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IPFS News Link • Food

How to Have a Garden When You "Can't" Have a Garden

• The Organic Prepper by Kara Stiff

Are you itching to grow something for the table in these times of bare shelves, but don't have space? Well, you're definitely not alone. Gardening is suddenly very popular, both for the calories and the many other benefits.

Are you renting and your landlord isn't interested in plowing up the lawn? Or, maybe you've only got a small yard that has to double as pandemic playground for the kids. Perhaps the covenants in your neighborhood restrict the area you can put into beds. Or you're limited to just a balcony. Whatever restrictions you're dealing with, I assure you that something yummy can be grown!

Let me show you how. Or rather, let my mom show you.

My parents retired from the frigid North to the baking South only recently, and though they own their house, they are prudently moving quite cautiously in altering the outside space. My father Randy is still figuring out what their ultimate needs and abilities are going to be. It would be a real shame to go to the effort of putting in beds and improving soil, only to have to scrape it away because the best garden spot is also the only workable garage site.

But my mother Rose is indomitable. Salad must be eaten, and so it will be grown, whether or not there is a space in the ground for it this year.

First, she made full use of her existing ornamental beds around the east, south, and west of the house. There was crepe myrtle, iris, azalea, and daylily already in those beds. She filled in the gaps with high bush blueberry as well as tomatoes, beautiful red okra, herbs, lettuce, onions, peppers, and even a pumpkin.

It may not look like a regular flower bed, but neither does it obviously resemble a food-production system. All but the most restrictive neighborhoods would probably allow some sort of mixed assemblage, especially if the flowers are showy enough.

Growing food in ornamental beds has some distinct advantages. There's usually good access from existing paths, so you can pack your plants in pretty tightly and get more yield out of the smaller area. Mulch that is typically applied to ornamentals is also a great amendment for annuals, helping conserve water and keep the roots cooler in our hot summer temperatures, and ultimately building high-quality soil. Pollinators attracted by the flowers help ensure the fruits get pollinated.

Mixing up annuals with perennials and plants from different families takes a little more creativity than just planting in rows, but it really helps with pest control. Bugs that would thrive and multiply on a whole row of nightshades get confused when there are blueberries between the tomato plants. If you're interested, there's a whole body of information on this subject called companion planting.

Ornamental areas aren't just good for fruits and veggies. Medicinals like Echinacea (purple coneflower) can do really well tucked into spare corners. I keep killing my Echinacea starts out in the main garden, but at Rose's house they are thriving with a little shade.

RELATED: Garden Rebels | 10 Ways to Sow Revolution in Your Back Yard

After her beds were full, Rose turned to containers.

For root crops, she hunted down some plastic barrels from a local salvage establishment. These are polyethylene, which is very inert and usually considered pretty safe to grow food in. She drilled holes in them for drainage, filled them with purchased soil and covered them with a reflective material to keep the merciless sun from baking the roots.

Yield can be really good for such a small space, especially if you plant the potatoes low in the container and then periodically add soil in layers. As more soil is added, new tubers form off the stem, meaning you get far more potatoes from a single plant. When it's time to harvest you simply tip the barrel over on a tarp. This is a lot easier than digging for little kids or people with limited mobility. Sweet potatoes need a longer season, but they also yield edible greens. At my house we eat them in Thai curry.

Rose also planted a garden in a cart. First, it gave her spring shelling peas and arugula. When those crops reached the end of their productive lives, she cleared them out and replanted spinach, peas, and beans. This is called succession planting, and it's an excellent technique for maximizing yields from a small area.