Growing vegetables in small spaces

18 May 2019 7 minute read

You don’t have to have a massive garden to grow your own fruit and veg. There are plenty of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that will flourish in pots and small containers - and we’re here to help!

At Trees for Cities we naturally have trees on our minds - but we also work with greening projects, ranging from Edible Playgrounds that teach kids about healthy eating, to creating communal green spaces with local residents.

With this in mind (and also in an effort to #GreenGreyBritain), we’ve created a list of edible crops that will do amazingly in urban gardens, patios or balconies (or even a well-situated windowsill). And better yet, even if your growing area is fairly shady, there are still plants you can grow. 

Before you start buying seeds and spending money on plants, take some time to look at your growing space and take note of where the sun falls throughout the day as this will inform your choice of crops. Remember that this can change greatly throughout the year, so keep this in mind when making your choices. Most plants will be thankful for even the tiniest amount of sunlight, so you will want to maximise the use of your sunniest spot and put the less sun-loving plants in the shadier parts.

We have split our crops into two sections. The first are balcony crops and the second are patio crops. On the balcony, most people’s pots and containers are fairly shallow and small, so we have chosen crops that will not need much space and can still be productive. For the patio crops we have chosen crops that will need slightly more space and larger pots but will still be very happy living in a restricted amount of soil.

Balcony crops

When thinking about containers you want to try and find planters that maximise your space. Look for planters with hooks that are designed to hang over balcony railings, try putting up some hanging baskets, or think about creating vertical planting up the balcony walls. Here are some ideas to try:


Perfect for pots as their vigorous roots won’t be able to take over as they would do out in the wild. Be sure to keep them watered regularly as they like damp conditions. Try interesting varieties like chocolate mint or black peppermint. These do really well in shady spots.


Most basil plants are annuals and will start to die back as soon as the weather gets cold, so you will need to re-sow them every year, but it’s worth the effort. These sun-loving leaves will flourish in your sunny spots.


With hundreds of types to try, lettuces can bring lots of variety of colours and textures to your balcony and will look great. And what’s more, winter varieties will grow right through the coldest months meaning you can harvest lettuce leaves throughout the year. Aim for seed packets that are salad mixes and harvest them by taking off the outer leaves one by one so the rest of the plant keeps producing more for you. These will do well in a shady area too.


Buy one, get a lifetime supply free! Strawberries are the ultimate bargain. Once you have one plant it will start to produce ‘runners’ which are baby plants that you can peg down into another pot, whilst still attached, then wait for it to grow its own roots and cut it off from the mother plant, meaning you have a brand new plant! Most strawberries prefer full sun, but if you only have shade, then try alpine or woodland strawberries instead, which are smaller but really yummy.


These are the perfect crop for impatient gardeners as they can take only 4 weeks to mature from seed to plate. And better yet, the leaves are edible too so you get a double crop for your efforts. Be sure to keep them well watered so they don’t start flowering before you harvest them. There are lots of varieties to try so why not buy a packet of mixed seeds and see which your favourite is.

Calendula/English Marigold

These plants are not only beautiful, but the flowers are edible too! Be sure to get English Marigolds and not French Marigolds as only the former are edible.

Patio crops

As there tends to be a bit more space on the patio, it’s possible to have some larger pots which are suitable for growing a greater variety of crops. All of the balcony crops above can be grown on the patio too of course, but below are a selection of plants that will need a bit more space.


Tomatoes grow well in pots but will need the sunniest and warmest position in your growing area. You will also need to make sure they have frequent watering and a good supply of nutrients from a liquid feed once a week. We use the juice called ‘worm tea’ from our wormery which is organic and free! Whilst you can grow the ‘cordon’ varieties of tomatoes in pots (these are the really tall plants that need supports) we recommend ‘bush’ varieties instead. Bush varieties tend to have smaller tomatoes such as cherry tomatoes, but they are much easier to look after and won’t need as much space.


Courgettes are super-productive plants and just one plant will give you a big harvest. They are also very needy and want full sun, lots of water and a good liquid feed to keep them satisfied. Some courgette plants can be huge, so be sure to choose a ‘bush’ variety and use a large pot of 30cm diameter and depth or more if possible. But they are worth the extra effort! You can also eat the flowers and they are delicious stuffed with cheese and baked or fried.


Potatoes work brilliantly in containers. You will want to use a deep container to get the most potatoes from it. Some people use old bins with drainage holes drilled into the bottom or you can buy specific grow bags for potatoes which are reusable. To grow potatoes you need to buy ‘seed potatoes’, which are old potatoes that you can leave out in a bright, dry spot to ‘chit’ or sprout, before planting them at the bottom of your container. The best types of potato for pots are either first earlies, or second earlies, which will mature into what we know as the small ‘new potatoes’ and will be ready in early summer.


Grow your own carrots and get exciting new colours on your plate! Rainbow carrot seed mixes mean that you can be eating red, purple, white, yellow AND orange carrots! Ideally for long carrots you would want your container to be at least 30cm deep, but you can buy varieties of carrots that are round or stumpy and will work in a shallower container. Carrot fly can be a problematic pest, so if you have a spare old white bedsheet or horticultural fleece use this to loosely cover the pot whilst the carrots are growing. Carrots are happy in partial shade, but will appreciate a few hours of sunlight each day.


Onions are very happy growing in clumps of 4 or 5, so growing in pots or small spaces works well for them. You can try growing them from seed, but to give them a head start, the most popular option is to grow them from ‘sets’ or baby onion bulbs that will develop into full onions when mature. Onions prefer full sun so aim to put them in a sunny spot.

Still hungry for more? Check out our free vegetable growing guides produced by our Edible Playgrounds team. Don’t forget to let us know how you get on by tagging us in your social media posts @treesforcities. Imagine all the money - and plastic - you can save by growing food yourself. What’s not to love?

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