How To Grow Food in a Small Garden - Turning a Wasted Space into an Edible Garden - More Than 50 Varieties in 500 Sq Ft

How to grow food in a small garden

You can grow food in small places, in fact even with a small garden you can pack a punch and grow your own food both fruit and vegetables. With permaculture principles, vertical gardening, pollinator considerations, composting and close planting techniques it is possible to grow an edible garden full of versatility in a small space. 

How to Grow a Small Garden:

We have more than 50 varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables growing in our small southern-facing side yard, a yard that was previously just wasted, unused space. There are many small garden vegetables, but we have found that to get the most success from a small garden, you need to have diversity, growing both annuals and perennials, so that there is never an off season, you need to cater to pollinators, and you need to embrace vertical gardening in a creative way that works for your space. 

Container gardening has proved to be a great way for us to grow many different varieties without them taking over, and we pay great attention to the health of the soil though amending with homemade compost, homemade composted chicken manure and vermicompost. Still, being able to put certain plants and trees in the ground will help you maximize your production, and it will also help create a microclimate. 

When we moved to our current home six years ago, we were thrilled to have our own garden area, since we'd been sharing a miniscule garden (with a huge mango tree) for the past decade before moving here.

Our garden is small and diverse. We only have sun on the eastern and the southern sides of our home, since we're surrounded by a beautiful park-like property to the west and north, so we have huge trees towering over us. We let the leaves drop and squeeze away weeds, and outside of gardening areas we collect the leaves for compost and pot fillers. 

The Beginning of Our Small Garden: 

Our garden has come a long way, and what was once wasted space with the sun burning up anything we tried to grow, now provides lots of fruits and veggies for our family. On the southern narrow side, I looked at the blank slate and saw a future lush tropical garden with lots of fruit plants and trees. With only 500 square feet at the side of the house, the last six years have been a lot of trial and error, as we figured out what worked and what didn't work in the space. It took a lot of hard work, and the first thing we did was to install a fence for privacy, as we have a neighbor close by on the southern side of our home.

August 2016

Small Garden Transformation

February 2017
Small Garden Transformation

March 2017

Creating a small edible garden

We started off our garden with two small square foot gardening beds, but it was difficult to grow anything, because the side of the house was burning up in the middle of the day. 

In the beginning we had the chickens roam free, but we lost many seedlings and almost lost our first banana tree to them as well, so they now have a small screened-in area in the back and only come into the garden area, when someone is out there working. We were without neighbors on the south side for a few years, but before that home was sold, we moved our fence out to the property line, which added about a foot more to the side yard.

Our Small Garden Transformation:

Small garden
East of the steps

October 2022

small edible garden
West of the steps

We plant the plants in most need of water close to the staircase, as it is easy to throw out any water saved in the kitchen. At the side of the steps we plant tomatoes, so our youngest son can pick them in the morning.

On the eastern side of the staircase, we have one of our nurseries, where we grow new plants in small pots beneath the canopy of the established plants and trees. 

Double bloom on a dwarf Musa Cavendish Banana
Double bloom on a dwarf Musa Cavendish Banana

We have sacrificed walking space for food production, and as a result the path is narrow, but it is so worth it to get more food and more plants squeezed into the space. Since we have a neighbor close by on this side of the house, it is not a space that we use for anything but food production, and the garden also helps provide privacy for us, as we are looking out at greenery instead of another house. 

creating a home nursery in the small garden

We have many papaya trees in the ground and some in pots, all grown from seeds and produce fruit within two years of planting. A passion fruit vine grows on a rescued trellis piece beneath an ice cream banana, and a cattle panel provides growing space for two grape vines over the garden, which also gives shade cover to the strawberry plants during the hot summer months. 

Growing Strawberries in 9b

There are two vertical strawberry planters, and a ground cover of sweet potatoes and cuban oregano keeps the weeds away and provides greens for our family and the chickens almost year round.

stackable planter growing strawberries in a small space

In the shade of the grape trellis we have two starfruit trees in pots, then two Cavendish bananas in the ground followed by more papayas. The Cavendish banana was one of first plants here, and we've gotten several clusters of bananas from it. Right now we've got two Cavendish pups ready to take the place, once these plants give us bananas and need to be cut down.

Starfruit tree grown from seed zone 9b - Carambola

Some of the potted plants are pomegranates, peppers, tomatoes, American persimmons, passion fruit, aloe, citrus and herbs.

small garden with tropical fruits

At the end of the space, we have two rain barrels to help conserve water, and with the longer stretches between rain here in Northeast Florida, the rain barrels have proven to help significantly. Certain plants also prefer rainwater to city water, and our bananas and papayas especially perk up by the use of rainwater versus city water.

The bananas and papayas also provide some shade for our southern windows, which helps lower the temperature inside and saves us money on the electricity bill.

Close planting of fruit trees and perennials in a small garden
Passion vines surround the Chaya, salad trees and fruit trees. 

On the western side of the steps, we have two passion vines growing surrounding our growing space, one is on what used to be the chicken fencing in the middle and then up around the stair railing. This is where it meets the second passion fruit vine, which grows on an old trellis up against the house that someone had dumped in nearby wetlands.

The passionfruit vines in full sun grow profusely, and we cut frequently to prevent them from taking over or growing up the side of the house. This is a good problem to have, as the leaves are edible and great for chicken food.

Purple passion fruit vine zone 9b
Passionfruit vine in bloom

One of the passion fruit vines is currently blooming, and it is self pollinating, as the fruits show up soon after the flower. We grew these vines from a purple passion fruit from the grocery store. 

A passion fruit grown from a grocery store passion fruit seedling
A passion fruit grown from a grocery store passion fruit seedling.

We used to grow tomatoes and annual vegetables in the garden beds next to the steps. In the past few years our focus has been on creating permaculture with perennials in our small garden, which is less time consuming, demands less water because of the deeper roots, and eventually will be more productive. We still grow annuals in pots and in between the perennials, but they are no longer our focus.

We purchase our fruit trees small (usually at less than 1 ft) or grow them from seeds or cuttings, because patience is a friend of the frugal gardener. We then grow them in pots, until our food forest area is ready for planting in the ground at The Land, or we prune them to stay small by the house. 

We have two unknown mango trees grown from seedlings and two Haden mango seedlings, which we are pruning to keep small thanks to the lessons learned from the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree. Our oldest mango tree is five years old, but it is only around 4 ft tall. (See the right side of the image below)

How to grow a small garden

Closest to the steps are 3 salad trees. Two Auntie Lillies South Sea Salad Trees and Chief Kubo's Prize South Sea Salad Tree, which are great alternatives to lettuce growing here in Florida.

Our Jamaican Cherry aka Strawberry tree (Muntingia Calabura) is taking off, and it's loving the sunny side of the house. Below it we have a black sapote, a white sapote, jaboticaba, cherry of the Rio Grande and a blackberry jam tree all growing bigger in pots with some protective shade from the Jamaican Cherry tree. These will eventually be moved to the fruit forest, but for now the small fruit trees enjoy the protection of our house and the other plants. 

A chaya (tree spinach) separates the salad trees from the isolated Everglades tomato area next to some chili pepper plants.

Growing Everglades tomatoes

Then a pigeon pea, katuk and another Chaya separate the Everglades tomatoes from the chives and garlic chives, before we get to the newly-created dragonfruit area that gets the least amount of water. We have created five trellises out of cedar wood for five different dragonfruits (pink/white, red, purple and yellow dragonfruit), and in front of them two small olive trees (Coratina olive and arbequina olive) are growing in pots. 

We put the dragonfruit trellises in an area that we did not need to walk by, as they will grow over the trellises and cascade down in front of these. We've kept the trellis at around 5 ft, because it meant we could cut a 10 ft piece of cedar wood into two saving money, and because it keeps the plants below the fence, on the few days when we do get near freezing every year. We also placed them next to a rain barrel, which will help keep the area warmer as well when full. 

How to grow dragonfruit in a small garden

Behind the dragonfruits we have cucumbers growing up a trellis, and in between the fruit trees we have peppers, malabar salad, Okinawa spinach, sissoo spinach, longevity spinach, Hoan Ngoc and much more. 

Papaya in zone 9b

We've got papaya trees everywhere in all sizes and stages to ensure a never-ending production. We lost a few papayas to the freezing temperatures earlier in the year, and we cut many back, so they are just now beginning to produce again. 

Vertical food garden
Moringa, passionfruit and papaya side by side.

On the middle trellis (See photo above), which was once a fence separating the garden from the chicken run, we've got the passionfruit vine climbing, and on the outside we have moringa and Mexican sunflowers in the ground and then pots with mints, tomatoes and peppers lining the narrow pathway.

We used this green plastic fencing for our chicken coop and vertical growing spaces, and more than 3 years later, it is still looking great with no fading. 

Chayote squash growing over a chicken coop
Chayote squash growing over the chicken coop

A rain barrel separates the garden area from a sweet potato bed, and the sweet potatoes, muscadine grapevines and a dragonfruit climb up the fenced-in chicken run and meet two chayote vines in the middle, which are growing from the other side of the chicken run.

Growing sweet potatoes in a small garden

In addition to providing food for our family of seven, the garden also provides food for our chickens and green fertilizers for our banana trees through chop and drop.

Growing sweet potatoes in Florida

We always try to add pollinator plants for better food protection, so we have lots of milkweed, nasturtium, firebush, marigolds and yarrow planted and growing depending on the season. Despite the fence around the garden, we have had plenty of wildlife visitors including a tiny white rabbit, a tortoise, snakes, countless squirrels as well as armadillos, and we have a wild garden cat that loves this protected side of the garden.

An Edible Garden on a Budget

Growing a small garden can be rewarding for the entire family, and our small, edible garden provides much more than just food, as the privacy and shade it gives us are priceless. 

We are on a teacher's budget, and that is why we grow most of our food from seeds and cuttings, but purchasing plants small and pruning them to stay small while still producing, is not only cost saving, but also space saving. 

While having more plants, trees and varieties help with pollination and food production, we have found that we just need to buy one plant, and then we can continue to propagate this plant or tree by cuttings or air layering, thereby getting more for our money. We also find free plants at the side of the street and elsewhere, we do a lot plant swapping with other plant lovers, and we give away lots of plants to neighbors hoping to create a pollinator paradise in our community. 

While we are in St. Augustine, Florida, zone 9a, the concepts of growing food in a small garden can be utilized anywhere. Just find perennials that work for your growing zone, and combine them with the methods we have talked about such as vertical gardening, growing in pots and closely interplanting your annuals with your perennials. Once you have created a diverse growing space, and provided areas of shade, your garden will flourish and provide lots of food for your needs. 

You can read more about growing your own food from seeds and growing fruit trees from cuttings right here at Dancing Treetops. If you have a question, please don't hesitate to reach out via email or on our social networks. 


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