Most gardeners want to get the most food they can out of their vegetable gardens, even when their gardening spaces are small. This post gives a quick look at four strategies gardeners can use to reach that goal.
Intensive spacing: Instead of leaving wide aisles between rows of crops like you see on farms, that would have allowed room for walking and big equipment like rototillers, this method collapses those aisles. The rows of crops end up being closely spaced, usually as close between rows as the plants are spaced apart within rows. To make activities like weeding and harvesting possible, the garden beds are no more than four feet across, so a gardener can reach across those close-together rows into the center of the bed. This strategy is fairly well-known here in the U.S.
The close, grid-like spacing that results from dramatically reducing the width of the aisles is described in books like Mel Bartholemew’s Square Foot Gardening and John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine. It is also described as part of the wide-row gardening in Dick Raymond’s Joy of Gardening. I use intensive spacing. When bush beans are well-grown and spaced as in this strategy, they are a beautiful sight.
Trellises: Growing vining plants up trellises is another way to get more food from a small garden space. If the vines are on trellises, you will have more room on the ground to plant other crops. Pole beans and cucumbers, in particular, are easier to harvest when the vines are on trellises, which is another good reason to try growing “up”. At some of our local community gardens, where each gardener is required to keep his or her crops inside an allotted growing space, the sweet potato vines are trained up trellises, too, to keep the vines from overflowing the beds.
If you are a short person, like me, make sure your trellises are not so tall that you cannot easily harvest your crops. Also, placement of the trellises needs to be planned in a way that keeps them from casting shade on other crops in your garden, unless, of course, you NEED shade in a certain location. Then, place the trellis in a way that puts shade where and when you need it.
Intercropping: This strategy means pretty much what it sounds like: some crops are planted in the spaces between other crops. One way to use this strategy is to plant root crops in spaces between leafy crops. When one crop produces mostly above ground and the other mostly below ground, competition for space is reduced.
An example would be lettuces interplanted with radishes. In this example, the lettuces can be planted at the usual distances (6-8 inches apart), but in the open spaces, radishes would be sown. The seeds can be planted at the same time, but the radishes will be ready to harvest before the lettuces are big enough to fill those spaces in-between. This double-planting of the space allows the garden to produce a little more food from one patch of soil.
When using this strategy, the two crops we choose should be in different plant families so that disease and pest problems are not shared. For example, even though Swiss chard is a leaf crop and beets are considered a root crop, they are in the same plant family and have many of the same needs and the same problems. These crops are too closely related for intercropping them together to be a good idea.
For this strategy, possible pairs of crops to use in a Southern garden are spinach/radishes, eggplant/bush beans, tomatoes/nasturtiums, tomatoes/basil. If eggplant, tomato, or another long-time-to-maturity vegetable is part of your intercropping, be sure to set it into the garden as a transplant rather than as a seed, to give it a head-start on the faster-maturing crop you’ve paired it with.
Layering by height: Another strategy for maximizing production relies on the gaps between plants on the ground in a different way than intercropping does. As I plan where in the garden to plant each crop, I consider each plant’s eventual height and sprawl. Plants that can spread across the ground, like sweet potato vines, can be planted next to a tall crop that uses less ground space and more air space, like okra, corn, or peppers. The vines can then be aimed toward the bare ground under the taller crop, where they act like a mulch over that ground, shading out weeds. This kind of planning lets me have sweet potatoes in a small garden, without trellises that might shade other crops in my garden.
When the sprawling crop is one that uses tendrils to climb, like in cucumbers, squashes, and melons, some extra effort is needed to keep these from climbing up the taller plants, and possibly pulling them over. Shifting the growing tips of your vines away from the taller plants that they will try to climb doesn’t take much time, but it does require that the gardener pays attention.