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Create a Food System for Your Small Space

UPDATE: A few of our readers brought up some good points regarding the keeping of chickens in an urban space. Of course, neither Chelsea Green nor author R. J. Ruppenthal advocates keeping chickens in cramped or otherwise inhumane conditions. The nature of excerpts is that some important contextual information is left on the cutting room floor: readers are only getting part of the picture.

We asked R. J. to weigh in on the discussion in the comments section below.


The following is an excerpt from Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting by R. J. Ruppenthal. It has been adapted for the Web.

If you’re reading these words, chances are you that you live in a city and don’t have a lot of space. You have a small home with an even smaller backyard, a townhouse with a patio, or an apartment with nothing more than a sunny window. Regardless of what kind of space you have available, though—a rooftop, balcony, staircase, garage, storage space, windowsill, or countertop—you can probably utilize it for food growing. We may be limited by the amount of free space we have, but not by our imaginations. This book is about imagining what’s possible, about putting those ideas into action, and about producing good, fresh food for yourself and your family, even from tight spaces.

No one can ever be entirely self-sufficient in the city. But in most urban spaces, with enough creativity and dedication, you can grow a sizeable portion of the food your family needs. You may even decide to specialize in one crop, such as chicken eggs, mushrooms, or carrots, leaving you with more than enough to fill your family’s requirements for that food and still have enough left over to sell or trade for other things you need. By reading this book, you will learn some ideas and strategies for making productive use of your available space. You will learn what equipment and resources you need to get started. And you will receive my encouragement along the way, because it’s important to me that more people start reconnecting with their food sources. Think of this as an enjoyable “mini-course” in urban food production.

As you learn more about the possibilities, think about which spaces you can use for your food production. If you have space outdoors and want to start a small garden in the ground or in containers, then the most important considerations will be light and warmth. Most gardening experts will tell you not to even think about vegetable growing if you get less than 6 to 8 hours per day of direct sunlight, but in fact you can raise many types of vegetables on much less light than this. It is true that to grow fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, or berries, your space needs to receive at least 4 to 5 hours of strong, direct sunlight per day (preferably more), plus some reflected light and residual warmth. If your light conditions are no better than this minimum, then I would recommend starting with smaller fruiting vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, which need less light energy to ripen than the larger varieties. The same goes for peppers: If you’re right on the edge of not having enough light and your summers are warm, you might be able to coax a few banana peppers or chili peppers to ripen, but probably not the larger bell peppers. Bright, warm, south-facing walls can add some reflective light, and a porch or patio light with a compact fluorescent bulb will help too. If your outdoor growing space is light poor, then look to legumes, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Bush beans and peas can handle partial shade, as can carrots, beets, and other root vegetables. Leafy vegetables such as spinach, chard, rhubarb, broccoli, cabbage, and kale can produce even in a shady spot that has some reflected light. Potatoes, herbs, onions, and garlic can function in partial shade also, but they are much more productive with more sunlight. Consider trying a variety of veggies at first to see what works on your site; you may be disappointed by some, but pleasantly rewarded by others.

You also can use outdoor space for growing mushrooms or for a chicken coop or bee colony, giving you a sustainable supply of fresh eggs or honey. Chickens can live in a coop or hutch on a minimal amount of space, whether it be on a lawn, porch, patio, or mounted on the side of a wall. Their manure can fertilize your garden too. Chickens are useful primarily for egg laying, and their eggs are a renewable resource that provides balanced protein and good nutrition. A beehive can take up even less horizontal space than a chicken coop, does not need sunlight, and takes less work than owning a dog. Raising a colony of bees in a medium-sized hive can provide you with 100 to 150 pounds (two or three big buckets) of your own honey each season.10 If you can’t eat it all, remember that local honey is expensive; you can either sell it or trade it (along with extra beeswax) for something else you need. Indoor space can be used for gardening too if there’s a sunny spot on a windowsill or in a room: container vegetables, herbs, and small fruit trees are all possibilities here. The more vexing question is how to use shadier spaces such as extra rooms, closets and cabinets, garages, storage areas, unused bathtubs, and kitchen counters. Perhaps you never thought of these as growing areas, but where there’s space, there’s growing potential! I have a very vertical sprouting operation on top of my refrigerator that produces 2 to 3 pounds of sprouts per week for eating and wheatgrass for juicing. You could also raise gourmet mushrooms or brew ginger beer, wine, or kefir in that space. Start a worm bin on a balcony or in a garage for composting organic wastes or for fishing bait sales. There are many possibilities for using even shady urban spaces in a productive way.

If horizontal space is limited, don’t be afraid to think vertically: I have seen chicken cages mounted on vertical walls outside a person’s home, and many small gardeners successfully grow strawberries or tomatoes from baskets that hang from an eave or rafter. A dwarf fruit tree or berry bush can make the best use of a dusty patch of ground or large container, giving you a vertical harvest without using much horizontal space. We will cover a number of strategies to make the best use of available space and light. Think about what you might want to try in your space and then read the chapter on it. Each chapter gives you some idea of the needed facilities and helps you understand how to succeed. I’ve also included more information on additional resources in each chapter if you decide to actively pursue a particular strategy in greater depth. Since lack of light is the most common limiting factor in city gardening, consider the following brief overview of possibilities, each of which we will cover at greater length in the coming chapters.

Full Sunlight

This is the easy one: Here you can grow anything you can fit, including fruits, berries, and vegetables of all kinds. Your main limitations are likely to be climate and space, but thankfully you do not have to worry about a lack of light.

Low Light

Leafy green vegetables, bush beans and peas, and perhaps root vegetables may grow very well in partial shade. If you have at least some direct sun each day, you can try smaller fruiting vegetables, such as cherry tomatoes and banana peppers. You can also try berries if you have the space. In the chapter on fruit and berries, you will find an explanation of several types that may grow well in partial shade. You could also place a chicken coop or beehive here if the space is right.


Mushrooms do well in shade, and chicken coops, beehives, and worm bins can handle it also. If the space is indoors, you can use shady areas for raising mushrooms, growing sprouts, or as a place for your chosen fermentation, be it for yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, ginger beer, or other fermented foods.

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