In these days of “anything edible will sell,” you’ll often find small plastic planters filled with a medley of colorful and artfully arranged lettuce seedlings at garden centers and grocery stores. These planters are roughly the size of large salad bowls (and look very healthy and delicious), but even a half-hearted stab at logic reveals the utter rip-off they are. Usually priced between $10 and $20, they are unlikely to produce enough lettuce to fill a large salad bowl before the densely packed greens become overgrown and bitter. Why not spend your money at the farmers’ market and come home with a week’s worth of salad fixings instead?

These “salad bowl” planters are little more than a cute symbol of urban hipness, but they beg a few questions: If I have only one square foot of sunny real estate on my apartment windowsill, what edibles are actually worth planting? What if I have 10 square feet on a sunny balcony? A four-by-eight-foot plot on the roof of my building or in a community garden down the street? What do I plant to maximize my harvest?

One Square Foot

At window-box scale, there’s really only one reasonable option for producing a worthwhile harvest: herbs. You can easily stuff four or five of your favorite herbs into a tiny planter. And, because you’ll only be harvesting a pinch of this or a pinch of that at a time, you won’t have to kill the plants to enjoy them. Try one planter with a mix of annual herbs (such as basil, cilantro, dill and parsley) and one with longer-lasting perennials (such as sage, thyme, chives, rosemary, oregano and mint).

10 Square Feet

At this scale, there are a few options. Planted entirely in greens, a 10-square-foot plot could realistically produce a few salads a week. Alternatively, you could divide the space among three vegetable plants that are large and abundant enough to produce a meaningful harvest from a single specimen: tomato, zucchini and cucumber. Or go hog wild with berries and plant one blueberry bush and three canes each of blackberries and raspberries. It will take a couple of years before they start producing substantial crops, but eventually you’ll harvest at least a few pints of berries each week throughout the summer.

32 Square Feet  

A standard four-by-eight-foot garden bed won’t feed your family, but it will afford you a range of growing options. One simple planting plan is to divide it into thirds — just right for the three 10-square-foot scenarios above, with space left over at one end for a selection of annual and perennial herbs. Alternatively, you could plant a themed garden, such as a salad garden, and plant a bit of everything you like to toss in a salad, from arugula and frisée lettuce to carrots and bell peppers. You could also focus on root crops, such as potatoes, radishes, beets and turnips, or fill it with edible vines, trellised beans, peas and cucumbers vertically, with winter squash snaking around them on the ground.