Asphalt Garden: Obsessing Over How to Increase Garden Size and Plant Yield

For the past few days I’ve been constantly thinking about how I’m going to expand and improve on the vegetable garden I have in the parking lot of my apartment building. There’s something about switching to daylight savings time that makes me want to start planting.

I have a lot of thoughts about how I’m going to increase my rather meager output of vegetables. But first: How can I expand my garden’s footprint?

The picture above shows exactly what I have to work with, and indicates the ideal locations for adding containers. I have two main areas that could fit containers – next to the dumpsters and to the side of the laundry room. I think I might be able to squeeze in another container right in front of the laundry room, next to with the water and gas meters.

I found it supremely helpful to actually sketch a top-down view, then go out and measure the space available. Below is what I learned (I highlighted in red where containers could fit):

With measurements in mind, I could calculate exactly how many containers I could fit in the available space.

But what containers will I be using? That question has been my main obsession these past few days.

I think I made a few mistakes planting last year’s crop of vegetables: The soil was too dense, the plants didn’t get enough sun, and I didn’t wanter them consistently enough. The new places I’ve picked out around the perimeter of the parking lot all get more sun than the current location of the wine barrels. In the intervening year I’ve learned more about the right soil and fertilizer to use for  above-ground containers. The only thing left to deal with is the watering situation.

The answer to uneven watering? Build a self-watering container. One of the gardening books I have (The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible) recommends self-watering containers, and about a month after I planted my garden last year, a columnist at Slate shared his discovery of self-watering containers. Why are they so great? Many summer vegetables (such as tomatoes and cucumbers) demand a lot of water. Self-watering containers allow the plant to suck up only as much water as it needs (see the Slate story for a good illustration of how the containers work).

Self-watering containers can be built out of anything; common containers are 5-gallon buckets and 30-gallon rectangular containers. EarthBox sells pre-made kits, but many people make their own containers. I studied the directions for a variety of methods, and I found Ray Newstead’s EarthTainer (the system featured in the Slate article) to be the most detailed.

The 30-gallon plastic totes I’ll be using as my containers are 32 inches wide. Here’s my thinking: I can fit two containers at the far corner of the apartment. That area gets the most sun, and that’s where I’ll plant four tomatoes – two per container. The space next to the dumpsters could fit two containers. Instead, I’m just going to have one and grow cucumbers. Cucumbers grow best on a trellis, which can go up against the cinderblock wall and take up the whole space. That leaves the area next to the water meters. I can fit one more self-watering container, which is going to be dedicated to basil. I was disappointed with how my basil grew last year, and I think a self-watering container will solve the problem.

I’m basically doubling the size of my garden, going from four containers to eight. I haven’t forgotten about my original wine barrel containers. I’ve had success with carrots and radishes, so I’m going to expand to another root vegetable – beets.

I’m going to be building my new containers soon. I’ll share that process next.

  • Louise Michie

    I would not go with self watering containers in a big way just yet. Try one or two this year and see if they suit your style. Watering plants is easy if you have a schedule. Keep plants together that have similar water requirements. Those white walls will reflect a lot of heat.
    Do you have anywhere to hang baskets? Strawberries grow well in baskets. Tomatoes grow quite well in bag-things that make them grow sort-of-upside-down, but the whole assemblage needs to hang in the sun. 
    Look at other tiered arrangements of pots and plants.
    There are dwarf lemon trees that grow well in pots. Cumquats, too. Chillies are always successful. If you get those saucers with wheels for under your pots you can move them around to take advantage of sun, shade, and rainfall.
    Join some internet gardening sites like Folia to check what works in your conditions. You need to know your zone and soil pH.
    Are there any Community Gardens in your area? These are usually free and rather like English allotments.

    • Mark Evitt

      Thanks for the thoughts and advice, Louise. I’m concerned about those white walls, too. Unfortunately the community gardens in my area all have wait lists.

  • Mark Smith

    Any idea what kind of tomato plants he is growing? The guy with the Earthtainer? We tried Big Boys and Early Girls and had small weak fruit all season long here in Sacramento last year.

    • Mark Evitt

      No, I’m not sure. I gave his site a careful read and he doesn’t specifically recommend any one variety.

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