Browsing seed racks, catalogs, and garden centers is one of the joys of gardening, especially in early spring as the new growing season awaits. Each seed packet and plant calls out to us, “Plant me! Plant me!” Selecting crops and varieties and creating planting plans surely rank near the top of the list when it comes to the joys of gardening.
However, it can also be daunting for gardeners — both new and experienced — to decide what to grow from among the many choices available at local nurseries and online. One website, for example, offers more than 600 varieties of tomato seeds!
Finding the Right Fit
For those with limited garden space or who are growing their vegetable gardens in containers, the choice of varieties is even more important to ensure the plants fit the space allotted to them.
Planting methods such as Square Foot Gardening provide detailed advice on how many plants of each crop will fit into a 1’ square. This is particularly helpful for crops that are relatively uniform in size no matter the variety — for example, spring onions or beets. Squash, on the other hand, range widely in size. While some squash form tidy bushes, others, like Hubbard squashes, have vines reaching up to 12’ long. A single Hubbard squash plant could easily overtake an entire garden!
Fortunately, plant hybridizers have worked diligently to take the best qualities of sprawling heirlooms and breed them into compact, space-saving varieties for home gardeners.
Read and Research Before Buying
If you’re planting from seed, you’ll have many more varieties to choose from, and seed packets often give the size of the plant at maturity. If you’re purchasing plants, read the tags; if they don’t list the size, be sure to research the variety before purchasing.
Look for words like “dwarf,” “bush,” and “patio” in the descriptions. Variety names can be clues, too, such as ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Pixie’. Note, however, that names may refer to the size of the fruit rather than the overall size of the mature plant.
Compact Vegetable Varieties
Here is a brief list of compact vegetable plants suitable for small-space and container gardens. There are many, many more to choose from. If in doubt about what to grow, contact your local Master Gardeners or consult with a knowledgeable staff person at your local greenhouse.
Blue Lake Bush Beans: An all-time favorite variety that produces abundant, stringless green beans over a long season. Bush-shaped plants need no support. Space plants 10-12” apart.
Trionfo Violetto Pole Beans: Italian heirloom variety with slender, deep purple pods on 6-8’ vines. Foliage has purple veins and stems and flowers are lavender; very ornamental plants. Provide sturdy support. Direct-sow seeds and thin plants to 6” apart.
Aspabroc broccolini: A hybrid of broccoli and Kai Lan (Chinese kale) developed in the early 1990s, it has asparagus-like stems topped with petite broccoli heads. Space plants 12” apart.
Small Miracle broccoli: Compact plants produce 6” heads followed by abundant side shoots. Space plants 12-18” apart.
Pixie: Early-maturing variety forms compact, 5” diameter heads with tightly packed, tender leaves with a delicate, sweet flavor. Space plants 10” apart.
Minuet Chinese cabbage: Upright, oblong heads have light green outer leaves and pale yellow, tightly packed inner leaves with a sweet flavor. Space plants 12” apart.
Salad Bush: Compact plants produce 8” long slicing cucumbers. All-America Selections winner. Space plants 18-24” apart.
Spacemaster. Short vines make this variety ideal for containers or hanging baskets. Produces slender, 7-1/2” long slicing cucumbers. Space plants 18-24” apart.
Patio Baby: Each 16-20" tall plant produces clusters of 2-3" long, egg-shaped, purple-black fruits with a mild, sweet flavor. All-America Selections winner. Space plants 18” apart.
Fairy Tale: Beautiful, 4-5” long x 1” diameter lavender fruits are streaked with white. Dwarf plants grow 18-24” tall. All-America Selections winner. Space plants 12-16” apart.
Pomegranate Crunch: A mini red romaine lettuce with small, dense heads of tender, red-bronze leaves. Space plants 8-12” apart.
Tom Thumb: Butterhead variety with 5-7’ heads with dark-green outer and creamy-white inner leaves. Space plants 8” apart.
Tom Thumb: This variety dates back to the 1850s. A true mini pea plant that grows to only 10”, but produces full-sized pods. This is a shelling pea (pod is not edible). Direct-sow seeds 2” apart.
Sugar Ann: Abundant pods on 2’ high vines; provide support to prevent toppling. This heirloom variety is a snap pea with thick, juicy, edible pods. Direct-sow seeds 2” apart.
Confetti Sweet Pepper: Growing 18” tall with variegated green-and-white foliage, this variety produces petite peppers that start out green and ripen to fire-engine red. Space plants 12-16” apart.
Baby Belle: Abundant, 3-4” peppers are produced on 18” tall plants. Fruits have a sweet flavor and are perfect for snacking. Space plants 12-16” apart.
Bush Baby: Produces an abundance of attractive striped zucchini that are best harvested when they are 2-6” long. Plants are compact and easy to grow. Space plants 18-24” apart.
Raven: Deep green, 7-8” long zucchinis form on bushy plants for an abundant harvest in less space. Meaty and flavorful raw or cooked. Hybrid. Space plants 18-24” apart.
Patio: A “dwarf determinate” that produces small to medium-sized tomatoes on sturdy plants that grow just 24” high. Space plants 18-24” apart.
Husky Cherry Red: This “dwarf indeterminate” produces large clusters of 1” fruits over a long season on 48” high plants. Space plants 18-24” apart.