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Gardening column: What to grow when you don't have much space, plus a wild garlic pesto recipe

Not all vegetables are equal if you’re space constrained, writes GIY Guru Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

IF YOU ARE space constrained in your growing, it’s worth considering a fundamental point when deciding what to grow: not all vegetables are the same. They don’t all give you the same bang for your buck so to speak.

First of all, different vegetables take up different amounts of space in the ground. Each carrot for example only needs 3 to 4cm in your soil, while the Brussels sprouts plant needs to be planted 1m away from its nearest neighbour.

On top of this there is the question of “yield”. Some vegetables return a lot of food for the space they take up. Others really don’t.

At the end of a very long growing season, a well-grown sweetcorn plant, for example, will only give you two cobs for all your effort. You will most likely only get four sweetcorn plants in a metre of growing space (since they are planted about 50cm apart).

Corn and beetroot

shutterstock_422257807 Source: Shutterstock/sanddebeautheil

Eight corn on the cob from a metre is a pretty poor return, and that’s before you consider that sweetcorn is not exactly a safe bet either, particularly if the sun doesn’t shine much during the growing season.

Take that same metre of growing space and plant it up with beetroot and you will get about 40 beetroot (4 rows with beetroot spaced 10cm apart in the rows). And on top of that, beetroot is one of the easiest and most reliable of vegetables to grow.

Or, if you sowed the metre of space in an oriental green such as mizuna, you will get to harvest food from the plot on multiple occasions since oriental greens are what are known as “cut and come again” vegetables (that is, you cut the plant down to about 5cm and it grows back again to give a second bounty).

Fast growing veg

Secondly, it’s worth considering that some vegetables are incredibly fast growing and therefore give you a very quick return from the space you have allocated to them. This means you can very quickly start growing something else in the same space once you’ve harvested them.

You can be eating white turnips, for example, about two months after sowing them. Radishes will be ready even quicker than that.

Other vegetables are very slow growing and will monopolise a piece of ground for ages before giving a return. Garlic is sown in winter and is not ready to eat until the following summer. Purple sprouting broccoli is growing for almost a year before you get to eat it.

Grow your own rare veggies

Equally well, it’s worth thinking about growing vegetables (or vegetable varieties) that are difficult to source in the supermarket (Jersualem and globe artichokes, purple sprouting broccoli, fennel, endive, chicory and oriental salads) or difficult to source fresh (peas, broad beans, French beans and runner beans).

In addition, some vegetables can be considered particularly valuable because of the time of year in which we can harvest them.

Any vegetable that is available to eat fresh from the garden in the tricky “hungry gap” months (March to May) is worth its weight in gold.

Purple sprouting broccoli is an example of this, which is why we’re generally willing to allow it monopolise space in the vegetable patch almost all year around.

The Basics – Value for Space

The incomparable Joy Larkcom devised a Value for Space rating (VSR) to evaluate vegetables based on their return in a small garden. Though she admits that it can be quite an arbitrary system, it’s worth having a glance at the VSR table on page 188 of her book Grow your Own Vegetables if you are space constrained.

Vegetables with a poor VSR rating include aubergine, artichoke, cabbage, celeriac, fennel, parsnip and sweetcorn. Top of the list for both a high and quick return are the oriental salads like mizuna, komatsuna, texel greens, mustard, mibuna and rocket.

But there are lots of other vegetables that will give you good value for your available space – beetroot, beans (French and runner), carrots, radish, lettuce, peppers, peas, potatoes, chard and turnips.

This Month at GROW HQ

This month at GROW HQ there are courses on growing spuds, fermented and cultured drinks, knife skills, beekeeping, an introduction to soil life, making homemade sausages and much more.

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We’ve also got our regular yoga and mindfulness classes, our Friday Feast and the return of our Mindful Lunch. Tickets from €10 at www.growhq.org.

Recipe of the Week – Wild Garlic Pesto

shutterstock_196913444 Source: Shutterstock/wsf-s

Pesto can be expensive to buy particularly at this time of the year, when the key ingredient (basil) is unseasonal. Instead of basil, we use wild garlic leaves which are completely free and abundant at this time of the year. The pesto keeps well in the fridge for a week.


  • 120g of Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 350ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 100g of pine nuts
  • 200g of wild garlic leaves, stems cut off, washed and dried
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper


Place all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth.

Add a little more oil if you prefer a looser consistency. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper and taste.

Transfer to clean jars and top with an extra drizzle of oil to create a seal. The jars will keep in the fridge for at least one week.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ.

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.


About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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