Gardening in Less-than-Ideal Spaces

Gardening in Less-than-Ideal Spaces

closeup of tomatoes in july

I adore my new home. It’s large, beautiful and perfectly suited to our family. The only downside? Leaving behind my beloved 12 x 28 ft, perfectly sunny garden that I have loved on and built up for the past 3 years.

The challenge for me in our new backyard is that the landlords weren’t really keen on me tearing up grass in the main part of the yard. They said I could use the 10 x 12 ft area between the shed and the back fence. The only issue is that it’s between the shed and the back fence and is shady, shady, shady!

I began working on the garden plot over a month before we moved. We rented a tiller and my darling husband spent a rainy morning tilling it up, ankle deep in mud (yes, this man truly loves me!). Then I got some plywood for walkways and began to figure out how to lay out this garden to maximize what I had to work with.

I spent several days taking trips over to the new house to work on the garden, but also to analyze the sunlight at different times of day. I wanted to figure out how many hours of sunlight I was working with, and whether there were areas of the garden that were better suited to certain types of vegetables than others.

wide shot of new garden july
You can see the 6 tomatoes in the front left and the bean teepee on the right (not to mention other garden "stuff" that still needs to find a home). The cucumbers are to the left of the tomatoes, right along the shed.

What I discovered was this:

  • The front, left 1/4 of the garden actually got some pretty good sun (the above picture was taken late afternoon when the shade begins to creep in)
  • The side of the shed was just covered in sun most of the day, even if the ground below it wasn’t.
  • The rest of it was definitely a bit lacking in the sunshine department, although the entire area does have some sun at least part of the day.

Based on that knowledge, I began to make my plans. I also had a small strip of decorative garden space that I was allowed to rip up (I had to leave most of it as-is, though). Since it seemed to get more sunshine than the main garden, I put 5 sun-loving tomato plants there, and a couple basil plants (because tomatoes LOVE basil).

row of tomatoes early july new house
Small garden strip along the fence, where my tomatoes and basil live.

In the main area, I chose that sunny front corner to place my remaining 6 tomatoes (I would have done more, but I didn’t think there was enough sunshine to make it worth planting more than that, based on the space that I had).

I used the remaining part of the sunny corner (which dipped into the shadier portion) for a large bean teepee, figuring that the beans would still do well since they would grow upwards and reach into the sunshine pretty quickly, even if the ground was shaded much of the day.

The sunny side of the shed was begging to be used, so I opted to grow one of my favorite vertical plants along it– cucumbers! I plotted my walkways so that I had a good foot of space in which to plant the cucumbers in a strip right along the shed, with plans to add chicken wire to the side of the shed to support the vines as they grew up it (not in the picture, but we just added it today now that the cucumbers plants are a lot bigger than in the picture).

The rest of the space is unplanted as of yet, because I intend to use it for a fall crop. The remaining space gets good partial-sun and should be ideal for growing greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, etc.), carrots, beets, peas, cabbage and more.

pot garden in july

Lastly, I chose to containerize (surely that can be considered a real word, yes?) in order to take advantage of another sunny portion of the yard that I couldn’t turn into a proper garden, at least not this year.

A friend gave me some extra raspberries canes, courtesy of her gardening neighbor. I planted garbage can potatoes again, just like last year. I also snagged a lovely pepper plant and a zucchini plant (I had germination troubles this year and then lost my seed pack) from our local farmer’s market and put them in pots.

This gravel area at the side of the house gets great sun and is conveniently close to the hose (because container gardening requires much more watering than gardening in the ground). Next year I hope to have Ryan build me some garden boxes to fill up this area to increase the space that I have to work with, but it’s perfect for pots in the meantime.

These pictures are all about a week old and the garden has been really thriving since then. I have been so blessed to discover that the behind-the-shed part of the garden actually gets more sun at this point of the summer than I anticipated it would, and my tomatoes and beans are actually doing amazingly well!

How have you worked with less-than-ideal spaces to garden and how did you maximize the space that you had?

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  1. Our yard isn’t a bad yard for growing but the soil here is really nasty and the sun is brutal in the summer (high desert NM) – we have tried many things in the past to supplement the soil but nothing ever worked very well and our plants would die. This year we put in a square foot garden and even in our smallish area we were able to fit in 70 square feet of growing space. So far everything is doing pretty well although we have a tree that should probably go. We have been happy with how moist things have stayed even thought its 90+ degrees for a month or so. The really nice thing about it is we just put our boxes right on top of what was there (sand and rocks).

    1. Have you tried Soils secrets? Go to and take a look. It was developed in NM for your particularly terrible soil! It’s organic and I’ve used it myself with great results.

  2. We just moved into our new house in Feb. I am currently planning my garden, but I have a few pots that have herbs (I need my herb garden for all my cooking!). The spots we thought that were going to make a great garden, are now too shady. But there is another spot where we can plant our garden, it’s just going to look weird. What ever works to get home produce! 😀

  3. This year is our best gardening year ever. We’ve lived in our house for 9 summers so far. This year we put 2 garden beds in the back alley behind our garage. It’s super sunny there most of the day so we grow our tomatoes, beans and cucumbers back there. We also pruned a plum tree way back so our other garden beds would get more light. I think what you are doing is great! Work with what you have to get the most productivity out of your space.

  4. I live in a condo with a ground floor patio that is shaded by a wrap around fence and tree. BUT…there are a few spots that get a few hours of strong summer sunshine and I have been able to successfully grow tomatoes, cucumbers, a few carrots and in the shade, lettuce. This is all done in large pots. In August, it looks like a jungle on my patio with tomato plants towering above my head, but I don’t care…I love it!

  5. Yes! I have gardened in a less than ideal space for three years now. Not only do we live on a COMPLETELY wooded lot, but I was a novice gardener knowing absolutely nothing about gardening. My husband has cut down as many trees as possible (without cutting down neighbors trees) and my ‘sunny’ side of the garden now gets 6 hours of sun while my ‘shady’ side gets only 4. But, I’ve made it work! This year is my best garden yet. It can be done! You can see the pictures of my current garden here:

    I’m as surprised as anyone that you can actually get a pretty great harvest even in the shade. 🙂

    1. @Lady Why, Wow I also checked out the links…beautiful garden! I wish I had more raised beds. I’m sort of thinking that since we’re not sure we’re in this current location forever that I don’t want to put all the work in though. Great work on yours!!

  6. Hey,
    I just read the book ‘All New Square Foot Gardening’ by Mel Bartholomew & it was very interesting! If that stone-looking patio gets enough sun, you could build a square foot garden (SFG) in there. By the way, the basic size for a SFG is 4’x4′ and you can make the whole thing movable. Seriously. If you were allowed to let a patch of grass die, you could even garden on your lawn… anyways, it would at least be worth a read. I’m not a big gardener, but this book makes me want to take it to the next level. 🙂
    Happy Gardening!

    1. @Tricia Smeding, That’s absolutely something I’m thinking about for next spring, Tricia! It was just too much for us to do it this summer, but I think we could make it happen for the spring and I would do it right in the gravel area where my pots currently are. I could probably do two 4×4 boxes which would be perfect, with the space that I already have!

      1. @Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home, If you are doing sqaure foot boxes that are moveable (boxes with bottoms) make sure there is LOTS of drainage. We followed Mel’s methods the first year I gardened since we knew we were moving and wanted to bring the garden boxes with us, so they had bottoms (there were only a few). It was a wet year, but my husband did even more drainage than Mel recommended and things got way too much water. Leaves turned yellow, some things died, etc. People thing often that containers dry out too much…but in my experience, its a fine balance between drying out and too much water due to overwatering plus lack of drainage. Just so you know. If possible, I’d not do bottoms on them. We’re still using 4 boxes as part of our garden but since we took the bottoms off (even in another wet year following) things did fine. I also would recommend if possible having the soil deeper than he stated. My plants are doing much better since I doubled up two boxes to make one taller one. I use two 2×2 and deep (like the ones he says for potatoes) for my girls and they love it.

        A neat thing in his book is how you could actually move things around your yard during the day to make use of the sun. Although I have a feeling he wasn’t writing that part for busy moms. LOL I can’t imagine being THAT motivated. 🙂

  7. @ Tricia—We’ve made our garden boxes with bottoms, so that we can take them with us when we move. We love Square Feet Gardening! Our landlord didn’t care if we put in a garden, but the best place was in the back, close to the woods. Unfortunately, the weeding about killed me, we had to pay someone to till up the soil, and the groundhogs mowed everything off, right as it was ready to be harvested. So we placed our 10 garden boxes up next to the house raised on bricks. The animals don’t come up close to the house and its easier to weed and keep an eye on. I usually have enough to freeze and can. I can plant in spring, summer and fall, and if I cover them I can have some fresh greens in the winter.

  8. Mirrors? I wonder if you put up some well place mirrror t reflect some of that sun into places that don’t get very much. The last huse we lived in was very dark,it was all barn wood on the inside,fun but very dark.anyway, I asked for more lighting and relized that wasn’t going to happen so I began to collect mirrors and put the in dark corners and in all the places I need a bit of light. Just a thought. It worked for me:) I used those flat kind that go in bathrooms, they would be weather proof.

    1. @tonya, Funny you should mention that! I actually have bought these large panels to cover with foil to mount up on the sides of the fence/shed, but just haven’t gotten around to putting them up yet. But I was thinking the same thing- to boost the sun and warmth and I think it might make a difference to the darker corners of the garden!

  9. There is one massive sore thumb in my vegetable garden – my husband’s maple tree. He refuses to cut it down and admit that the reason the corn is stunted, the cucumbers are pathetic and the melons are dreadful is the ridiculous quantity of SHADE (!!) in our garden. Yes, I cannot convince my man that a veggie garden is supposed to be sunny. But, the lettuce thrives, the pumpkins are perfect and the potatoes are enormous – so, I suppose I’ve decided to plant what I can around my husband’s tree. 🙂

  10. This post is great. I’ve made 5 beds 4 feet wide and varying lengths in my backyard to make use of the sun patterns and also leave a space for my kids to play that has some sun. One thing to note, if you’re planning a garden, is to watch the actual season sun patterns, since it changes drastically from winter to summer. In the winter, I have mostly shade in my whole yard, and in the summer, I have about half and half.

    One thing I found out this year is that carrots need more than 6 hours of sunlight, it seems, at least that is the theory that I found in my yard from planting them in a spot that only gets 6 hours max. They didn’t even germinate, and replanted, did not again, but the same seed packet planted elsewhere in more sun did. I always read 6-8 hours minimum is ideal, but I guess not for carrots, at least from what I found. Some plants will still produce in less sun but not produce as much (like beans and peas). But its better to have some yield than nothing.

    Another way to make the most of the sun and also do crop rotation is to transfer the dirt by wheelbarrow. I did that this year.

  11. Oh another thing to add is that if you have too much sun in the summer heat, is invest in some shade cloth! I haven’t tried it but heard rave reviews.

  12. I’ve never heard about cucumbers growing vertical! What do I need to do to my cucumber plants to get them to grow up?!

    My garden isn’t doing well this year at all. We usually till in cow or horse manure, but this year we used goat manure. I’m thinking it doesn’t have things in it to properly nourish the ground. Last year I was able to freeze 24 quart of sugar snap and snow peas. This year we’ve only been able to eat some fresh and the rest haven’t grown. I’m thinking about trying to do another round of them.

    1. @Darcy, Cucumbers will grow vertically if you put them next to something to grow on…like a trellis or tepee or stake. When they start growing those little shoots that are like the little curly things that peas use to grow up a trellis, they might just grab on, or you can gently try to get one to grab onto your trellis or teepee or whatever. Keep doing that as needed as the cucumber develops more little shoots (not sure what they are called…those thin curly viney things…LOL) Also you might convince it better if you take the actual stem and use one of those velcro plant ties to attach the main stem to the trellis.

      Many things can be grown vertically…I would recommend checking out “the all new square foot gardening” by Mel Bartholomew. His trellises are the best way but you can also make do with other things, but he also gives you an idea of what can be grown vertically. I always do my cucumbers this way.

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