“Oh, I don’t have a garden because I don’t have a backyard. I just have a patio/deck/balcony/front porch.” I’ve heard this countless times before when I casually mention my gardening hobby.
People are convinced that they need swaths of land to grow edibles. But it’s totally possible to grow plants in a small space, even one that doesn’t get a ton of sun.
As they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way! The key is picking the right plants for your limited space.
Choosing Compact Plants
First things first. If you’re growing edibles on a patio or balcony, you’ll need to select container-friendly varieties.
You can grow most vegetables and fruits in containers so long as you use sizable pots (skip the adorable but too-tiny 2-inch containers) and opt for compact varieties.
How do you identify compact plants? It’s all about reading the seed packet or pot tag thoroughly.
A few terms that you’ll want to look for:
- Compact (duh!)
A caveat: Not all “mini” varieties produce small plants. Sometimes, mini refers to the fruit. Also, just because a plant name or description doesn’t feature one of these monikers doesn’t mean you can’t grow it on your porch or balcony.
Why bother with compact, pint-sized fruits at all? They’re great for snacking and for households with one or two people. Cluster enough small plants and you can have a serious harvest.
Here are some of the best crops for growing in compact spaces:
Freshly sliced tomatoes are a real garden treat. But you don’t need a ton of room to grow tasty tomatoes. There are plenty of dwarf varieties available.
Cherry tomato plants tend to be more manageable in size than beefsteak-type toms. While compact varieties might not all produce a huge yield, they are often prolific, providing you with a slew of tomatoes until the first frost arrives.
You can even grow tomatoes hanging upside down in containers.
Bonus: Smaller tomato plants mature faster, so you’ll get your hands on tomatoes sooner rather than later.
Compact varieties: Tiny Tim, Red Robin (one of my favorites), Cherry Gold, Tumbling Tom (another fav of mine), Sweet N Neat, Cherry Cascade
It’s no secret that I don’t love cucumber plants. I always end up with too many cukes on my hands! What a problem to have, right? Cucumber plants typically produce long vines that can quickly take over a garden space.
My one cuke plant is currently gobbling up my porch railing. If you have vertical growing space, take advantage of the plant’s vining habit, and train the vines upward to save room below.
There are also a few dwarf cucumber varieties out there, including bush-type cukes that won’t eat up your entire growing space.
Compact varieties: Spacemaster, Salad Bush, Bush Pickle, Bush Champion, Pickalot
Greens are an excellent option for patio gardening because they take up so little space. They’re usually shallow-rooted, too, so you don’t need giant pots to house them.
Lettuce and other greens are quick to mature, so you can snag multiple harvests in a season, which is ideal for people with limited growing space. While you don’t really need to bother with dwarf lettuce varieties, they do exist!
Compact varieties: Tom Thumb and Little Gem lettuce seeds produce perfect little heads of lettuce that are visually appealing and are fun to harvest and eat. Kids will love these tiny lettuces!
My pepper plants have always been small, because of the unpredictable weather around here. This year, though, consistent heat has caused my pepper crops to explode.
While peppers don’t typically take up a lot of room, they do require sizeable containers. There are plenty of pepper varieties, though, that are much smaller than the typical pepper.
Compact varieties: Baby Bell, Jingle Bells, Mirasol, Pretty n Sweet, Alter Ego, and Patio Fire
Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables! Probably because I eat it so little, I hardly have time to get sick of it. Like peppers, eggplants don’t take up a lot of real estate, but they prefer large containers.
Miniature varieties take up slightly less space and produce smaller fruit, which is perfect for small households. The plant lends itself perfectly to container growing.
Compact varieties: Fairy Tale, Ping Tung Long (I’m growing this variety for the first time this year, and I can confirm the plants are ultra-compact!), Eggplant Patio Baby F1
A single squash plant, once full grown, can quickly overtake an entire garden, especially vining varieties.
You’ll need a lot of room to grow squash unless you have vertical support structures. It’s possible, though, to grow squash in tiny spaces.
I’m growing 4 squash plants on my small side porch right now! They’re big and leafy, but the compact varieties I’ve chosen won’t infringe on nearby containers.
When selecting squash for patio growing, choose bush varieties over vining ones.
Compact varieties: Sunburst, Dwarf Summer Crookneck
I was tricked this year, and I have a bean monster on my hands. Beans are easy to grow and usually provide gardeners with a hefty yield.
If you’re growing in a small space, though, you’ll need to plan carefully. Pole and runner beans need supports because they produce vines and climb.
Bush beans are far more compact and don’t need super tall support structures to stay upright.
Unfortunately, I planted beans early in the season, thinking they were bush beans (the packet said so!). They have grown in a monstrous fashion crowding out my swiss chard and poppy flowers.
I installed a DIY trellis structure, but it’s not big or tall enough to contain the beast. Of course, this is a situation out of my control.
I had intended to plant bush beans in the very small space I had. Next year, I’ll buy my seeds elsewhere and make sure to select bush beans.
Compact varieties: any bush varieties will do.
Growing peas is such a treat! They grow like weeds without any risk of becoming invasive and produce the tastiest pods that can be eaten fresh or used in stir-fries.
Peas climb when provided with a trellis, but there are a few suitable varieties for growing in pots even without one. They don’t become very tall but still manage to produce tons of delicious pods.
Compact varieties: Peas-in-a-Pot, Little SnapPea Crunch, Dwarf Grey Sugar Snow Pea, Blue Bantam Dwarf
Scientific evidence shows that there is nothing cuter than a miniature carrot. Carrots are a pain in the butt to germinate, but once they’ve sprouted, they’re relatively easy to grow – even in containers.
Depth is a vital component in the carrot growing process, though. If they don’t have enough vertical room to root, the resulting carrots will be deformed and unsightly.
If you don’t have deep plots or only have a selection of shallot pots for growing, choose miniature varieties that don’t produce a super long taproot.
Compact varieties: Parisienne, Caracas, Short Stuff Chantenay, Bunny Bite, Thumbelina
Corn is another summer garden delicacy that people stay away from growing in containers because they assume it needs lots of room. It’s true, you’ll need a fair bit of space to get much of a harvest with most corn varieties, but some types will thrive in a 5-gallon container.
Be aware that squirrels LOVE corn. They’ll steal it right before you can enjoy it, so you might need to come up with a way to block squirrels from accessing the plants (e.g., chicken wire fencing).
Compact varieties: Golden Miniature, Baby Asian, Golden Midget
Strawberries are a double treat for patio gardening. First, you get the pretty plants with cheerful white blossoms. Then, you get the juicy, sweet, fruits. These plants have a compact growth habit, which makes them perfect in a container garden.
You can grow any variety of strawberries in a patio garden, but there are a few developed for growing in compact spaces.
Compact varieties: Eversweet, Tristan, Delizzimo, Montana, Delizz, Flavorfest, Grande Berried Treasure Red, Mara Des Bois
Like lettuce, kale is another green, leafy veg that is perfect for container growing. You need to focus on keeping these thirsty and hungry plants watered and fertilized, however.
Some plants can spread as large as 3 feet, so look for cultivars that stay a bit more compact.
Compact varieties: Blue Scotch Curled, Red Winter, Dwarf Siberian, Black Magic
Blueberries… in containers? Yes, it’s totally possible! Just because you’re patio gardening, it doesn’t mean you can’t have these sweet treats. You can find varieties that grow in zones 3-8.
As long as you pick a compact variety, have an 18-inch pot, and a spot with full sun, you’re good to go.
Compact varieties: Top Hat, Sunshine Blue, Patriot, Bushel, Berry Pink Icing
Figs are the perfect container fruit because the trees don’t get too large, they start producing fruit quickly, and the foliage is lovely. If you don’t live in zone 7 or up, you can bring the container indoors during the winter.
Compact varieties: Brown Turkey, Chicago Hardy, Little Miss Figgy, Little Ruby Dwarf, Petite Negri
Don’t forget that you can grow just about any herb or microgreens in containers to complement your fruits and veggies.
If you’re ready to start your patio container gardening in earnest, I highly recommend The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith. It’s an excellent resource for small-space gardening and is jam-packed with helpful, practical information.