Gardens offer a rewarding space to unwind from the day and reap the personal satisfaction of growing your own food, flowers, and plants.
It’s great to have seasonal produce ready to harvest for dinner or fresh flowers you can cut and take to a friend.
But gardening requires some organization in order to know what you have planted, how to care for it, and how to plan for next season, especially when you have only a tiny space in which to grow.
What Is a Postage Stamp Garden?
There’s no exact measurement of what constitutes a postage stamp garden. In general, it means a relatively small space.
The definition is a bit subjective, but a postage stamp garden might be no more than a three-foot by eight-foot raised bed or even a collection of plants in pots and window boxes alongside a 4x4 garden plot.
Step 1 - Design Your Planting Space
All the best projects begin with a plan. Gardening is no different. While you might feel restricted by your small space, the truth is small gardens can produce a prolific quantity of harvestable food when properly implemented.
Postage stamp gardens are primarily placed in raised beds. This allows you to plant in any location, add nutrient-rich soil, ensure quality drainage, minimize weeding, and provide easy access to your plants.
In contrast to traditional long rows of garden plants, compact gardens are easy to maintain and require fewer resources to thrive.
Build your garden bed or beds. Place them in a location that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day.
Ensure the beds aren’t shaded by nearby trees and don’t plant near trees with shallow roots that spread out. They will compete for resources and may interfere with plant growth.
When choosing your location, also consider access to water.
Once you’ve placed your bed, consider the blueprint for your plants. Watch the sun rotate over the area for a few days. Then plan to put the tallest plants in the back of the bed and the smallest plants in the front of the bed.
This keeps the taller plants from creating shadows on the smaller plants.
Step 2 - Go Organic
Along the way, use organic soil amendments, plants, and seeds. Organic plants are healthiest for you, the soil, and the planet.
Step 3 - Prepare the Soil
Take a soil sample to measure the nutrient level and supplement as necessary for the plants you intend to grow.
When working with existing soil, avoid excessive handling. Instead, gently insert a pitchfork into the soil and rotate it slightly. Move around the bed repeating this process.
The more you disturb the soil, the more carbon that is released into the air. Plus, churning up the earth brings weed seeds to the surface and alters the natural balance.
Step 4 - Start a Compost
For the healthiest soil start your own compost, which you can use to supplement your garden. A compost bin can be quite small, vertical or horizontal, enclosed or left open.
The key to a successful compost pile is to create thin layers of organic food scraps, grass clippings, and brown matter such as small wood chips or even paper bags.
Step 5 - Choose Companion Plants
You can theme your postage stamp garden, growing all herbs, strawberries, or the onions, peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro needed for a salsa garden.
Whatever you choose, encourage your plants to work together so they’re not competing for resources such as sunlight and water. Companion planting ensures plants are good neighbors, supporting each other instead of clashing.
In the gardening realm, this means equitably sharing nutrients and upholding each other, in a very literal way.
It also means improving the health and overall yield of individual plants.
So when it comes to your garden, think about partnering up some classic veggies that will benefit your landscape and your dinner plate.
There are myriad benefits of companion planting. For example, choosing the right plants to combine in a space means being able to use every square foot.
In addition, appropriately-matched companion plants will provide insect control for the entire space.
Similarly, many flowers attract desirable insects (like pollinating bees!) that can help out in the garden, naturally.
For example, carrots, dill, parsley, and parsnip attract beneficial insects like praying mantises, ladybugs, and spiders that dine on problem insects on other garden plants.
Other benefits of one plant to another include natural shade protection, weed suppression, and healthier soil.
Any book on companion planting will mention a Native American discovery known as, “Three Sister Planting”.
This trio brings together corn, beans, and squash and serves as a perfect example of the power of companion plants.
The corn, tall and sturdy, supports the beans below who naturally climb the stalk. The beans, like all legumes, balance nitrogen in the soil, which feeds the corn.
Meanwhile, the squash, often in the form of pumpkins, quickly develops large leaves that provide shade and natural weed blocking for both the beans and the corn.
In a postage stamp garden, you would place the tall corn in the back, a few beans nearby, and a single squash plant along the front where it can ramble over the edge as it grows.
There are many well-established crop combinations that work well together. When you get the tomatoes in the ground, surround them with dill and basil to protect them from invasive hornworms.
Lots of other veggies partner well with tomatoes including asparagus, beans, carrots, celery, lettuce, melons, mint, onions, parsley, peppers, radishes, spinach, and thyme.
Although you don’t want to put cabbage next to tomatoes, they do have several companions in common.
Intermingle sage to deter cabbage moths. Also add in beans, celery, cucumbers, dill, kale, lettuce, mint, onions, potatoes, spinach, and thyme, as the weather and seasons allow.
Radishes are a quick-growing, cool weather crop that’s perfect for spring planting. It’s also a great partner for other garden inhabitants since it grows underground.
Common radish companion plants include basil, beans, carrots, cucumber, coriander, lettuce, melons, onions, peas, spinach, and tomatoes.
Keep radishes away from kohlrabi and hyssop.
All leafy greens appreciate the cool days of spring and start to struggle with the heat summer brings.
The many varieties of lettuce partner well with just about anything else you’re able to plant and some plants will even keep lettuce shaded and cool enough to extend its season a bit.
Good garden neighbors for lettuce include asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, spinach, strawberries, sunflowers, and tomatoes.
Just keep lettuce away from broccoli.
Snow, snap, and string peas also excel in a spring garden, especially when paired with beans, carrots, corn, cucumbers, radishes, and turnips.
Do not allow peas to share garden space with onions and garlic.
Like co-workers after a garlicky lunch, onion and garlic plants deter a wide range of pests. Even with their notorious strong statement as a vegetable, the plants are mild and friendly with most garden neighbors.
The exception is beans and peas, who are stunted when paired with onions and garlic.
Avoid putting potatoes next to sunflowers. Otherwise, they are fairly happy in any neighborhood.
They do especially well when coupled with beans, cabbage, corn, eggplant, and peas.
Step 6 - Consider Intercropping
Intercropping results in lower plants growing upwards by using taller plants as support.
It also means different plants aren’t fighting for the same resources, so while carrots grow underground, an adjacent shallow-rooted lettuce won’t infringe.
One type of intercropping that works well in small gardens involves timing plantings so one crop overlaps another.
When the first crop nears the mature stage, the second crop is planted and encouraged to grow in the space that will soon be left by the first crop.
Another form of this is row intercropping. It's achieved by planting compatible plants in tight rows next to each other.
This is typically done with an above-ground crop, such as spinach, next to a root crop, such as beets or turnips that are planted at or near the same time.
Yet another way to tackle intercropping is to plant a fast growing, short season crop intermingled with a long-season crop. In this way, the ready-in-a-month radishes will be out of the ground before the 90-day peppers need the space.
One of the major benefits of intercropping is the sheer number of plants you can squeeze into small spaces. With proper planning, you can essentially double the amount of food you are growing!
In addition, the diversity in crops enhances the soil and intercropping is also a time saver. With plants so close together, there is less back and forth.
Plus, the “overcrowding” of plants naturally pushes out weeds, meaning less time pulling them by hand.
Step 7 - Plan for Supports
Any taller plants will need support. Install tomato cages prior to planting tomatoes. If you can, place your beds near a fence you can use to support beans and peas.
If not, plan to put in support strings or use stakes as your plants grow. Not only does this make it easier to access produce during harvest, but it keeps crops from rotting when they come into contact with the ground.
Step 8 - Protect from Critters
You’ll also need a plan for keeping the critters at bay. Even if you don’t have deer, squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons, you’ll still battle birds and insects.
Animals instinctively know when edibles are at their prime, notoriously plucking or pecking at them the day before you get out to harvest. Create a plan for fencing and/or netting to protect your plants as they grow.
Step 9 - Do Your Research
Knowing which plants do well in your yard takes some practice, but arming yourself with knowledge increases your chances of success.
Don’t try to grow plants that are not recommended for your region. Lime trees in the north are just too much work. Start with simple-to-grow crops like peas, beans, carrots, leafy greens, and root vegetables.
Also research and record the max growing height, width, and recommended spacing of plants. You’ll be surprised how far that pumpkin plant sprawls. In a small garden, it will quickly take over any surrounding plants during late summer.
Figure out germination times for seeds and the growth season. There’s a big difference between the average 60-day cycle for carrots versus the 90-120 days required for peppers.
That same pepper plant could take as little as 60 days and as much as 150 days depending on the climate where you live.
Step 10 - Change Crops with the Seasons
Use succession planting to enhance your bountiful crop. Plant quick-growing veggies, such as radishes, alongside slower-growing plants that take over the space, such as squash and pumpkins.
That way the radishes are harvested before they get pushed out.
Step 11 - Set up Watering
Next to sunlight and good soil, water is the primary ingredient in the trifecta of garden success. Decide how you will go about watering your garden on a consistent basis.
You may want to hook drip hoses up to your irrigation system and put them on a timer.
You can also rely on soaker hoses to complete the same task. A sprinkler will also do the job, although most vegetables prefer to be watered at the base rather than from above.
Step 12 - Keep a Record
Once you have established your postage stamp garden, keep careful records of what you planted, the date you planted it, and the expected date of harvest. At the beginning of the season, take a picture of what you have planted.
Also, include a sketch of the space. This will help you identify plants as they break ground and also keep you from planting the same plants in the same location next time around, lending variety to the soil.
If you have several types of plants in your small garden space, use ground markers for identification. Store your diagrams and seed packets inside your favorite gardening book, a three-ring binder, or a plastic container with dividers.
Step 13 - Stay Organized
As the saying goes, “Getting started is the hardest part.”
This is especially true during gardening season when you’re gawking at a section of yard filled with weeds and attempting to reconcile that with the picture in your head of copious lettuce plants.
With some organization and a record from prior years, your planning and preparation stages can be well underway when it’s time to dig out the trowels.
Making the effort to be organized will save you time, money, worry, and energy that you can use for this season’s garden!