How to Grow More Food In Less Space
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One of the biggest problems that every homesteader runs into sooner or later is the issue of wanting to grow more food than their garden space allows for.
You see, this whole growing your own food thing… it’s sort of addictive. The more you grow, the more you want to grow, the more seeds you want to start, and the more varieties you want to try.
Then, before long, you’ve got more plants than you do garden space, and you’re stuck trying to figure out where to put them all.
This often leads to either struggling to find a way to expand your garden space to accommodate all of your extra plants, or giving away— or selling— your extra seedlings.
Unfortunately, expanding your garden isn’t always possible. And you don’t want to be giving all of your extra plants away if you can help it. I mean, sharing is caring, but…
Selling your seedlings can seem like a good idea, because at least you can make a few bucks on the side. A little extra money is always great, but unless you’re selling quite a few seedlings or you start selling at farmer’s markets on a larger scale, you probably won’t make that much this way.
Really, the best value you’re going to get (in my humble opinion), is from the plants themselves. The money you can save by growing your own organic food at home is worth more than you’ll make selling a few extra seedlings, and the health benefits that you gain from eating said food are priceless!
So what do you do if you end up with more seedlings than you have space for, or if you simply want to produce more food on your property without actually having to expand your garden’s footprint?
How to Grow More Food In Less Space
While you may be tempted to just cram your plants into your garden wherever they’ll fit, this is actually a bad idea that is likely to produce smaller yields in the end. You might technically fit more plants in your garden this way, you probably won’t actually produce more food. Crowding your plants just means that they’ll end up fighting each other for nutrients and root space.
The best thing you can do to produce more food in your garden is to give each plant the space it needs to really thrive.
That being said, it can be hard to fit everything into your garden the “traditional way” if you’re trying to leave ample space between all of your plants. Luckily, however, there are a number of things you can do to fit more food (and more plants!) into your garden without crowding them all.
1. Choose your plants wisely
When choosing what crops you’re going to grow, it can be tempting to try out a bunch of different varieties and “novelty” items. But when your main goal is growing more food in less space, you want to be a lot more practical and strategic in your decision-making.
For starters, always grow what you and your family like to eat! I know this sounds obvious, but I have definitely wasted precious garden space growing things we didn’t even want to eat in the end.
Next, choose crops that do well in your area. Familiarize yourself with your gardening zone and even your specific microclimate, and choose crops that are best suited to grow where you live.
If you can find a local organic seed company, this is a good place to look for seeds and crops that are specifically adapted to your area. We grow paste tomatoes for sauce, and while we do grow San Marzanos (which are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to paste tomatoes in general), we actually have the best success and the most production off of a local heirloom variety called Ardwyna paste tomatoes, since these tomato plants have been selected and grown where we live for decades.
—> Learn more about heirloom seeds and varieties here.
If you don’t have a local seed company in your area, my affiliate True Leaf Market is a great source for seeds in the U.S. They offer tons of organic seed varieties— and of course, all of their seeds are non-GMO. Check out their seed selection here.
When looking for plants that you like to eat, and that grow best in your area, make sure to choose varieties that take up less space naturally, and/or that produce a lot of food per plant.
One year, I tried growing artichokes in our garden. Three of them took up practically an entire garden bed, and produced one small artichoke each that I couldn’t even figure out how to prepare. Needless to say, I buy my artichokes marinated in a jar now;)
Likewise, we grew bush (determinate) tomatoes in or greenhouse one year, and they just about smothered each other out and gave each other blight due to the humidity and the proximity of their leaves… Now we only grow indeterminate tomatoes, which grow up, not out. We also prune the foliage back to almost nothing, and each plant produces pounds and pounds of tomatoes each year. We can fit about 30 indeterminate tomato plants in our garden vs. maybe around half that amount of determinate plants.
Beans are another example: we grow pole beans rather than bush beans because pole beans take up less space. We’ll talk more about growing vertically in a minute…
At the end of the day, some things just aren’t worth growing because they take up a large footprint and produce very little food (or at least less food than if you were to choose a different variety).
Choose wisely when deciding what to grow in your garden and how to best use your space.
2. Companion planting
Companion planting is another great way to maximize growing space and fit more into your garden, without compromising the health or space requirements of your plants.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of companion planting, it simply means planting certain crops beside each other so that they benefit from each other without hindering each other’s ability to grow.
Some companion plants will help to add nutrients to the soil, which helps other plants nearby; other plants will repel pests or attract beneficial insects like pollinators. Some will provide shade or protection from wind, while some companion plants are even said to make other crops taste better, like in the case of planting basil close to tomatoes.
Here are a few good companion plants that you can plant side-by-side:
Legumes and brassicas: Legumes are things like peas and beans. They fix nitrogen in the soil and help to make it bioavailable for other plants, making them a good companion plant for most plants. But they’re especially good companions for anything in the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.) since brassicas are heavy nitrogen feeders.
Brassicas and alliums: Brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) do well with crops from the allium family (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, etc.) The theory is that the alliums repel pests and even improve the flavour of the brassicas. Just try not to plant alliums directly beside legumes as they do not go well together.
Tomatoes and basil: The basil is said repel pests that might otherwise attack tomato plants, such as whiteflies, tomato hornworms, and aphids. It is also said to improve the flavour of the tomatoes growing on nearby plants! (I can’t say for sure if this last one is true, but we do grow tomatoes and basil together and the flavour of both is always fantastic:)
Squash, corn and beans: This is the famous “Three Sisters” planting method: the corn grows upward, providing something for the pole beans to climb up; the pole beans fix nitrogen into the soil; and the squash grows underneath, providing shade to keep the soil cool and moist, acting as a living mulch that prevents too many weeds from popping up, and creating a barrier to critters such as squirrels, rabbits and raccoons.
Interplanting is a lot like companion planting, but instead of planting two crops that grow together at the same time and benefit each other, interplanting is the practice of planting a fast-growing crop between a slower-growing one to get two or more crops (and harvests) out of the same space.
For example, you could grow radishes in between your rows of carrots. The radishes will grow much quicker than the carrots, so you’ll get a harvest of radishes and then when you pull them out of the ground that will give your carrots room to fill in some of the space and grow larger.
You could also grow lettuce alongside onions. The lettuce will grow quickly and then you can harvest it and allow the onions to fill in the space, or transplant them to fill in the gaps. We did this last year and had a lot of success with interplanting these two crops together.
4. Succession planting
Another way to get two or more harvests from the same space is to succession plant. This simply means that you plant a new crop as soon as the old one has been harvested.
Some crops grow quickly or are harvested earlier in the season (such as lettuce, radishes, peas, and garlic). Once you pull these crops out of the ground, you can succession plant other crops in their place.
I like to succession plant beets after I pull up my garlic. I mentioned moving our onions to where our lettuce was, too. (That was sort of half interplanting and half succession planting).
You can also plant a fall garden in place of your summer annuals when they come out. Just make sure that you’re starting your fall crops way ahead of time so that they’re ready to go in the ground as soon as those summer crops come out!
5. Grow vertically
Vertical gardening always makes the list when we talk about growing more food in less space. And rightfully so, since you really can pack a ton of food into a pretty small footprint if you grow UP instead of out. Just think about how many more apartments and people you can fit into a skyscraper vs. a two-story building with the same footprint. Vertical gardening is very similar in comparison.
But not everything can be grown vertically, so this comes back to choosing the right crops, and then making sure you have the right setup to actually trellis them and grow them vertically.
Some good vertical crops include pole beans, peas (English peas and sugar snap), cucumbers, winter squash and pumpkins, melons, and indeterminate tomatoes.
You will need some sort of trellis for each of these crops, and some will require more help than others to latch on and start growing vertically.
Peas and beans are the easiest crops to grow vertically because they’ll latch onto any trellis you provide them with all on their own. Pole beans wind around a trellis, so I like to stake them with bamboo poles that we either lean against our house or fashion into a teepee. Peas do best on cattle panel or chicken-wire style fencing. They grab on with little tendrils and climb up, so we like to grow them right along our garden fence.
Cucumbers will climb pretty easily, but may need a little help getting started. We have an arbor that we grew two different varieties of cucumber up last year. Our pickling cukes took off and produced a ton! Our fresh-eating cucumbers were slower to latch on and grow up, but they still did pretty well, and only took up about one square foot in total!
Squash, pumpkins and melons need a little more help with trellising, so you may need to weave some of the vines up a fence, hoop trellis or arbor. You may also need to support the fruits as they grow since they can get quite large and heavy. You can use some old nylons (pantyhose) to support squash and melons by tying them onto your trellis— like little hammocks for each fruit!
Finally, indeterminate tomatoes are also a great vertical crop. Since they vine out naturally, you can train them up a tomato stake and prune them ruthlessly to fit a whole bunch of tomato plants in a relatively small area and get a whole lotta tomatoes out of your plants.
There are different ways to stake and trellis indeterminate tomatoes, including string trellising, straight up-and-down poles, and the Florida weave. But my personal favourite way to stake tomatoes is on spiral stakes.
With spiral stakes, the tomato vines wind easily around the spiral stakes and don’t need any more support than that until they outgrow them. At that point we either top them or string them up to our tomato shelters, but that’s a rabbit trail I won’t go down right now.
Here are some more tips to help you grow a bumper crop of tomatoes.
I don’t recommend tomato cages for indeterminate tomatoes as they don’t offer the best support and your tomato plants will quickly outgrow them. Tomato cages are better for supporting determinate (bush) tomato varieties.
6. Utilize your microclimates
You may have areas around your property that aren’t necessarily in full sun, but where you might be able to add a few containers or even a raised bed. We have pockets of shade all over our property where most annual, sun-loving crops just won’t grow well, but we’ve learned to use these shady areas to our advantage and grow crops that tolerate or even thrive in cooler, shadier areas.
Crops like lettuce, kale, arugula, mustard greens, bok choy, and spinach all grow well in the shade. Peas, beans, carrots, potatoes and radishes also do well in partial shade. And hey, if you’ve got nothing but shade, why not try growing mushrooms?!
On the flip side, you might have a greenhouse on your property which acts as a man-made microclimate. You can use this to extend your growing season and get a lager harvest off of heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers, or even grow some vegetables year round!
For more information on leveraging your specific gardening zone and microclimates on your property, you can download my Working With Microclimates guide, which can be found under the Gardening Resources section of my Free Resource Library.
7. Try square foot gardening
Another great way to grow more food in less space is to apply the square foot gardening method. The premise behind square foot gardening is that you section your garden bed into square feet, and then you allot each square foot to a certain crop and a certain number of vegetables that will grow in that space.
Some vegetables require more space, so some will take up the entire square foot for one plant, while others require less space and can be grown more densely.
For example, you might grow one tomato plant per square foot, four heads of lettuce in another, nine heads of garlic in another and 16 carrots in another as each of these needs different amounts of space to grow well.
The square foot gardening design breaks it down for you so you can grow a lot in a pretty small space. You can download a free copy of my Square Foot Garden Plan from the Gardening Resources section of my Free Resource Library.
8. Plant in containers
Container gardening is a great way to grow food in small spaces, even if all you have is a patio or small balcony. But it’s also a great way to expand your gardening space without actually having to expand your garden beds.
You can add containers to your existing garden area or to different areas of your property (ie. refer to tip #6 on utilizing your microclimates… containers are a great way to add more growing space to areas of your property where you wouldn’t necessarily put in a full-on garden).
Containers are great because you can move them around to wherever you want or need them at any given time, so you’re never tied to gardening in one spot. Plus you can easily add more.
You might even want to try growing in hanging baskets! This is a serious way to save space or grow food on even the tiniest of balconies. As long as you’ve got good sun, there are varieties of tomatoes, chilli peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula, etc.) and herbs that can be grown in hanging baskets.
9. Build healthy soil
Whether you’re trying to grow more food in less space, or you’re simply wanting to grow healthier plants and produce more food overall, it all starts and ends with your soil.
Focus on building healthy, nutrient-rich soil full of organic matter and I guarantee you your garden will go gangbusters.
When your plants have the nutrients they need from rich, well-drained soil and compost, they will grow much better, even if they’re a little tight on space. If possible, prepare your soil in the fall, either by planting a cover crop or by layering on a thick layer of compost or manure after you’ve pulled out your annual crops and then mulching with organic matter (wood chips, leaves, straw, etc.) All of that organic matter will break down and feed your soil over the fall and winter months and by spring your soil will be rich with nutrients and ready to plan in!
If you missed the boat in the fall and need to add compost in the spring, just make sure it’s well-aged compost. New, “hot” compost that is still in the stages of breaking down can be too high in nitrogen and can burn the roots of new seedlings. Same with hot manure: either put it on in the fall and let it decompose or make sure it’s well aged, composted manure if you’re applying it in the spring.
Read more: How to Prepare Your Soil in the Fall
10. Rotate your crops
Last but not least, always make sure to rotate your crops! Each crops you grow uses different nutrients from the soil. Those nutrients need to be replenished before you can grow the same crop in that space again, otherwise it might not contain enough of the nutrients that your plants need to grow healthy and strong and produce lots of food.
Amending your soil is one way to add nutrients back, and companion planting is another, but you should also always try to rotate your crops so that they’re not using the same nutrients from the same spots in your garden year after year.
Also, crop rotation helps to prevent diseases and pests from spreading to the same crop each season. The same way that a monoculture can spread diseases and cause pest infestations, so too can growing the same crop in the same spot every season.
Mix it up and move things around! By doing this, you’ll be setting your plants up for success in your garden no matter how much space you have to work with (and you’ll reap the accompanying harvest too!)
* * *
There are so many ways to grow more food in less space, from optimizing your garden space and soil health to growing more plants in less space through container planting, vertical growing, and square foot gardening.
You can even use a combination of all of the above, and before you know it you’ll have more homegrown food than you know what to do with. And THAT, my friend, is a very good problem to have!
Ready to take the next step on your homesteading journey?
The Society of Self-Reliance is a brand new monthly membership and private community that focuses on the many different themes and aspects of self-sufficiency. From growing and preserving food to crafting your own herbal medicine to learning basic construction and survival skills to creating greater financial independence, we’ll be covering all the different aspects of self-sufficiency over time. But more importantly, we’ll have a private space to connect and learn from one another. Because a strong community makes for greater self-sufficiency!
I’ll be opening the doors to the Society for a limited time next week at a discounted rate for the first round of students.
If you’re ready to take the next step on your self-sufficiency journey and reclaim your independence, join the waitlist here!
I hope to see you inside:)
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness 🙂
- Road to Resilience ’23 – Vol 1 – Eco Shroom - […] So if you want foods that produce a high yield, Matt Gibson of The Gardening Channel lists eleven foods…
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Your article How to Grow More Food in Less space was packed with very good info. Thank you for being so thorough and for sharing your experiences with others.
Thank you Nora! It’s taken me a few years to really learn all of these things but I am dedicated to learning as much as I can about gardening (and homesteading in general) and testing it out in my own garden and life so that I can share with others. It’s so fulfilling in so many ways!