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Gardening in small spaces

Gardening in small spaces.

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 If you have spent as many hours as I have standing in front of the fruit and veg section in a supermarket, trying to find food which looks and smells like the food from your childhood, then you’ll know why I choose to go organic whenever possible. I dream of my own garden, filled with vegetables bursting with nutrients, glowing with life-energy, butterflies flitting through and ladybirds paying a royal visit. Alas, I lack space, living in a flatlet does not exactly allow one the scope for gardening!

Not true, thanks to a gentleman called Mel Bartholomew, the author of a wonderful book called ‘Square Foot Gardening’, growing your own food is within reach of even the most seasoned city dweller.

 The Basics.

According to Mel, you can make a garden anywhere, the desert, your balcony, a tabletop, anywhere! The basic idea revolves around easily accessible frames filled with a nutrient rich mixture to replace the use of soil and a grid system with which to organise your planting.

Here are the basic steps:

Think in Squares.

Decide how big (or small) you want your garden to be, if you have the space a four by four feet garden is best to start out with as that gives you the largest amount of crops for a small space. Two by two feet is perfect for balconies or tabletops on a verandah and a three by three feet garden is a good size to start with for children who show an interest in developing green fingers.

Make a frame.

Your frame should be made from untreated wood in the size you chose. Boards can be fastened together with deck screws and the frame should be 6-8 inches deep. Rotate or alternate corners to end up with a square inside.


If you have space and want to make more than one box try to leave a walkway of at least 2 feet between the boxes. This allows you to access each box easily so that you never have to compact the ‘soil’ inside the boxes.


The beauty of Mel’s method is that you don’t need to use any dirt. He recommends a mixture of 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. If possible make your own compost. If your frames are going to be placed on grass then place cardboard or landscape cloth over the grass so that you don’t have weeds and grass coming up through your new garden ‘soil’.


Possibly the most important element in Mel’s technique, grids help to keep your planting space organised and make weeding and harvesting much easier. Make a grid which divides your frame into one foot squares and place it over each frame.


Grow 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per square depending on the size of the mature plant. You can plant one or two seeds per spot by making a shallow hole with your finger. Cover but do not pack the soil. You can keep extra seeds cool and dry in the refrigerator.


Don’t drown the plants. Water as often as needed, often at first and more on very dry and hot days. You can conserve water by watering by hand with a cup from a bucket of water which has been left to stand in the sun.


Harvest crops continually and when one crop is done, refresh the ‘soil’ mixture and plant a different crop in that square.

For more detailed instructions, visit Mel’s excellent website:

Companion Planting.

A method practised by gardeners the world over since times of old, companion planting is the art of planting different crops in close physical proximity, on the theory that they will help each other. This is a form of polyculture, the use of multiple crops in the same space in order to mimick the biodiversity of natural ecosystems.

As well as encouraging biodiversity, companion planting can make the use of pesticides completely unnecessary.

A good example of this is in the case of a ‘trap crop’ such as nasturtiums. Nasturtiums naturally attract caterpillars, thus planting them next to or around vegetables such as lettuces or cabbage will be beneficial. The egg-laying caterpillars will tend to prefer the nasturtiums and in this way the lettuce and cabbage will be protected.

Examples of companion plants to try in your small garden:

Tomatoes grow well with African marigolds, basil, carrots, celery, chives, onions, parsley, sage and stinging nettles.

Strawberries, these grow well with beans, lettuces, roses, spinach and spring onions.

Lettuce thrives alongside beetroot, cabbage, carrots, radishes and strawberries.

Margaret Roberts has a wonderful book on Companion planting which gives a full directory of many common South African plants and their companions.

What if I don’t have time?

What to do if you want to grow your own food but you don’t have the time it requires to tend to a garden? Enter Urban Harvest, a delightful not-for-profit company owned and managed by Ben Getz, whose friendly staff I had the pleasure of meeting at the Organic show in Cape Town a few years ago. Ben and his staff at Urban Harvest offer a unique service whereby they use the latest in ecological design and permaculture principles to design, set-up and maintain an edible garden for you on your own property, thus all you have to do is harvest the crops and enjoy meals made from organic vegetables grown in your own garden! If you have time but feel you lack knowledge, they also offer an ongoing service where they train you through the seasons in natural farming techniques and help you to establish a healthy and sustainable garden for yourself. Children are welcome to participate and gardening can become a wonderful way of spending family time together on late Summer evenings and weekends.

Need more convincing?

Small ‘square foot’ gardens need less work, you don’t need to loosen soil with heavy gardening tools and when following Mel Bartholomews method, very little weeding is necessary. With this method and size of garden, ‘soil’ remains loamy and loose as it is never compacted, this method also helps to yield an increased harvest.

Hand watering directly on to plant roots uses less water and the soil mixture which Mel advises is ‘water-holding’ so the garden needs watering less often, thus you are also saving water in the long-term.

Companion planting helps eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides thus ensuring healthy organic crops for your family to enjoy.

The small size of the boxes means that it is possible to make a box to fit a table-top or raised platform where it is easily accessible to those with less mobility as it eliminates the need for bending or squatting.

So what are you waiting for? Cape Town has many excellent nurseries which stock organic seeds and seedlings, most large hardware stores will happily cut your boards for you and with a little research you are well on your way to being a home gardener. Take an hour or two over a weekend, involve your partner or children, or use it as quiet time for yourself and discover the gifts Mother Nature has to offer!

Article compiled and written by Lela Rabie



Square Foot Gardening – Mel Bartholomew, Rodale Press, 1981

Companion Planting – Margaret Roberts, Briza Publications, 2007, ISBN: 978 87509348 9

Nurseries and Services:

Starke Ayres Nursery, 21 Liesbeeck Parkway, Mowbray, Cape Town – they offer an advice service as well as stocking a wide range of seeds and seedlings. Their premises also boast an excellent coffee shop. Tel: 021 685 4120.

Urban Harvest – Ben Getz Tel: 072 475 2977,

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