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Small Space Vegetable Gardening Tips

I recently attended a talk given by Carol Allen at Behnke’s on this topic and wanted to pass her wisdom along.

Benefits of Containers/Raised Beds:

  • You can garden where you get the best sun; if you plant in containers and it turns out your plants aren’t getting good sun, you can always move them
  • Less weeding!
  • You don’t have to bend over as far
  • You can walk in between plants without compacting the soil they’re growing in, which is a big problem in traditional vegetable gardens


  • Create an edible landscape; if you have an existing decorative garden, try integrating pretty vegetables, like rainbow chard, into the garden
  • Not much in the way of edibles will grow without sun; if you’re gardening on a balcony that doesn’t get direct sun, try a community garden plot instead
  • Get more space by going vertical with trellises or teepees; it means less bending over and produce that doesn’t touch the soggy, dirty ground
  • Think about your space parameters and what you want to grow; for example, if your only sunny space is a concrete driveway and you want to put a shallow raised bed on it, it’s not going to be deep enough for anything but shallow-rooted veggies, like lettuce
  • Always use mulch!

Raised Beds:

  • Raised beds are nice for any vegetable garden (even if you have lots of space); you can make the soil optimal for growing veggies, you can divide and conquer (e.g. “I’ll just plant one today and do the other one tomorrow”) and all the veggies will be easy to reach without setting foot in the bed (never make a raised bed that’s wider than 4ft)
  • You don’t need to pretreat the ground that the bed is going to sit on for weeds unless you have weeds with runners
  • Don’t line the bed with landscape fabric; it just gathers sediment and retards drainage
  • When constructing the sides, use pine, never pressure treated lumber or pallet wood because they’ve been treated with chemicals that will leach into your soil; though pine will degrade, by the time it does, you’ll probably want to change your design anyway
  • Don’t fill with potting mix; it’s mostly composed of peat moss which will compost quickly and sink down, getting rid of precious air pockets; instead, use a mix of 1/3 top soil (can be found at local composting facilities), 1/3 Leafgro or compost, 1/3 existing soil


  • Fill with a potting mix and replace at least 50% of it every year because it will compost and lose airspace porosity over time
  • Mix about 10% by volume fine pine mulch or arborist chips (can be found at local composting facilities) into potting mix to help retain airspace porosity
  • Don’t add gravel to the bottom of the pot; contrary to the popular belief that it helps with drainage, it actually does the opposite
  • Raise your containers up on pot feet (or even bricks or 2x2s) to allow water to drain out
  • Trash cans make great containers for deep-rooted veggies, like carrots, sweet potatoes and potatoes, and because you’re using a light potting mix, it’s easy to stick your hand in to see if they’re ready to be harvested

by Adrienne Neff, Behnke’s Graphics Department

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. The raised bed in this picture looks very full. I’m always afraid of overcrowding and think I have in the past, resulting in little to no yield at all. How do you know how tightly you can pack things? Most stick tags suggest spacing plants very far apart.

    1. Hi Abby,
      The photo isn’t quite representative of what you should be doing. It was a display at the garden center and wasn’t actually planted up–those plants are all still in their pots. That being said, the only problem with it is the depth of the container since it’s on concrete. If it were deeper or on soil, you could plant it exactly as you see it. Some vegetables really need a lot of space, though sometimes you can get away with tucking herbs into smaller spaces. I would say, when it doubt, follow the tag recommendation. If you’re really unsure, we do have a handout at the store that tells you what sized pot you should use for different vegetables (maybe one of these days I’ll get around to posting it on the blog!).

  2. I love all Behnke’s blog posts. Thanks for the small space veggie gardening tips. Just one little quibble: “2/3 top soil (can be found at local composting facilities), 1/3 Leafgro or compost, 1/3 existing soil” adds up to 4/3. Jut saying. Should it be 2 parts top soil, 1 part each leafgro/compost, and 1 part existing soil? or one third each?

    Thanks again. Keep the posts coming!

    1. Aack! i messed up the proportions myself by sticking “each” in there. 2/3, 1/3, and 1/3.

    2. Hi Sharon,
      Thanks for pointing that out! Good thing my job doesn’t generally rely on my math skills! I asked Carol to clarify and here is what she said: “1/3, 1/3, 1/3 would be about right depending on the condition of the existing soil. You could use 2/3 top soil, 1/6 compost and 1/6 existing soil. You want a resulting mix of no more than 10% compost (Leafgro in this case) by volume or 5% by weight…then maintain that with an organic mulch on top. My favorite is straw (wheat or oat) kept at a height of about 6″. It is applied loose and fluffy so 6″ is not suffocating.”

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