ruth-gonzalezDear Ruth,
We are planning a small garden for this year. Will you give us some guidance about what to grow and what not to grow? And what about the stuff we can’t grow?
  -Jennifer L., Asheville, NC

Hi Jennifer,
With limited space, you are right to be choosy about what to grow in your garden. Remember to supply the essentials – sunshine, water, and nutrients.

My best advice is – grow what you love to eat.
If fresh salad greens make you swoon, let that be your guide. Do you dream of sweet strawberries and juicy red tomatoes? Plant them. When you eat butternut squash soup in winter, do you wish you had grown some last year? Make your garden reflect your personal tastes and remember to factor in some fun munchables for your kids.

Ask Ruth Lettuce Photo 2-16

With limited space in your garden you will have to consider how much room your favorite veggies will take up and either (1) figure out how to tuck them in to your limited space or (2) choose to buy space-hogging vegetables at the tailgate market from a local organic farmer.

Good planning will allow you to grow a surprising amount in a very small area.

Planning is the key word. Make a wish list of the veggies you want to grow. Note whether they are cool season vegetables (like peas, spinach, broccoli, lettuce…) or warm season (like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, okra, beans…) or long season vegetables (like greens and potatoes). Be realistic about how much you can fit in your garden – most tomato plants are huge – and work backwards carving out room for your favorites and eliminating others.

Be creative and remember to utilize your vertical space effectively with trellises, etc. When something is past its prime, yank it out and replace it with something new. If you are getting a late start, buy transplants from a local garden shop or tailgate market. I buy transplants for warm season veggies like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants so I can get a jump start on the season.

Remember that your spring salad garden can morph into your tomato/pepper garden, and morph again into a cool season fall garden.

ask ruth 2-16 peppers from fall harvest

Maximize your harvest. Check your garden first before you buy anything from anywhere. Your weekly menu should reflect what is ready to harvest in your garden. Harvest your veggies at peak freshness and harvest everything that is ready – even if you have to give some of it away. Regular picking keeps the crop producing longer.

Beyond your garden…because your garden is small, you will probably need to trade for or buy some of your food. Do that thoughtfully.

Make your grocery list after checking your garden. Get the most out of your garden, then support local farmers. Supplement your homegrown veggies with produce from organic farmers at the local tailgate markets. Scour the tailgate market for what you need, and delight in the colorful selection that is available every week. Remember that even basics like potatoes, garlic, and onions are available at the tailgate markets until yours are ready to harvest.

ask ruth tailgate photo 2-16

After the tailgate markets, your next stop is local groceries that buy from local farmers. Start noticing how much locally grown food the store where you shop actually carries on a regular basis. Ask for local, organic food. Pressure from customers will encourage grocery stores and natural groceries to buy more local produce. Most groceries have buying policies – here’s an example:

Wherever you are, grow/buy organic. Shift policy with your food dollars. Want to avoid GMOs? Buy organic. Want safer food for your family? Buy organic. Want to protect our environment? Buy organic. It’s simple. Consider any extra cost a donation to the health of your family and the planet.

Jennifer, I hope your garden grows well this year and that you enjoy every bit of your harvest. I know it will be delicious! If you want some spring inspiration, be sure to attend the Organic Growers School 23 Annual Spring Conference on Saturday & Sunday, March 12 & 13.

Thanks for writing,

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Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate & blogger at She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors as Vice President.  In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2016 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, current gardener, and local food advocate. She has written numerous local food and gardening articles, blogs about local food, and writes the “Ask Ruth” Gardening Column for Organic Growers School. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the shared wisdom of local gardeners. She has a special affection for clouds and finds delight in the natural world at every turn. Read more from Ruth at her blog: