Last Updated on July 10, 2020
You can grow food in some unexpected places to get more out of a small garden! There are probably some sneaky spots in your yard you haven’t thought of where you could be growing delicious (and FREE) food. Read on to find the 9 ways I’ve made the most of a small garden to maximize the food my yard produces.
Small Space Garden Strategy: Grow Food Everywhere!
I live on a very small corner lot (⅕ of an acre), with about 8 feet of back and side yard, entirely in shade. Because I really wanted to grow some of my own food, I started gardening in my front yard, inspired by Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates.
When I discovered that having a vegetable garden in Minnesota meant a lot of bare soil in spring (not very attractive in the front yard, and not great for erosion, either), I began looking into perennial food plants, many of which are beautiful.
Now I grow food everywhere!
I planted dwarf fruit trees anywhere they would fit and stuck rhubarb and berry bushes on my boulevard. In the picture above you can see an area next to the street that used to be nothing but weeds, where now I have rhubarb (see my post on uses for rhubarb to see why I’m putting this plant everywhere I can), gooseberries, serviceberries, several varieties of mint, alpine strawberries, and a few things that are edible if I bothered to do anything with them.
I’ve also been adding more perennial vegetables over the years, so we can have delicious greens and roots as well as yummy fruits without planting every season. Here are some of the fastest growing vegetables you might want to consider adding to an annual vegetable garden.
Small Space Garden Strategy: Know Your “Weeds”
The cool red plant poking in on the left is amaranth, which has edible leaves and seeds and self-seeds all over the yard. Even the weed that planted itself next to the curb is edible; purslane is a pretty amazing little plant, so I let it be, though with everything else to eat around here, it took awhile to get around to trying it. Now I wait eagerly for its appearance so I can use it in delicious and healthy green smoothies. Here are lots more purslane recipes from around the world.
Lots of other edible “weeds” are worth welcoming to your yard as well. My whole front yard is now covered in wild violets, which besides being an easy low-maintenance groundcover have some culinary and medicinal uses as well. And dandelions are delicious, versatile, and so nutritious. Here are more than 35 ways to use dandelions for food and medicine.
Other common plants few of us realize are edible can be harvested also. I have bee balm, yarrow, clover, and raspberry leaves that often find their way into my tea pot. Pine and spruce needles can be brewed into tea, and you can even eat hostas!
When you start exploring the world of foraging, you discover tons of plants that can be used in your kitchen and medicine cabinet.
Related: 7 Remedies from Your Yard
Small Space Garden Strategy: Grow Food with Edible Ornamentals
Another part of the boulevard has a quintet of honeyberries (above), a very early elongated blueberry-type fruit that my little ones can’t get enough of. This area also has more rhubarb and an apple tree, and sometimes self-seeders borage and calendula, a medicinal herb with a lovely yellow flower.
I have containers to take advantage of sun where I don’t have a good spot to plant directly in the ground and grow pots of basil, tomatoes, and creeping rosemary (above, with a weed called wood sorrel, which is also edible and has a nice tangy flavor, good for salads when other greens are not yet plentiful).
Related: 40+ Vegetables that Grow in Shade!
When we needed shade on our porch, I planted grapevines, which not only give us lovely shade in the heat of summer, but a bumper crop of Bluebell grapes. It turns out Japanese beetles think grape leaves are about the yummiest thing ever, so we’ve used a number of natural methods for controlling Japanese beetles.
The grapevines are underplanted with strawberries and serviceberry shrubs, because we can never have enough berries!
These delicate pink raspberries grow off to the side of my front yard, but the plants are pretty invasive, and a little rangy for a front-yard garden. I’m moving them to a more contained out-of-the-way location by our back door.
I underplant this area with strawberries, thyme, and borage, an odd-looking self-seeder with edible flowers and leaves that lend a melon-cucumber flavor to water and have some impressive medicinal properties.
My all-time favorite herb, lemon balm, joined the party as a single plant. In the years since, I’ve let it spread and have more than a dozen plants in different parts of the yard. (Read more about what’s so wonderful about lemon balm and how I get most of my plants for free.)
Who says veggies have to grow in a backyard? You can grow food everywhere!
In another area where the soil was badly compacted from installing our geothermal system, I set up 5 raised beds in a diamond pattern to up take advantage of one of the few spots in our yard that gets decent sun.
There, I grow kale for kale chips as well as squash, beans, and cucumbers, which grow up this easily-constructed teepee to add some visual interest and make use of vertical space, along with some volunteer tomato plants that tried to take over last summer. I’ve also tried growing three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) as well as some cabbage in other boxes.
Small Space Garden Strategy: Find Unexpected Places to Grow Food
Take a careful look around. If you can add trees, consider types with fruit for you and your family to enjoy. Dwarf plums, apples, and pears can yield quite a lot and require very little attention.
Consider vining plants like scarlet runner beans, cucumbers, or grapes, by fences, walls, and arbors. Sneak in fruiting shrubs wherever you can. (See my post on growing fruit for more specifics.)
Renting or not ready to commit? Pots can grow everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to strawberries. One of my friends filled a kiddie pool with soil and grew all the veggies she wanted for summer on her concrete patio.
Check out Mel Bartholomew’s fabulous Square Foot Gardening for a simple and efficient way to grow a lot in a small space.
When the weather’s too cold, you can also grow food inside. Here’s what to know about how to grow vegetables indoors!
Related: Eco-Friendly Landscaping: How to Put Your Yard to Work for the Planet
Here are the strategies I use to grow food — lots of it — in my small garden:
9 Ways to Maximize Food in a Small Garden
- Scout out underutilized areas that could grow food. Is there a patch of lawn that you don’t actually use that could be turned over to grow food?
- Add dwarf fruit trees — apples, pears, peaches, oranges, whatever grows in your region.
- Plant fruiting shrubs like blueberries, raspberries, or hazelnuts.
- Tuck in small fruits like strawberries and groundcover raspberries.
- Add herbs like lemon balm, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and mint. And don’t forget that lots of weeds are edible, too!
- Find places vines like grapes, beans, and kiwis can climb.
- Grow herbs and vegetables in pots.
- Think vertical — cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes can be trained to grow up to make the most of limited space.
- Garden intensively to grow a lot in a little area.
If you really want to dive into edible landscaping, check out Angela England’s inspiring new book Gardening Like a Ninja: A Guide to Sneaking Delicious Edibles into Your Landscape. She’ll help you take your efforts to grow food everywhere to a whole new level.
Do you have a new spot where you could grow food this season? Leave your good ideas below!
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Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.