Many people who think of a vegetable garden think of a plowed-up patch with rows of plants spread out. While this has been the setup for centuries, gardens these days are taking on a whole new dimension.
Unless someone is growing a huge amount of produce, my recommendation is to use more intensive methods to grow more in less space. I, for one, have a very limited gardening space. I make do with six 4- by 4-foot raised beds — overall that’s 96 square feet of space — for my vegetables.
Intensive garden practices can greatly increase the amount of food you can grow in a limited space. Think of it as making the most of your garden space. Even if you have acres of property, there can be big benefits to reducing the size of your garden and adopting intensive gardening practices.
Let’s take carrots, for example. Carrots should be spaced 3 inches apart. If I were to plant a single row of carrots, it would take a row 24 feet long to grow the same amount that I could grow by planting them in a block each spaced exactly 3 inches apart. Keep in mind that a traditional garden has walkways of 2 to 3 feet between each row — that’s a lot of empty space.
First, a smaller garden means less labor. The more garden space you have, the more weeds you have to pull and the more soil there is to maintain. Plus, when plants are spaced closer together, they shade out weeds and keep them from growing. You can also reduce or eliminate the need for tilling the soil by using less space or growing in raised beds.
(Speaking of tilling — did you know that tilling really destroys good soil structure and can lead to lots of problems like soil runoff and compaction? Plus, in large gardens where the whole plot is tilled, walking between rows really compacts the soil.)
Second, you can really reduce the inputs you have for the garden — namely, soil amendments and fertilizers. Rather than having a large area of soil to maintain, a smaller garden means you can use less in the way of fertilizer, lime, compost and more.
As an example, a student in one of my Master Gardener classes asked me to help her figure out how much lime to use to amend her vegetable garden. When we calculated that she had about 1,800 square feet of garden (which sounds like a big space, but that would only be a 30- by 60-foot plot), we realized that she would need to apply almost 1,000 pounds (that’s right — 1,000!) of lime to her garden.
Most of that lime will be used on empty space like walkways between rows. It would take much less in a more condensed area.
The first rule of thumb when growing more food in less space is to shrink the size of your garden plot. You can do this a number of ways.
The most common these days is raised beds, which have the added benefits of reducing bending over to garden and warming the soil earlier in the spring.
But you can also grow individual beds in the ground with walkways between them. This is the technique employed by Thomas Jefferson in his terrace garden. He had plowed up beds separated by grass walkways (though the individual beds were bigger than what I would suggest for home gardeners).
In his book “Weedless Gardening,” author Lee Reich talks about his method of using beds with wood-chip mulch between them to suppress weeds. He still has a large garden, but the individual beds and mulched walkways really cuts down on weeds and labor through the year.
After you have reduced your garden size, the next step is to look at spacing. With conventional row gardening, you often lose 2 to 3 feet between rows to the walkways. Smaller beds or raised beds put the walkways between the beds and eliminates the need to have a walkway between each row, allowing you to plant in blocks rather than rows.
There are a few different methods to this, but the most common is called square foot gardening, a method developed by author Mel Bartholomew and outlined in his book “All New Square Foot Gardening.” The premise is that you plant your crops in square-foot sections based on plant spacing. Since you can plant carrots 3 inches apart, you can fit 16 of them in a square foot. You can fit nine snap bean plants, four lettuce plants or one broccoli, and so on and so on.
I will also suggest looking at crops that are space hogs and eliminating or limiting them in the garden. Zucchini, for example is a huge plant. If you are going by the square-foot method, it takes 9 square feet to grow one plant. If you have a common 4- by 8-foot bed, that’s over a quarter of your bed for one plant (plus, everyone else is growing zucchini, so why not skip it and trade other produce for zucchini from your neighbor?). Corn is also a large plant that produces little. And small spaces really don’t lend themselves to good pollination of the crop.
Making use of vertical space is also key — your space on the ground is limited, so growing stuff up can help give you more room.
It may seem like planting bush varieties of plants would save space over their traditional vining counterparts — for example, you can get a “space saving” cucumber called Bushmaster that grows in a compact bush — but you can actually save space in the garden by growing a vining variety of cucumber and using a trellis to grow it up.
It will take several feet of space to grow one bush-type cucumber in the garden, but you can get several (about six) vining varieties in one square foot if you run them up on a pole or trellis.
You’ll also want to make good use of the space around larger plants. This method is called intercropping and makes sure that you use all of the available space in the garden.
For example, there’s lots of space around a tomato plant (you really don’t want them too close together). You can fill in that space by growing a low-growing plant like lettuce or radishes, especially when the plant is young and doesn’t take up much space. Plus, the shade it produces when it is older can help extend the life of cool-season crops like lettuce.
Growing pole beans? Use an angled lattice lean-to or tepee to grow them and sow some of those crops underneath to save space and keep them cool.