For five long summers, I gazed at my postage stamp-sized backyard in South Minneapolis and imagined what I could do with a grander, sweeping space. If I only had a farm, I mused, I could grow my own food and become that person who leaves zucchini and tomatoes on doorsteps around the community. But with one-tenth of an acre, I knew I would never have enough for my own fridge, much less the neighborhood.
Then I met someone who prefers action over daydreams—and she turned our tiny yard into an urban farm. I think the rabbits still celebrate her arrival as a holiday.
You don’t need much space at all to become your own little farmers’ market. In fact, you don’t even need a yard. You can turn fire escapes, porches, spare rooms, and basements into oases of fresh greens and vegetables. Here’s how.
1. Find Your Spot
When contemplating what you’d like to grow, start with where you can grow. Having a container garden, in which everything is in moveable pots, is often the best solution for growing in tight spaces because you can shift them into the sunlight as needed. You can also move them from indoors to outdoors very easily, an important consideration if you’re bringing herbs in for the winter, for example.
2. Pick Your Variety
Whether you’re planting into containers or growing in small beds or window boxes, it’s crucial to understand what each plant will be like when it’s fully grown.
For starters, it helps you determine pot size. To grow mint, I’ll grab a container that’s four inches deep but also somewhat broad, because mint likes to send out runners and spread. But for a fairly contained herb like basil, I can get away with a four-inch-deep pot that’s not as wide.
With vegetables, this thinking is even more important. For instance, with carrots, you wouldn’t want to plant varieties in a short container that are supposed to grow to over a foot long. Instead, you’d want to opt for a smaller carrot variety, like the Parisienne, which are round and adorable, and only grow about as big as radishes.
Got even less space but still want a burst of carrot flavor? Opt for carrot microgreens, which use the same seeds but are harvested at about one-inch tall. I’ve grown microgreens in one-fourth inch of soil, using a recycled berry container.
3. Go With Favorites
There are plants you like to eat, and there are plants that are easy to grow. If you choose wisely, these will be the same plants. That might sound obvious, but it’s taken me years of growing gorgeous eggplants to realize I’m really not fond of the taste of eggplant. And that’s okay, because I can use that space for what I really do love, which is loose-leaf lettuce varieties—a crop that does extremely well in small spaces because it doesn’t require the space that head lettuce takes up.
The same goes for herbs. Although many herbs grow exceedingly well in smaller containers, pick your varieties based on adoration, not ease of growing.
4. See the Light
The thing I’m asked about most often is light. Not everyone has the ability to use natural light, nor do they want to crowd every available sunny spot with plants. And that’s okay.
If you’re growing inside, you’ll need a full-spectrum fluorescent light. Chances are you may already have one: most under-the-counter lights qualify. If not, a cheap shop light from the hardware store will suffice. There are higher-priced options like LED lights and plasma, but I’ve always had good results by hanging a shop light over a shelf and adjusting it to be about two feet from the plants.
When it comes to outside growing, definitely consider light when choosing your garden options. Even if most of your area is shaded, there are still many plants you can grow—some even love the shade, like mushrooms and lettuce.
5. Get Started
For an easy starter project, I’d recommend microgreens. They can grow with minimal effort and you can harvest them within a few weeks. All you need is to fill a leftover berry container (the kind with holes in the bottom) with a little potting soil, and sprinkle the top thickly with seeds.
You can use any kind of seeds, including herbs and vegetables. If you want a variety, look online at Johnny’s Selected Seeds; they have a wealth of great mixes.
Put your little experiment near some light (but not directly in it), and water lightly every day. Then watch as the magic unfolds.
Voila: you’re a gardener.