Gardening for big flavor in a small space

When I first moved to Charleston seven years ago to take the job as a WVU agriculture extension agent, I had high hopes of finding a small house outside the city with enough land for a small farm or at the very least a large garden.

Despite having the first-time homebuyers tax credit at my fingertips, my hopes were dashed when everything in my price range was just this side of a dilapidated shack. Nothing I could afford would pass a mortgage inspection without lots of work.

In the end, I traded my dream for convenience and a soon-expiring tax credit and found a small house on a small lot just four blocks from the extension office in Kanawha City. I’ve been there ever since.

And by small, I mean small: I live in a 1920s kit home that was originally part of the housing for one of the glass companies, wedged in a “shotgun lot” measuring just 25 feet wide and 120 feet deep. Add to the house a patio and storage building, and there isn’t a lot of space to garden.

I grew up on a farm, where my parents had a large garden (still do), and my grandfather had a truck farm. We had large fields with rows and rows of corn, beans, tomatoes and more, with the rows spaced about three feet apart. Such traditional methods of gardening take lots of space, something at a premium in my tiny lot.

Still wanting the satisfaction of a bountiful harvest in my new home, I turned to raised bed gardening and intensive plant spacings to grow more food in a smaller space.

One of the beautiful things about gardening in raised beds is eliminating some of those wide walking rows you have in a traditional in-ground garden. You are able to plant much closer together in raised beds.

There are several techniques put there for this intensive spacing. The most popular among home gardeners is called square foot gardening.

The square foot gardening method was developed by a man named Mel Bartholomew and popularized in his book simply titled “Square Foot Gardening,” originally published in 1981. The current edition of the book is called “All New Square Foot Gardening, 2nd edition.” Bartholomew, who I had the pleasure to meet one year at the West Virginia Master Gardener Conference, passed away on April 28 at the age of 84. He leaves behind a legacy that will change the way many people garden for years to come.

The basic premise is simple enough. Eliminate the rows between plantings and just use the in-row plant spacing for all directions within a single, square-foot area. For example, if the seed packet says to sow the seeds three inches apart in rows that are three feet apart, just ignore the three feet part and space all of the plants three inches apart within a one-foot-by-one-foot space. You can actually put 16 plants in a square foot if they have a three-inch spacing. This is adequate for small crops such as radishes and carrots.

If the spacing is four inches, you can get nine plants per square foot. This works for beans, beets, turnips and more. Six-inch spacing equals four per square foot (greens, herbs, corn) and so on and so forth.

Some plants, such as tomatoes take more than one square, but you can plant short stuff around them to take advantage of space.

There are several ways to lay out this spacing, from using grids to just eyeballing it. I got crafty one day and picked up square foot vinyl tile at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I drilled large holes in the tile to develop planting templates for each spacing. I just lay the tile on the ground, drop seeds in (or mark planting spaces) and plant. It is beyond convenient.

The big fallacy for small space gardening is that you should opt for compact, bushing varieties. If given the option, you want plants that are long and vining and put them on a trellis to take advantage of the air space above the garden. Some things, like zucchini, are big bushy plants that don’t have vining varieties. I decided early on to ban zucchini from my garden since they are space hogs. Plus, everyone else is growing them, so they are easy to come by.

There are some benefits to close spacing, including reduced weeds and soil shading that reduces water loss. One of the big issues with close spacing is disease pressure. Lots of the same plant in one area increases the likelihood of diseases. If you follow square-foot gardening to the letter, you have no two side-by-side squares with the same plant. To increase efficiency, I use a hybrid model were I use the square-foot spacing but plant in larger groups. I have so few plants that it usually doesn’t pose a problem.

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