Margaret Lauterbach

It’s possible to grow more than you’d expect in a small space

Margaret Lauterbach, Idaho Statesman gardening columnist
Margaret Lauterbach, Idaho Statesman gardening columnist

A friend once told me her husband had allowed her to grow whatever she wanted to in a strip 2 by 10 feet. That sounds like a small space, but she was amazed at the amount of food she was able to grow in that space. If you’re planting in a smallish space, you can safely tuck in more plants than the usual spacing instructions allow. Just watch out for unintentional shading of plants that need full sun. Tall plants that shade lettuce is OK and beneficial, but other plants will die if deprived of sunlight.

For many years, I’ve planted a 10-foot row of Slenderette snap beans, and have harvested plenty to eat for the summer, as well as several packs for freezing. More plants could have been tucked around the beans, but they’re one of those crops that require 6 hours of sun exposure each day. Watch the orientation of your garden bed too, for a tall plant at the north end of the bed may shade beyond your planting.

Most folks who grow food crops grow tomatoes, or at least want to grow tomatoes. Some areas of the Treasure Valley and our neighbors in the mountains have short growing seasons, so their best bet for tomatoes is to grow extra early tomato varieties. Seed packs and catalogs specify the number of days to harvest, but fail to tell you that’s counting from transplanting seedlings, not from sowing the seed. Extra early is fewer than 70 days.

Fifty days from transplant is considered quite early, and usually that refers to determinate tomato varieties. An exception is Burpee’s “4th of July” hybrid tomato, an indeterminate that is reportedly harvestable in 49 days. Stella Schneider, gardening in Boise’s North End, grew that variety last year and said it lived up to that early claim, and continued producing delicious tomatoes until frost. Determinate tomato plants are shorter than the indeterminate, and many set fruit all at once, then quit. That’s fine if you want to can them, but if you want to harvest tomatoes all summer, it’s not fine. Most of the determinate tomatoes I’ve grown do produce all summer, but they tend to be salad-sized tomatoes (that is, smaller than a tennis ball).

If you are going to start from seeds, start in mid-April, then plan to transplant outdoors around June 1. Starting earlier will yield leggy plants that are difficult to transplant. Leggy plants may be planted horizontally in a trench, slightly bending the growing tip upward free of soil, but it’s difficult even to carry leggy plants without their breaking. They’re also vulnerable to a spade inserted into the soil if you forget about the horizontally-planted roots. Strong seedlings are produced by jostling seedlings via fan-produced air or by hand.

Other of these really early varieties include Mountain Princess, Stupice, Siletz, Oregon Spring and Early Wonder (all open-pollinated, so you can save your seeds for next year), and some Early Girl hybrids whose seeds you shouldn’t save. Some of the Early Girl varieties are indeterminate (that is, growing tall and needing a cage or stake), but most of the other earlies are determinate (low-growing and potentially sprawling).

Earth Box instructions advise growing two indeterminate tomatoes in a box, only one determinate, so that indicates they do not expect you to cage the determinate tomato. I made tomato cages out of hogwire fencing years ago, so I cut some in half, and used them to contain determinate tomatoes in my tall raised beds. Indeterminate tomatoes grow easily to 3 feet in height, too tall for me to harvest from the seat of my scooter if planted in 18 inch high beds, but most of the determinate tomatoes grow to less than 18 inches in height, and that’s manageable.

Most of my tomato growing favors the best-flavored slicing and paste tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes will sprawl unless staked or caged; most also are open-pollinated varieties. Some call them “heirloom” tomatoes, but unless they were commercially available over 50 years ago, they’re not “heirlooms.” If you’re a beginning gardener or at least a young one, make your own permanent tomato cages out of livestock panels (D & B Supply and other farm supply stores sell them) or concrete reinforcing wire using a heavy duty bolt cutter. My hog fencing cages are not easily stored.

Thinking of starting to garden?

If you’re a beginning gardener or new to gardening in this area, be aware that our soil is naturally alkaline, so never use lime or fireplace ashes where you intend to grow anything. They’ll increase the alkalinity to an extent where nothing will grow. Incorporation of organic matter over the years does reduce the alkalinity a little. Also, our climate is arid, so you will need to use irrigation or use a garden hose to supplement nature’s water.

Beginning gardeners should start small, and expand their garden over the years. Plants that may be planted before the last frost include spinach, potatoes, peas, cabbage, lettuce, onions, collards, broccoli, beets, carrots, Swiss chard and radishes. Some of the old world beans such as lentils and garbanzo beans (chickpeas) tolerate some frost, but garden plants that must wait until the last frost has passed or they’ll be destroyed by cold include tomatoes, most beans, eggplant, peppers and some herbs such as basil. Seed packets or descriptions on seed vendors’ websites should indicate frost tolerance.

Most of us in the Treasure Valley have a growing season from about May 10 to Oct.10, the average dates of last and first frosts. Some near the Eagle and Star foothills have later and/or earlier frosts than those of us in the city. There are also some frosty areas south of Meridian and in the Kuna area too. Talk to your gardening neighbors about their experiences in your new area, because the USDA designation of this area as a 7 is wrong (we’ve had zone 6 winters the past few years), and the zone designation doesn’t take microclimates into account.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.