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How to Grow Vegetables in a Small Space

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Elizabeth McCorquodale considers the techniques used to maximise veg production during the war years and asks how we can learn from the techniques

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Nobody starved in Britain during the First World War due to lack of supplies, and this was largely down to the government encouraging the gardeners and householders of the country to ‘Plant Victory Gardens’, a movement that was followed up with emphasis twenty years later in the Second World War campaign, ‘Dig for Victory’.

Two messages came across loud and clear: turn over land to food production, and use that land wisely. Lawns and back gardens were dug up and planted with vegetables, and parks and public spaces were commandeered to be turned over to feed the nation. Posters urged gardeners to follow their summer vegetables with winter crops and to make the most of every bit of space.

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Maximising a small space for veg production.

At the beginning of the First World War there was no mention at all of gardening for the nation, but by 1916 food shortages had begun to take hold and the government could no longer afford to ignore the situation. Advertisements in the back of The Garden, Kew’s weekly publication, began to tout the message that it was the patriotic duty of everyone to ‘grow their own’, and by 1918 the term ‘Victory Garden’ was embedded in the nation’s psyche. By the end of the war, The Garden was full of advice about raising fruit and vegetables, and even had regular columns regarding keeping chickens. Times had changed.

As the war gathered pace and the country began to feel the effects of food shortages and rationing, people began to take up the challenge to produce more food from their yards and gardens. Public spaces, parks and large private gardens were commandeered to be turned over to food production. By the end of the First World War there were three million more acres of land in food production than there had been at the beginning.

Much of the work on farms and in gardens was undertaken by the Women’s Land Army and the Land Girls, who were drafted in to replace the men away at war. The Home Front was in full production and everyone was encouraged to grow their own. When the nation was thrown into war again in 1939 lessons had been learnt and the government went into action immediately.

A large part of the effort went into ensuring that each plot of land, however small, produced the maximum it could in fruit and vegetables. There was a great bias towards growing large quantities of starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas and beans for winter use, with a moderate quantity of carrots, parsnips and beets to back them up. Other vegetables, it was advocated, were really only good for giving your palate a treat, and so cauliflower, cabbage, artichokes and onions were cast as mere extras in the productive, patriotic vegetable plot.

Beans were just one of many starchy crops sown for winter use.

Beans were just one of many starchy crops sown for winter use.

It was also advocated that every little bit of space was used wisely, so catch-cropping, successional sowing, intercropping and growing year-round were all promoted as the loyal duty of everyone who owned a patch of land, however small.

These methods are just as valid today as they ever were. Smaller gardens, less time for spending in the garden and increasing food prices all mean that it makes sense to ensure your plot, whatever its size, as productive as it can be.



At first glance these growing methods may all seem to be variations on a theme, though in practice they are quite different, even though they all rely on fast-growing plants. Catch-cropping is the trick of squeezing in a quick-growing crop between the harvest of one main crop and the sowing or planting of the next main crop. Catch-crops are short-term stars in their own right, though they must be fast growing. This doesn’t mean that you are restricted to growing radishes or lettuces or cress. There are dozens of unexpectedly fast-maturing varieties now, particularly mini, baby or patio veg: pak choi and the other varieties of oriental greens, baby turnips (delicious roasted with rosemary and butter, or served up in a mustard sauce), kohlrabi, baby beets and so many others.

A catch-crop of carrots.

A catch-crop of carrots.


Intercropping is quite different. It is the planting of a secondary crop between rows or plants of a slower-growing main crop either at the time of planting, or once the star players have become established. This is the type of planting employed by square-foot gardeners, or anyone who just can’t bear to see a patch of bare soil peeping through the greenery.

This planting set-up offers some great potential for intercropping.

This planting set-up offers some great potential for intercropping.

Do remember that competition is competition, and sunlight, water and nutrients are as easily consumed by crops planted too closely as by invasive weeds. Having said that, square-foot gardeners routinely grow their plants very close together and combat any potential soil exhaustion by adding a spadeful of compost each time a plant is harvested and a new one is planted in its place.

Ideally no soil would be allowed to go to waste.

Ideally no soil would be allowed to go to waste.

Successional sowing

Successional sowing is the periodic – usually fortnightly – sowing of small quantities of fast-maturing plants such as radishes, lettuce or peas so that you don’t have a glut at any one time. Successional sowing is also valuable for plants that are prone to bolting (going quickly to seed) such as traditional spinach, lettuce in hot temperatures, coriander, Florence fennel and rocket.

ere are many obvious choices for intercropping, like using lettuce and other saladings alongside radishes and speedy annual herbs to fill in gaps between rows, but there are others that aren’t quite so obvious. Sweetcorn is particularly suited to be grown in the gullies between first- and second-early potatoes because, when the potatoes are harvested, the corn will benefit from the soil being mounded around their stalks. Dwarf broad beans and dwarf French beans make speedy good use of the space between any of the allium family, early on in the season, and they tuck in nicely beside sprouts and the larger, later varieties of broccoli, and are also natural bedfellows with taller versions of themselves… just make sure you plant the dwarf varieties on the south side of your row.

Keep in mind the natural form of your veggies and team up the tall and narrow with the short and spreading. Leeks and celery, for instance, will revel in the ground cover shade cast by a late-sown intercrop of a short leafy crop such as lettuce, endive or patio squash. On the flip side, baby leeks can easily be squeezed in between leafier plants that will shade their base, but which won’t interfere with their root run.

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Garlic and onions are often grown in the strawberry bed, with no detrimental shading to the strawberries, and conversely, an onion bed approaching maturity makes a wonderful bed for a crop of late roots such as carrots, beets or baby turnips, which won’t crowd the maturing bulbs, but will establish themselves without fuss.

Apart from kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages, winter croppers are very often ignored in the domestic garden, although they really require very little work – the weather ensures there is no weeding or cultivating to be done at this time. Winter crops are of two types: those that grow through the winter to be ready to fill the hungry gap in early spring or to build a root system so they can take off at speed as soon as the weather warms up in spring, and those that are planted in late summer to mature in late autumn or winter. This last lot are generally speedy, cool-weather crops such as winter lettuce.

To make the most of all these space savers, start your seeds off indoors or in a greenhouse, so that you gain a good two to three weeks on your planting schedule. Unlike wartime gardeners we often have the benefit of warm windowsills, frost-free greenhouses or conservatories to help us extend our gardening season by at least two or three weeks. That means a lot of extra veggies from the same plot of land.

Quick growers for intercropping and catch-cropping

Lettuce is really too numerous to mention, but plant a mixture of leaf, cut-and-come-again, and heading lettuce such as icebergs and romaine.

Other things that can be planted include salad onions (especially the red varieties, which tend to last longer and can be cropped for many, many weeks), baby turnips, beets and baby beets, kohlrabi, carrots (both round and long), rocket, dwarf French beans (green, purple and yellow), spinach, pak choi, the purple mangetout pea ‘Shiraz’, and the sugarsnap pea ‘Sugar Ann’ (both just twelve weeks from sowing, or eight to ten weeks from planting!).

Quick-growing Shiraz peas.

Quick-growing Shiraz peas.

When planning your garden, you can either take the ‘pot luck’ approach and keep some seeds and seedlings always at the ready to pop in whenever you spy a patch of bare soil, or you can carefully plan your plot, keeping in mind the planting to harvesting times of the different vegetables. The chart will help you plan a good schedule for catch-crop and intercrop planting.


Have some seedlings at the ready to fill any gaps.

Have some seedlings at the ready to fill any gaps.

Late summer catch crops

A much-underused type of catch-crop is the plant that you may start off in August or September for harvesting just a few weeks later, before the onset of the first real frosts. Most of them are speedy growers, but there are also a couple which can do a lot of their growing in a seed tray and then put on a spurt when popped into that late-summer garden. They are all moderately hardy, though some, like bush beans, may need a fleece thrown over them if wicked weather threatens. These opportunists include rocket, but experiment with the different types to find one that you really like, as they can range from mild to quite overpowering: bush beans, beets and beet tops, fast-growing dark leafy greens like collards, broccoli rabe, chards and broccoli, and some varieties of heading cabbage and cauliflower from established seedlings, and chicory, endive, radicchio and winter lettuce, and carrots.

A covering of fleece will be required in any month when frosts are likely.

A covering of fleece will be required in any month when frosts are likely.

Winter Veg

There are far more vegetables that will tough it out through the winter than you might imagine. Besides, the usual suspects – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, leeks, parsnips and swede – there is also Swiss chard, spinach and collard greens, broad beans, smooth peas and mangetout, garlic, onions, shallots, spring onions, lamb’s lettuce, winter lettuce and good old Jerusalem artichokes. All of these will happily live through all but the harshest of winters, though some, like chard and spinach, may have their tops knocked back, but will compensate by shooting into early growth in spring.

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A few guidelines

*           Don’t confuse intercropping with intersowing. The latter is simply a method of marking rows by mixing the seed of exceptionally fast-growing plants with the seed of exceptionally slow-growing plants to make hoeing and other garden maintenance easier. The quicker plants mark the rows and are harvested very early. However, you must weigh up the benefits with the disadvantage of the root disturbance that may occur as you harvest the quicker-growing crop.

*           Of course, at the time of the First World War and through the Second World War it was deemed essential that the ground was double dug if you were going to do it properly, though now it is widely accepted (and proven) that the minimum possible disturbance to the soil will result in healthier soil and fewer pests, not to mention less work! Instead of breaking your back double digging, put a few choice plants to work breaking up the soil. Seed-sown root crops such as turnips, mooli radishes and some deep-rooted annual grasses such as rye, winter wheat and vetch, will help to break up the land.

Turnips will help to break up the soil.

Turnips will help to break up the soil.

*           Early seeds are late seeds: any seeds that are listed as being able to tolerate very early sowing outdoors will also do well if planted in late autumn, ready for a head start in spring.

*           Just as in square-foot gardening, a regular supply of garden compost enriched with a spade or two of well-rotted manure can be used as a mulch around new seedlings to give them a boost on soil that may already have nourished one crop that season.




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