I recently wrote about how I often do things in the garden just because that’s how I’ve always done them. For example, I always plant all my seeds and seedlings in one big push after the last frost date. That’s what my mom always did, and I learned how to garden by working alongside her. And so, I was surprised when a local friend told me that he planted peas about six weeks prior to the last frost date. He explained that he followed the directions on the back of the seed packet, which said to plant as soon as the soil was workable. Go figure. People actually read seed packages?
Maybe I need to re-evaluate my gardening methods.
There’s another thing I do just because that’s the way I’ve always done it: Plant my vegetables in rows. And you know what? I have raised beds. Rows aren’t the best choice for any home vegetable garden, and they certainly aren’t the logical choice for raised beds.
Yep, you read that correctly. Row cropping is a bad idea for home gardeners. Think about it:
- Traditionally, there is a path on each side of every row to allow space to tend to the plants. Simply put, rows waste valuable space.
- When you walk on the garden, the soil gets compacted. Soil compaction can cause a number of issues, such as:
- decreasing water infiltration.
- decreasing air within the soil (and roots need air to breathe).
- making it difficult for roots to penetrate the soil and grow.
- decreasing the amount of soil roots can reach in their quest for nutrients.
- decreasing yields.
- Unless drip lines are carefully rigged, irrigation water may be wasted on the space between rows.
There are actually a number of alternatives to row cropping, but they all boil down to one idea: intensive gardening, which eliminates wasted space and maximizes the space you do use. Plants grouped closely together create shade for each other and reduce water evaporation, essentially creating their own little microclimates. Plants grouped closely together also discourage weed growth.
1. Raised beds
By their nature, raised beds get around the issues of wasted space in the pathways and soil compaction. But, if you’re still planting rows in raised beds — like I am — you’re missing out on the benefits of intensive gardening. Raised beds are best used in tandem with square foot gardening, hexagonal spacing, and vertical planting, all explained further below.
2. Square foot gardening
In 1981, Mel Bartholomew revolutionized the idea of intensive gardening with his book Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work. Square foot gardening is exactly what it sounds like: creating a large grid of 12-inch-by-12-inch squares and planting within each square.
Planning is necessary when gardening by the square foot. Larger plants like tomatoes and potatoes should be planted one per square foot, while smaller vegetables like radishes could be planted at a rate of 16 per square foot. Spacing in intensive gardening is different from the spacing recommended on seed packets, which is determined for row cropping.
A little online research will turn up sites that provide guidelines for intensive spacing. Also, care needs to be taken in regards to which vegetables are situated next to each other. Short sun-loving plants shouldn’t be placed next to plants that will grow tall and bushy and create shade. And this is a great time to take companion planting into consideration as well.
3. Hexagonal spacing
Similar to square-foot gardening, hexagonal spacing maximizes space even further. Suppose someone challenged you to fit as many round dinner plates on a kitchen table as possible. Lining up all those round plates in a grid pattern produces a lot of wasted space. You can get more plates on the table if you shift every second row over just a bit so that rows are staggered. Now envision this same scenario with plants like cabbages, tomatoes or eggplants. That’s hexagonal spacing in the garden. It’s absolutely OK for the leaves of the plants to touch when planted in this way, and indeed it is ideal that they touch. Planting densely helps minimize evaporation and conserve water. It also keeps the ground shaded and cooler, and discourages weed growth.
4. Vertical gardening
Vertical gardening is again exactly what it sounds like: making use of vertical growing space by using trellising systems. Plants with vines that sprawl and take up a lot of space are ideal for vertical gardening. Cucumbers, melons, squash, peas and pole beans all can be grown vertically. Some plants are natural climbers and will grab onto any support system they can find. Others need to be trained and/or tied. And if the fruit grows large and heavy, it will need to be supported so that it doesn’t drop off the vine. The toe ends of old pantyhose work perfectly for this purpose.
Of course, plants grown in this way will cast shade. If you’re integrating vertical gardening with either square-foot gardening or hexagonal spacing, take care where you place your trellising system and which plants you plant nearby the climbers.
Regardless of which intensive gardening method you use, remember to fertilize! All those plants will be sucking up every nutrient they can find in your soil. It’s important to replenish the soil by fertilizing regularly.
Do you use any intensive gardening systems? If so, share your tips in the section below:
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