Gardening with Small Spaces & Tight Budgets

Don’t let limited space or a minimal budget stop you from enjoying the benefits of growing some of your own food.

by Tamara McFarland, Cooperation Humboldt

The United States has a problem with distribution of resources. We have the highest rate of income inequality of all the G7 nations (United States, the U.K., France, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Canada). And the gap between richer and poorer families – whether measured by income or wealth – continues to widen.

This inequality results in those who have trouble meeting many of their basic needs having a hard time accessing the tools and resources they need to eat good food. Low-income individuals are less likely to have the physical space, financial resources, and time to garden than their wealthier neighbors.

It’s critical that we not only acknowledge this reality, but also that we work on both fronts – by attacking the root causes of poverty through policy change in addition to providing resources to meet folks’ immediate needs.

This article explores some tactics to meet those immediate food needs, even with limited resources.


It’s far more frugal to start your veggies from seeds rather than pay for starts. Begin with clean, well-drained containers (you can often find free used six-packs at nurseries) and a good quality seed starting mix or potting soil. Follow the instructions on the seed packet and water gently and often (aim for evenly moist – not soggy but not dry).


Select crops that maximize your available space. For example, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower require a lot of space per plant and will only provide one harvest. You’ll be better served by selecting plants that offer high yields in small spaces, like radishes, lettuce, greens, carrots, garlic, onions, and spinach.

Choosing fast-growing crops also maximizes your yield; these include arugula, bok choy, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, and spinach. Use succession planting – staggering plantings in the same area throughout the season. Each time a crop is finished, harvest it and plant something new in its place.


Many crops can thrive in containers. You’ll need to pay close attention to their moisture levels (since soil in containers will dry out faster than soil in the ground) and nutritional needs (because plants deplete nutrients at a quicker rate in containers).

Be sure to add plenty of organic compost by top-dressing soil and spraying with compost tea regularly. Free sources of soil nutrients include homemade compost (more info), worm compost (possible to do indoors), homemade compost tea, and rabbit, goat or chicken poop.

Rotate crops by not planting the same type of plant in the same pots each year. Healthy soil promotes healthy plants, and healthy plants provide better nutrition and can resist pest and disease.

Get creative about what kinds of containers you use. Free containers include used plastic pots (available at some nurseries), 5-gallon buckets (check with grocery stores or bakeries; be sure to add drainage holes), and salvaged items from wheelbarrows to bathtubs.

Don’t forget about hanging planters! If you have a fence, balcony railing, or roof overhang – hang planters.


Grow anything you can upward instead of outward. Many crops benefit from being trained vertically, including peas, squash, beans, and more. You can also employ vertical planters – either purchased tiered planters or built from reclaimed materials like pallets.

If you have a fence or other vertical structure available, grow a climbing vine. Kiwis do well here.


You can grow many herbs indoors on a sunny windowsill, including basil, chives, parsley, cilantro, thyme, and ginger. Try your hand at microgreens or sprouts – they are easy and quick to grow and have a high nutritional content.


If you have at least a small amount of outdoor space available, make the most of it by replacing as much ornamental landscaping as possible with edible plants. Research attractive options such as Chilean guava for a hedge that also provides fruit. Some varieties of blueberry provide lovely fall foliage in addition to their summer fruits. Converting even a 10’ square of grass into garden can provide an abundance of vegetables.


Consider gardening in a shared space such as a community garden, where land is set aside to grow food for individuals and their communities. Some have individual plots available, while others serve primarily as learning centers about growing, seed saving, permaculture and sustainable farm practices. (See page 84 for a directory of local community gardens.)


Posted in 2021 Community Food Guide.