Small Scale Sub-Urban Garden (with pics)

David Trammel's picture

I thought I'd share pictures of this year's garden with the forum. This is the second year I've been doing a garden at this location.

I know many here are like me, stuck in a suburban area with not alot of space for a garden. I also rent, which makes it a bit more difficult. Originally I was in the north side of a two apartment duplex, but when the south side opened up two years ago, I got the landlord to let me move to that one.

Just my opinion but if you have to rent, find a duplex. They are usually comparable in rent to a two bedroom apartment (mine's just $525) but you have some yard space to call your own. Mine also has a full basement which gives me loads of space for storage, or perhaps learning to brew beer or grow mushrooms (both on my list.) Find a landlord that is ok with you doing a garden and you'll be a long way down the green wizard path in no time.

Here's a picture of the space I have and the garden so far.

The workable space which is from the fence to the end of the apartment is about 40 feet by 10. I can perhaps go back on the side of the fence another 20 feet but there's a walnut tree in the backyard which makes it hard to grow anything under it.

When I first approached the landlord about putting in a garden, what I found was he didn't mind me doing it, but he didn't want it to look bad. He was concerned about the neighbors complaining, the lawn care people having trouble with the weeds or tall grass, anything that might make his life more difficult.

So raised beds were a must.

I looked at the various materials and ended up going with concrete blocks. These are called "partition blocks" and I got them from the big box hardware store for about a dollar a piece. They are as big as the normal concrete building block but half as wide (16"x8"x4").

Due to their weight, I didn't have to stake them into the ground, just bury them a few inches into the soil. A plus is they allow a wide range of layouts and if I have to move, can be picked up and taken with me.

A nice thing is they have holes in their centers, which provide me with a handy area to add flowers to attract bees, as well as herbs and companion plants to ward off pests.

Here's a close up of one bed.

It is made up of 18 blocks ($18) giving me an area roughly 9 foot by 2 1/2 foot, or about 22 square feet of space. I added about 10 sqft of compost this year ($8), and a similar amount the first year (bought from the nursery, don't think the landlord is ready for a compost bin yet). Plants ran about $35 (half that for the flowers), for a total of roughly $70.

(Yes that's a rubber snake. It's supposed to scare the

This bed has a row of  potatoes in the front, carrots in the middle and beans and okra on the fence.

I did use seeds last year but because of a variety of factors ended up buying plants from the local nursery this year. I'd like to eventually grow my own seeds but that's in the future plans.

Note the two white pvc pipes sticking up out of the bed. Missouri has a high clay percentage in their soil, so I dug up the bed to about 24 inches deep and mixed in alot of compost, peat moss and some vermiculite to loosen the soil. Last year during the Summer months I had a problem getting the water to soak in well without sitting on the surface, the clay tended to form a crust when wet then baked by the sun so this year I decided to install an underground watering system to get the water down to the roots.

I chose to use pvc pipe because of its durability but also because its cheap and easy to work with. A 10 foot length of 3/4 inch pvc runs $1.25 and fittings (90 degree corners and three way Ts) ran 28 cents each. A small handsaw and a drill were all I needed to make it. The long lengths have a 1/8th inch hole drilled in the bottom of them spaced about 4 inches apart for drainage. I did not glue the pieces together, I found they held together very well with just pressing them in.

This is the front bed which I chose to put on either side of the fence since I'm planting tomatoes to either side and plan on using the fences to help support the plants.

Here's the pipe once its buried and the plants are in.

Those are tomato plants to either side, a couple of pepper plants in the center, and carrots in the front, carrots and radishes in the back. On the sides are dill, basil and rosemary. Now that the bed is in I'll be spreading out grass seed over the bare ground too.

A nice thing about pvc pipe is it makes a great trestle with some plastic clothes line for pole beans. Each trestle ran me under $10 to make  and should have years of use.

The rabbits cleaned me out of lettuce last year so this year I fenced in that bed. They didn't seem to like anything else besides the occasional leaf here and there. Notice that the holes in the blocks provide perfect support for the poles too. The front of the enclosure is designed to lift off for weeding.

I put a slight forward bend on the trestle because while this side of the apartment faces due south, and gets sun all day, the roof over hangs just enough that a vertical trestle would have been in the shade at the top few feet. And added bonus is that the fruit tends to hang straight down making havesting alot easier.

PVC will bend if you heat it with a propane torch but be sure to do it outside because of the fumes and wear gloves.

The other half of the bed is my one screw up from last year. I planted asparagus without doing my research. For those who don't know, establishing a bed of asparagus is a multiple year job. First two years you don't get much if any in the way of food out of them.

I had just two of the plants from last year come up, but those have done very well. The asparagus is the ferny looking plant in the bed. I've planted more this year, and those are responding well to the deeper watering via the pvc.

Those are cherry tomatoes in the back against the wall. They like to vine and climb so I replaced my cucumbers from last year (which didn't do well) with tomatoes and I'm going to let them climb the shorter tressel.

Here's a shot from the back of the apartment.

Its late in the day so I do get some shade then, but the rest of the day all the beds get full sun. You can see the one bed I didn't finish last year, but will plant in this year in the foreground.

One addition this year is a vertical potato bin across from the air conditioner.

I've read up on these and it seems to be a good way to increase your yield in a small area.

For those unfamiliar with this method, you basically continue to add soil as the plants grow, adding boards as needed until you reach the top of the bin height and then let the plants set. In theory you get potatoes the entire depth of the bin. We'll see if this works.

I'm using untreated cedar so the cost is a bit high, but I don't have to worry about chemicals leeching into my potatoes

All in all with 4 beds and some containers I have about 125 square feet of garden, which while it won't feed me entirely does help add to the table (since its just me), and it provides a way for me to learn from my mistakes now when I have the cushion to make them.


(updated the pictures now that everything is planted.)

I enjoy your deliberate and experimental approach, perhaps especially because although I've been gardening for decades, I'm only now moving into food/organic and have been amazed at how much I had to learn. For example, I installed two rainbarrels so low to the ground that I couldn't even get a watering can under the spigots, let alone set up a gravity feed with leaky hoses. !!? You'd think common sense would have prevented that, but it didn't.

Bunnies are a problem everywhere, I guess. Does your fence in fact keep them out? I planted lettuce this year in whiskey barrels. So far so good. Either that's effective or a fox has moved into the nearby park.

LOL! I did the same thing with one of my rain barrels. Had to have it reset later on higher cinder blocks. I, for one, was just so excited about getting three rain barrels (cheap, even)that I just didn't think about the necessity for height. So common sense didn't stop me either...guess I'll wait for the excitement to die down before I install anything again. I suppose I was just lucky that the other two barrels were, purely by accident, installed OK.

I've had good luck the last three years in keeping out our numerous rabbits out of our veggie garden (using fine-grained fencing toward the bottom of our fence (as well as TALL fencing to try to keep out deer). But this year I have a habitual offender rabbit who I suspect has found a hole in the defenses. I've searched high and low for his (her?) entrance to no avail. The damage is slight now, so I'm willing to share but rabbits do like to party together. Perhaps you could send over a fox (as a bouncer only)? Smile

I, too, really enjoy dtrammel's garden. He is a real planner, as well as an experimenter and that's what it takes to successfully grow adequate food consistently in a garden. I always look forward to his updates.

David Trammel's picture

Ahhh, shucks Ladies....(holds head down and shuffles feet)...blushes.

I've always wanted gardens but this is the first in several decades I've had the right situation to have one. As long as we go thru a slow (even if fitful) descent then I hope to be here until I die. And since its not a grow or starve situation, I figure I have time to learn and experiments to do even if they result in a failure here and there.

I tend to think long term, over a several year period, and like to teach, so informative posts like this are a natural for me. Having the Green Wizard forum is icing on the cake so to speak. If it helps others so much the better.

My neighborhood is mostly single family homes and duplexes, with a couple of apartment buildings up the street. I'm hoping over the next few years to begin spreading out to the surrounding duplexes. Several of my neighbors have come over to look at the garden and while a few have a tomato plant or two, no one is doing it to this scale.

What I plan to do is approach a couple of them in the next duplex south next year, and see if they will let me set up similar raised beds in their yard. (With their landlord's permission of course). Exchange their space, and their water, for my time, effort and money, with a split of the harvest.

I can't find the link to the blog, but there is a man who has done this over several years, matching up people who don't have space with those who do, until he has several dozen locations being gardened. I don't know if I can get that big but any start is a good one.

There is also a vacant lot down the street from me that has no house on it, I'm eyeing for a community garden. Have to find out who owns it, next time they mow the grass.

Bit by bit...


As for the fencing, yes so far the set up around the lettuce has prevented any of the local rabbits from getting to the plants. Its open so the squirrels could get in it, but though I've seen them on the trestle, they haven't eaten anything yet.

Something does seem to like the sweet potato plants, so next year I'll have to do a small cage to go around them until they get big enough a leaf or two munched doesn't strip the seedling bare. I did that with my moringa last year with good result.

I do know my big weakness is documentation. I need to keep better records. I'm not sure of when exactly I planted, nor the weather conditions, other than in general. I get the feeling that having the knowledge of what to do when Nature throws you a curve ball is going to be important.


As for rain barrels, I'm thinking of setting up a couple. I have a downspout right there at the corner of the garden I could divert.

A question, do either of you keep a layer of sand at the bottom of the barrel?

I've seen setups with it, the sand acting as a cheap and easily removed filter, so that things like shingle dust and dirt, from the roof, doesn't make its way into your garden. It might slow the flow rate when you drain the water but make for a safer end product.

Hey dtrammel,

Crappy clay soil plus the brick architecture in the photos says St. Louis to me; are you a third green wizard in the area? If so, perhaps you'll be amused to hear that I've been growing almost exactly the same things in my (smaller, not raised) backyard beds, with similar results. Lettuce did well earlier, but it's done; I've still got a huge bolting triffid-lettuce that needs to be pulled out before it starts walking. Carrots do lousy here (though I can't figure out why they would not work for you, with a raised bed of lighter soil). Potatoes do great, although for the varieties I have tried to date, taste and productivity are inversely correlated. I had some discarded "extras" sprout in a half-full compost bin and decided to let them grow out of curiosity, and they look a lot like those in your high-walled bed. I do rotate them religiously. I haven't been able to do a lot of composting or turn the compost regularly this year; one of the things I have been doing is planting beans in some patches to fix nitrogen. Last year I planted vetch on a couple of patches at the end of the season as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop; it came up this spring as a weed, but not an unmanageable one, and it's kind of good to know you could keep it going if you needed to.

I love your PVC trellises. We have nothing anywhere near so good and this year just avoided things that sprawl because of the difficulty of weeding under them (still trying hopelessly to get the grass out of that part of the yard). The waterers are very nice too.

David Trammel's picture

So its the end of May and I thought I'd update the progress.

First I was able to finish that last raised bed and get it ready for plants.

I was trying to figure out what I wanted to plant but in the end went with more potatoes. Had about a dozen and a half seed potatoes left, I over bought when first getting them. They were starting to get a little soft so I planted them and a few sweet pototes. I noticed today a few of them are popping out of the ground now.

If the others are any indication, I'll have alot of potatoes. Here's the earlier planted bed.

Yes, those are potato plants in front. A few are almost 18 inches tall. The carrots are doing well and it will be time to thin them out soon.

The bush beans against the fence isn't doing that well. The pole beans against the house are already up onto the trestle.

The asparagus is coming in nicely.

As are the tomatoes against the house.

We've had a wetter and cooler Spring than normal, and while the rain has been good for the potatoes and other roots, the tomatoes out on the big bed are still small. Hopefully once the warmth of June rolls around they'll start growing like mad. I've noticed a few of the cherry tomatoes from last year have sprouted along the fence that divides the property. Those liked to vine so I gave them a little compost and will get them tied up once they get bigger.

The ones in the potato bin are growing too.

I've had to add two more slats to the bin, and lots of dirt. Even then I think I may have been slow, I see most of them are starting to bloom. If I remember correctly once potatoes bloom they begin to set tubers. I had hoped to have the bin a few more slats high before that. I'll top it off today and keep going up.

Come harvest time I'll see if I have any potatoes above this line, and if not then come the Fall crop I'll try and keep the plants covered to a few inches from their tops.

BTW that Steva in the pots. My hardware store had it for the first time this year. Steva for those that don't know about it, is a plant out of South America that can be used as a substitute for sugar. A few leaves in your coffee cup sweetens it like a spoon of sugar (I Its hard to start from seeds but does well as a cutting. Its a perinial so if I can get it established I should be able to bring it in for the Winter.

Oh and I have a guest in the garden now.

A very small rabbit has taken up residence in my lillies. I have seen it out there from my window several times now, and so far it looks to be happily munching on the broad leaf weeds around the bed. Not seen any of my plants damamged.

I'm probably being a softie for leaving it out there and not taking it down the street a few blocks to live there. No doubt I will wake up one morning with no carrots and a 25 pound bunny knocking on my door wanting morning

David Trammel's picture

I must lead with some bad news. The baby rabbit has left.

It might have been the intense media coverage, or perhaps the email from Donald Trump to join him on his campaign, but my garden visitor has disappeared.


So more seriously, we've had alot of rain, but spaced with bits of sun and heat. The garden is doing well except for a few exception. The big stars are the potatoes.

The ones in the bin grew much faster than I anticipated, and I probably should have buried them more. With most of them budding, I'm going to let them play out and set potatoes. The Fall crop will get a much better watch and we'll see if I can get to the top of the bin with slats.

The ones in the beds are doing well too.

So well that I've had to stake them upright due to high winds recently. The carrots are on the south side of the property so they still get sun, even with the potatoes over shadowing them.

The beans along the fences, both the pole beans and the bush bean have been a bit of a disappointment. All of them are under a foot in height. Hopefully we'll get some long hot days and they will grow.

The new bed has been surprising, after just a few weeks almost everything has spouted and grown well. Squirrels got to one sweet potatoe seedling though.

That's my give away Stevia at the top, two pots with three plants each. Going to let them grow some then drop them off to a couple of friends. That will leave me with three pots of single plants to experiment with.

Drying my first batch of leaves now. As for the rest of the garden...

The pole beans against the house are three quarters of the way up the trestle, and the lettuce still hasn't bolted so I'm harvesting a salad or so a week off them now.

Seems like that bed doesn't get as much sun as I thought, perhaps 4-5 hours a day, which helps keep the heat and dryness down on them.

The asparagus is growing well, I see new shoots rising everytime I look.

Its very much a light and airy plant.

My biggest disappointment has been my "Parisian Carrots".

They are supposed to be a round radish type carrot, but like the cooler tempatures. Completely my fault, I seeded the bed then dug it up to lay the watering system. Must have gotten too many seeds too deep when I replaced the soil.

The radishes in the back are growing like wild, as is the dill, which has already flowered.

A pleasent surprise has been the reappearence of tomato plants from last year. You can see two next to the fence, with their stems in a red coffee container, so the landscaping guy doesn't weed eat them.

Over all I have 6 I'm letting grow out of the two dozen which sprouted. One is nearly a foot tall. Not sure what type they are, since I had three in the bed last year.

Guess we'll have to see...

Yeah! Your garden is really shaping up! I wouldn't shed any tears for the baby rabbit. I think your relationship would have grown strained after a while anyway if he had stayed.

I really like the nice straightforward design of the potato raised bed. I will copy it next year! One question: I've been told that, for row gardening at least, you should not plant potatoes in the same spot of land each should rotate so that they are planted in the same spot only once every three years. Evidently, it is a disease issue in the soil and includes tomatoes and peppers also. So how does that work in a raised bed? Should the soil be replaced each year to prevent disease? I have no idea if that would help or not. What do you think?

David Trammel's picture

Its not something I have considered but now that you point it out, yes some sort of rotation will need to be done in the future. I planted my potatoes and tomatoes together last year and had no trouble, but don't expect that to last. The nice thing is given the number of beds, a rotation plan is fairly easy to do, unlike someone with one or two large beds.

I'm probably safe this year and even next because of the amount of compose I'm adding.

This lawn is typical of most mid-west suburban, poor dirt compacted over decades of foot traffic and planted with nothing but grass so after winter reading I've come to the conclusion learning to improve my soil is number one on the "to-do" list. Add to it a high amount of clay.

The soil in the potato bin is a mix of 50/50 compost and Miracle Grow planting soil. I'd planned on saving it in several large trash cans for reuse. I'll have to read up more on potato diseases to see if it can be reused safely.

Being that I'm 53, and not as flexible as I once was, I'm leaning towards increasing the height of my beds by one brick. This has the two fold advantage of less bending over and a deeper soil base in the beds.

Also given the way the potatoes over shadow the carrots, I'm starting to think mono-culture in each bed, aka one plant type is a better approach. If not one type, then one in the bed and one on the fence. It risks destroying an entire crop if a disease or pest takes hold, but it would make rotation easier, and the plants would all be the same height for the sun.

I have an area next to the apartment, on the other side of the air conditioner which is big enough for a tiered herb garden. Perhaps with more pvc as a frame. The plus there is I can also set it up to take a cold frame for early spring and late fall plantings.

David Trammel's picture

Looks like its time for the annual invasion of the Japanese Beetles...

They seem to be going just after the pole beans so far. I dug out the two pheromone traps I used last year to discover the bottoms had cracked. They have a zip-lock seal on the bottom for removing the dead beetles. And you do have to, because the traps can get several inches of beetles in just a day or two. A bit of duct tape fixed that.

These traps consist of a plastic bag and cross piece. The plastic is too slick, and when a beetle lands on it, they drop into the bag.

Bad News, in checking the Web about alternates to the traps (what with the coming disruption of cheap imports) I find these things tend to attract more and more beetles. I've since re-located the traps away from the end of the garden, towards the place they are coming from across the street.

This is clearly something that I'll have to deal with long term. I'm currently researching on how to deal with them organically and will post what I find.

Now the update...

First tomatoes are appearing.

Most of the commercial ones are not doing that great. They are short and not growing well. The ones against the house with the trestle are doing great though the smallest just got clipped by something. Bitten off at the ground level. Luckily it was the smallest of the three.

They are almost to the window, or about 2/3rds of the way to the top, with plenty of blooms.

The radishes have started going to bloom. I don't think I'll plant as many next year. I did it because my sister wanted fresh radishes, but she isn't eating many.

The lettuce is starting to taste a bit tart, and I expect its trying to bolt. Still getting salads out of it, just have to use a bit more

I'm cutting off a good supply of the Stevia leaves and drying them in the oven. Its gas so a pilot light stays on, and seems to do the trick for long term drying, keeping the oven a nice toasty warmth. I'm hitting the estate sales and keeping my eye out for one of those tea leave strainers. Once I get some leaves dried well I'll see how much it takes to sweeten a cup of coffee.

Even though they are getting snacked on by the Japanese Beetles, the pole bean next to the house are rocking.

They have filled the trestle and after advice in another thread on topping plants, I've begun winding the few tops that are trying for the roof, back down and into the vines. Lots of blooms so I'm hoping for a good harvest there.

Speaking of harvest...

I keep expecting the potatoes in the bin to begin going brown, but they just keep going strong. I'm starting to think I'll be amazed when I crack open the bin later and harvest the result.

The ones planted in the horizontal bed, which were planted around the same time have started to die off and brown. I should be able to begin harvesting them in a month or so.

And the later bed has just started to bloom.

I'm rethinking planting potatoes and sweet potatoes together. The later are viney and low to the ground, unlike potatoes which seem to get some height. I'll have to look at comparative height more in considering which plants to grow in the same bed.

Overall, a nice start to the hot times of Summer.

Great inspiration for anyone with just a small space available. Good job!!

Really nice! You're doing a great job in a small space. Appreciate you sharing all that you've accomplished. It is an inspiration. Thanks!

Great use of your space! And as you said, no excuses...your garden is proof that with planning and smarts, even a small space can be a workable garden. Are you keeping track of yields? It would be interesting to see just how much you can get out of this duplex garden. Could you post in the fall with your yields? And any other learnings throughout the summer?

Again, bravo!

David Trammel's picture

I will definitely keep everyone updated on the garden as the year progresses but as for yields, well I'm a bit of a "nibbler" where it comes to my garden last year. I've got one of those small steamers which is the best appliance I ever had, so popping out to garden and harvesting a dozen or so fresh carrots and adding them to the other vegetables I picked up at the store was a pretty common

I am trying a few experiments this year. The last bed is filled with potatoes, I bought too many seed potatoes and didn't have the heart to just pitch the remainder, plus a few sweet potatoes.

I decided I'd only deep water this bed.


Well surface watering wastes alot of water and if water is going to get harder to get in the coming years, and a rain barrel the way you garden, then seeing if you can grow vegetables on less water seemed to be a useful experiment.

I keep everyone informed of my progress.

David Trammel's picture

Thanks for the kind word Darius and Julie.

I do hope my picture inspire others. I know on the Archdruid Report there were a sizable portion of comments from people who said they were stuck in situations that wouldn't let them make preparations for a down turn.

You have to break it down and make small steps and you'll make a lot of mistakes along the way.

I mentioned planting asparagus without doing any research but that wasn't the only thing I did wrong or had just die on me.

-Planted my leafy vegetables too late, so most of them immediately bolted (set flowers and went to seed). Got some leafs for salads but not many left after the rabbits went thru them.

-Planted the stuff that needed well drained soil under the roof edge, where the gutters leaked when ever it rained and flooded the bed.

-Didn't top the tomatoes when they got tall but let them continue growing so I had tons of green tomatoes and only some that went ripe.

-Didn't finish one bed because I just never got around to it.

-Killed my pumpkin with over watering.

-Put to many types of plants in the ground.


Though I had a few successes.

-The carrots did very well with minimal care, as did the potatoes.

-Kept the beans growing even in the heat for a half way decent harvest.

-Learned a heck of alot about soil and about myself as a gardener.


I guess the point is that its ok to fail as long as you learn from it.

As much as we all dread the collapse happening tomorrow, its probably going to happen slowly and in the long tomorrow, so get started and don't make excuses.

And for those in apartments that don't have yards or areas you can grow on....MOVE when the lease is up.