High Yield Crops for Small Gardens
You’re smart. You want the biggest bang for your buck!
But your growing space is limited.
Let’s talk about how to squeeze every drop of food from your limited space that you can.
First, just let me point out the obvious.
You have to eat what you grow or all of the hard work you invested was a waste. Even if zucchini was the highest yield crop for my climate (it’s definitely one of the highest yielding) if my kids won’t eat it I didn’t save myself any money at all. Right?
Luckily, my kids like zucchini and I have a whole bunch of zucchini recipes to use it all up, plus I freeze it, so we’re good.
Now that you’re in that mindset (growing things you like to eat and want to use) let’s talk about specific, high-yield crops as well as methods for growing your garden that will increase your yield. I’ll also share some of my favorite resources for learning more in depth about these growing techniques and methods. I hope they blow your mind (in a good way) as much as they have mine!
Best High Yield Crops for Small Gardens
1. Lettuce and Chard. Lettuce and chard have the advantage of being super quick to grow to maturity. You can begin to harvest them only 30 days after planting, depending on how big you want them to get. If you’re careful to just harvest the outer leaves and not damage the crown, more leaves will grow right back in their place, making just a few heads of lettuce sufficient to feed a large family. The tough thing about lettuce is finding a variety that won’t bolt (go to seed) when temperatures get too high. Plant your lettuce in a shady, cool spot and it will last longer. Chard doesn’t bolt as easily as lettuce, extending your harvest.
2. Squash. Both summer and squash and winter squash fall into the high yield crops for small gardens category. Summer squash are like zucchini and crookneck; they’re soft-skinned and don’t last as long. Summer squash grow quickly and you can harvest them all summer. One single plant will return dozens of squash over the growing season, so you only need a few to feed an entire family.
Winter squash are like pumpkins, banana squash, spaghetti squash, butternut, etc… They take longer to grow, but they will last all winter in a cool, dark spot in your house. Seriously, you don’t have to can or dehydrate them or anything. They just last and last and last. Also, you can get dozens of huge winter squash from a single vine. The vine does take a lot of room if you let it sprawl in the garden, but some people grow the vines on trellises. Just make sure those heavy squashes are supported somehow!
3. Pole beans. Green beans come in bush and pole (climbing) varieties. They produce like their very lives depend upon it. One 20′ row of pole beans keeps my family of ten in beans all year long. I sautee a little bit of sausage or bacon in a large pot on the stove, then add about 2 gallons washed, snapped green beans to the pot, stir, turn the heat low and put a lid on. In about twenty minutes they are tender-crisp and flavored by the meat drippings, and oh, so perfect!
Sometimes I serve the green beans with other fresh garden veggies or a container of cottage cheese or something, but I usually just serve up that big pot and we all gorge on green beans. We eat that a couple of times per week all summer (no complaints from the kiddos, either), plus I can all of the excess, which lasts us through the winter.
4. Cucumbers. Also fast growers, if you just plant three hills of cucumbers, you’ll end up with more cukes than you can pick, pickle or give away. You can provide a trellis and wind the runners around the rungs as they grow in order to fit more in a small space. Cucumbers are light enough they don’t need additional support. They even grow well in containers.
5. Tomatoes. They do take a little longer to grow, but if you plant indeterminate vines they will produce abundantly until a hard freeze. Cover them and they’ll last even longer. Tomatoes grow well in containers (especially cherry or grape varieties) on a patio or in any full sun spot in your garden.
6. Peppers. Both bell peppers and chili plants stay quite small and will grow great in pots. They like a little bit more shade than tomatoes. I’ve personally found chili peppers to produce even more prolifically than bell peppers.
7. Radishes. Most varieties are ready to pick in 45 days and they’ll pair great with all that lettuce! I like to plant radishes in the same row as my carrots because they sprout so much more quickly to mark the row, and they’re gone by the time the carrots get big enough to need the space, so I’m not ultimately wasting any space (and I don’t have to rearrange my soaker hoses). Not wasting space is key if you’re looking to maximize your crops yield in your small gardens.
8. Herbs. Herbs are great companions to plant with other vegetables and many of them deter insects from snacking on your hard work! Herbs can also be expensive, so growing them yourself can save money. The very biggest benefit of all, though, is that they taste so much better fresh!
You can grow a whole year’s supply in one summer, and then preserve them by “pulsing” them in your food processor with a tiny amount of water, then using ice cube trays to freeze them in the quantities you’ll want to use them. Once they’re frozen, pop the herb cubes into a labeled ziploc bag for later. That way you retain the straight-from-the-garden freshness all year!
9. Berries. Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries are fantastically expensive at the market, making berries one of the very most cost effective things to grow. Berry vines, canes and shrubs bear multiple crops per season, plus they keep bearing year after year after year. In addition, the shrubs, canes and vines are attractive and can be used as an attractive landscape specimen.
10. Dwarf fruit trees. You may not have room in your landscape for a full-sized, old-fashioned apple tree. But dwarf fruit trees are only about 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. Some of them are even suitable for pots. They can also be espaliered against a wall or fence, so that they take up even less room. A dwarf peach tree can bear up to 8 bushels of peaches per season, and they bear year after year after year, too. That’s a great yield for a tree that takes up relatively little space!
One more consideration is what will produce the best for you where you live.I live in zone 5b at a high altitude, so we have a pretty short growing season, although the temperature in August and September is up above 90 degrees (Farenheit) which is great for heat-loving crops like tomatoes and melons.
So I start seeds indoors (winter sowing technique) and use recycled milk jugs like little hotcaps for tender vegetables in order to get crops earlier, and I use low tunnels to protect crops from freezing in the fall. That way, we’re able to grow just about anything.
Garden Techniques for Increased Yield in Small Gardens
Speaking of gardening techniques for increasing crop yields due to a shorter growing season and high altitude, there are also lots of garden techniques for increased yield in small spaces. Let’s talk about a few of them:
1. Square foot gardening. I’ve actually never tried this one personally, because I haven’t wanted to invest in raised beds and special soil mixes and such. I just grow in the ground and enrich my soil with plain old manure because I’m cheap. However, I’ve had friends use this method with fantastic success. I love that it looks so tidy and attractive and seems easy to keep up!
2. Mittleider Method. This method focuses on delivering a carefully designed set of nutrients to the plants, using a custom fertilizer blend that supplies all the nutrients in exactly the amounts needed. They also usually use automated watering system, aimed at the roots of the plants. This method is labor intensive upfront, but labor-saving in the long run. It’s great for small spaces because it uses resources so wisely.
3. Patio gardens. People who live in apartments and don’t have yards can still garden as long as they have some sunny space! My sister lived in an apartment in Beijing, China for a few years and when we visited them I noticed many of her neighbors growing incredible gardens on their balconies. The key is to go vertical.
4. Food forests. Permaculture is the direction we’ve gone with our farm. Bill Mollison, who coined the term permaculture, defines it as, “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
A food forest mimics a forest, but is comprised solely of food-producing plants. It includes many layers, with berry-producing ground covers beneath productive shrubs, beneath understory fruit trees, beneath tall trees, with food vines growing up the trees and mushrooms growing in the shade.
The food forest is packed and busy, but each of the stacked layers of the forest is situated carefully for sufficient sun exposure. A food forest can maximize food production at any size, from a small patio garden to a large farm. If planned well, it can be a low-maintenance and relatively self-maintaining ecosystem.
Resources for Learning More About Growing High Yield Crops in Small Gardens
Patio gardening for small spaces:
Square Foot Gardening:
I hope these ideas will get you thinking about a few ways for you to increase the yield in your own small gardens, whether it’s just a balcony, a patio or even if you’ve got a couple of acres to work with. We usually grow so much that we are able to share with family members and neighbors in addition to putting away enough food to last us through the coming year, and it is a GREAT feeling!
Here’s a question for all my frugal, gardening friends.
Happy gardening, friends!
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What are your favorite high yield crops for small gardens and why? Leave your comment below!