegetable gardens are easier to take care of than big plots. There is not as much room for weeds, and the weeding -- unavoidable, no matter what -- takes much less time than you’d need for a large garden. It’s easier to manage pests too. When you only have six broccoli plants, picking off a few caterpillars is no big deal.
Getting the most out of a small vegetable garden involves being realistic about the space available, how much time you have, and, of course, what you like to eat. You really can’t go far wrong. But if you concentrate your efforts in a small space and on a few crops you know you love, taking care of the garden is no chore at all. You look forward to getting out there every day.