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Pack Your Small Garden With Uncommon Edibles

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Dec 19, 2014 5:00PM

There’s more to do this week than wrap packages while layering wool sweaters. Be bold and think spring while designing next year’s urban garden. And while your space may feel cramped, national garden expert Charlie Nardozzi says your options still loom larger than you might expect. Columnar apples, honeyberries, fig trees and Alpine strawberries can all sweeten your deck or patio in a matter of months.

”Urban gardeners often feel like they can’t grow much food because of lack of space or sun. But root crops like carrots and turnips can survive on three to four hours of daily sunlight, while lettuces like kale and Swiss chard can still thrive on even less. And new technology—self-watering containers, railing containers that sit on decks, wall plantings, even casters designed for plants—is addressing the space issue,” Nardozzi told Chicagoist.

Breeders too, Nardozzi notes, have shrunk the size of most produce in recent decades, making gardening into an even more compact practice. Fruits like salad bush cucumber now flourish on shorter vines that help you economize on space, while new cultivars of cherry tomatoes grow well in hanging baskets. Fruit trees also just keep getting smaller, putting ancient fruits like figs within closer reach.

If you’re afraid to grow figs outside the Mediterranean, however, Nardozzi has a tip. “Even in places like Chicago, you can grow fig trees in containers and bring them into an unheated basement or garage, and they’ll stay dormant all winter until you’re ready to plant. Even in Connecticut, I see people growing them outdoors. When they plant them in November, they do so in a warmer spot against the house then wrap fiberglass insulation around them with twine then plastic over that until the warmer weather comes.”

Columnar apples, he notes, typify commercial growers’ trend toward more manageable dwarf trees ideal for adding shade to small yards, while Siberian honeyberries growing no more than 2 feet wide produce a blue fruit with the flavor of wild blueberries in June before many other fruits begin to ripen. Alpine strawberries also grow in clumps rather than sprawling all across your deck. They have the added allure of tasting sweeter too than those bought at the market.

To learn about further edible options for your small garden, go hear Nardozzi speak at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show March 14-22. Consider a ticket an early gift to yourself.