Growing Beautiful Edible Gardens for the Land-Challenged: Best Tomatoes for Small Spaces.

The Great Seed Experiment continues. The greenhouse is filled with beautiful babies. Many desperately need new homes, looking like a 6-year-old forced to sleep in a crib, while I keep adding to my seed addiction.

Renee's Garden Seeds Nasturtiums
A dozen packets of assorted nasturtium beauties arrived yesterday, sending me into a giddy floral daydream. I must grow ALL THE NASTURTIUMS this year. Then, I stupidly ventured onto Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds' website last night, looking up blearily after two hours of browsing stunning vegetables that we NEED. (Does anyone in my family like Turkish eggplant? Do I care? It's pretty.) I've promised my green babies that as soon as I finish a few writing projects, they'll have my undivided attention. After all, I don't want to stunt their growth by forcing them to stay in their first home forever. I reserve that trick for my human children.

In a blinding surge of energy, I tackled chickweed. (Please, any foragers or herbalists, feel free to come forage it out of my life.) Both the sweet peas and the edible sugar snap and snow peas finally made it into the raised beds, just in time for a hail storm this week. When I nervously peeked at them yesterday morning, expecting crumpled vines, they resiliently stood upright, stretching toward the sun, tendrils beginning to slowly twine their way towards the bamboo trellis. Disaster averted.

Most importantly--I haven't bought a single plant.


So now, before my craving for new foliage kicks into gear, let's chat about gardening for the land challenged, shall we?

Recently, I spoke at Cultivate, South Carolina's Organic Growers' Conference, discussing how small spaces can become robust, beautiful food gardens by employing a bit of creative thinking.

(Have you noticed a theme recently? I seem to have beautiful edible gardens occupying my mind.)

P.Allen Smith's kitchen garden

Well, why shouldn't edible gardens also look lovely? With more of us opting to grow our food, there's no reason an edible garden can't be perfectly pretty, as well as palate pleasing. Honestly, some of the recent lawsuits involving front yard kitchen gardens might have been avoided if the homeowners considered the aesthetic potential of vegetables.

Why do I harp on the "beauty" component of growing edibles? After all, aren't taste and nutrition the most important aspects of growing food? Of course they are. But here's the reality: I want gardeners to succeed and enjoy the process. Everyone can and should grow food--it's my mantra. If you're faced with a lovely, pleasant, well-designed garden with gorgeous fruits and vegetables versus a weed-laden, hodge-podge, unattractive plot of plants, where will you spend your time? If you're like me, you'll avoid that nasty garden and hide inside.

If your garden is aesthetically pleasing, you'll spend more time in it, relaxing and chatting, enjoying a cocktail or reading a book. If you spend more time in your garden, you'll care for it vigilantly, watering and tending your green babies. If you're up close and personal with your plants, you'll quickly notice when something goes awry, like a tomato hornworm that took up residence, snacking on your potential bruschetta. If you're often face-to-face with your plants, you can remedy pest and disease problems promptly, ensuring a good harvest. A good harvest leads to a well-fed, happy gardener, who might have extra garden treats to share with neighbors. Neighbors may be inspired by the gorgeous, tasty produce and lovely garden, resulting in new gardeners. Happy neighbors = content homeowners associations and landlords. A beautiful edible garden can grow a neighborhood into a community of garden-to-table food lovers.

Strawberry basket

Even with the space challenges faced by apartment and condo dwellers or homeowners with limited land, growing beautiful edible gardens is possible--and perhaps, even more necessary.

Growing food on walls and raised beds

The first step is to think creatively. Where can you grow food? Is there space in your courtyard for a small raised bed? Is there a balcony or patio? Can you access the roof, and is it appropriate for food growing? (Can it bear weight, is it flat, will you have water access?) How about your front stoop or fire escape? Is there a wall or fence where you can grow vertically on a trellis or wall-pocket system?

Once you've assessed your location options, it's time to think about the hardware.

Growing food in wheelbarrows

Do you have room for a small raised bed, or will you grow your garden in containers? A 4' x 4' raised bed can produce enough food to feed an adult a salad every day throughout the growing season. If you add a trellis to the garden, you can add cucumbers, beans, or squash to that harvest. Raised beds can be created inexpensively with lumber and screws, or there are many options to repurpose materials like bricks or stones. The beauty of a raised bed is that you can control the soil content: a good mix includes 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite, all of which you can find at your local feed and seed store. By planting intensively and planning for succession planting, a 4 x 4 bed becomes a vegetable-making machine. Add supports and a plastic cover, and you've now extended your growing season into cooler months.

Raised beds aren't an option for everyone. There are newer styles, though, including elevated versions of garden beds that provide an ideal growing location for balconies or patios. I'm anxiously awaiting a trial elevated bed from CedarCraft that I'll place on our balcony, growing herbs right outside the kitchen door--perfect for the times I'm mid-recipe and forgot to harvest herbs in the kitchen garden. (But more about that in a future post.)

If the size of an elevated bed is space prohibitive, containers provide excellent options to grow food. When selecting containers, remember the most important tip: the container must drain freely. Without adequate drainage, the plant will stand in water, leading to root rot. Additionally, in the case of containers, bigger IS better. Smaller containers dry out quickly, meaning that twice daily waterings in the summer may be necessary. A large container can be intensively planted to produce an ample harvest. Also, heavy feeders--like tomatoes--thrive on adequate soil and nutrients, requiring a large container. Most indeterminate tomatoes grow well in a five gallon container with a support. However, you can plant the container using the design elements of "Thriller, Filler, Spiller": the tomato serves as the "thriller," the tallest plant; the "filler" can be basil, planted to surround the base of the tomato plant; and the "spiller" could include nasturtiums, edible flowers that also add a splash of color and beauty to the container garden.

Since this post is turning into a novella, let's focus on the question I'm asked most often:

Container tomato

What are the best heirloom tomato varieties for container gardens?

First of all, as long as your container is at least five gallons, you can grow any indeterminate heirloom tomato in a container. It will need a supporting trellis, lots of organic feeding (every two weeks), sunlight (6-8 hours), and ample watering (check it daily.)

However, we're talking about beautiful edible gardens, right? I can promise you--an indeterminate tomato plant in a container will look very unattractive in July. Maintenance is key: pinch out suckers and snip off ugly foliage to help maintain its size and productivity. Rather than allowing the tomato plant to spend its energy on growing new foliage (suckers), pruning redirects the plant's energy into fruit production. So, not only are you maintaining a pretty container garden, you're also increasing your potential harvest through maintenance.

Heirloom tomato varieties

If you grow an indeterminate heirloom tomato in a container, choose a variety that's not only delicious--but beautiful. With gorgeous colors, stripes, and clusters, you'll find hundreds of varieties to choose. My favorite indeterminate heirlooms for both flavor and beautiful fruit:

Thai Pink Egg
Amana Orange
Sungold Select
Jaune Flammé
Bonnie Best
Gold Medal
Black Cherry
Violet Jasper
White Queen
Black Krim
Black Vernissage

Yellow Pear Pin

But what if you want a true container-sized heirloom tomato plant? Fortunately, I've found some great heirloom options:

Geranium Kiss
Snow Fairy
Cream Sausage
Al Kuffa
Silvery Fir Tree
Principe Borghese
Plum Tigris

'Silvery Fir Tree' makes my cut every year. Not only does it produce perfect, globe-shaped red tomatoes, the foliage is gorgeous--I've never seen a tomato plant with foliage like it. Think cut-leaf Japanese maple, and you'll get an idea. These container varieties are determinate, meaning the plants don't grow as large, but they produce their fruit in one, big show--unlike indeterminate plants, which produce all season. Floradade is especially good for southern zones, tolerating heat and humidity well. 'Minibel' is perfect for window boxes or hanging baskets--it only reaches a foot in height but is filled with sweet, bite-sized fruits. 'Geranium Kiss' is new to my garden this year, but it also boasts a compact size, with maximum height of 24-30 inches. I'm excited to see how it produces.

Holy cow, this is turning into a long post. Are you still there? Let's break this into a series, shall we? I want to share some new varieties I saw when I visited Veggie Trials last fall with the National Garden Bureau. You know I'm an heirloom lover, but you need to know about some fabulous new introductions for containers that plant breeders showed us. (Hint: you won't believe what they've done with okra and eggplants!)

So, for now, your homework is to tell me how you plan to grow: raised beds, containers, vertical, or in the ground. Think about what you love to eat and make a list of the foods you'd like to grow. I'll help you find the prettiest, tastiest varieties to add to your beautiful edible garden.

It's like I can shop vicariously through you, which is almost as good as buying my own plants!

For part two in the series, I'll share new introductions for your small spaces. Part three will include examples of combining "thrillers, spillers, and fillers" to create beautiful gardens. I promise, we'll chat about plants besides tomatoes. Part four will show how to succession plant to maximize your harvest throughout the year. Part 5 will...hmmm...maybe answer any questions you might have about creating your beautiful edible garden? Please leave any questions you have in the comments.

I know I broke every rule about blog post length here, so thanks for sticking with me, if you're still reading! Spring is coming...and we'll be ready for it. Right?!

Happy Gardening!