Over at the blog called Our Engineered Garden, EG has a post up about setting up his trellises. Growing big, climbing plants up trellises is one way to get more food from a small garden space.
His post made me think a bit about why I don’t use more trellises in my own small garden, and what it mostly comes down to is height. I am not at all tall. Growing things up trellises, where I can’t reach them to take care of the plants and harvest the produce, just isn’t practical for me. For taller people, trellises make a lot more sense. It turns out that EG is well over six feet tall.
My strategies for maximizing production have relied more on using the gaps between plants on the ground. As I plan where in the garden to plant each crop, I consider each plant’s eventual height and sprawl. Plants that will spread across the ground, like sweet potato vines, can be planted next to a 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 other 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.
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), but that doesn’t take much time.
Another strategy is using the close, grid-like spacing described in books like Mel Bartholemew’s “Square Foot Gardening” and John Jeavon’s “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.” I do a lot of this. When bush beans are well-grown and spaced as in this strategy, they are a beautiful sight.
Yet another strategy I use is intercropping, which means pretty much what it looks like it means: crops “in between.” One way to intercrop is to plant root crops in spaces between leafy crops. An example would be carrots interplanted with lettuces. When intercropping, the standard planting distances can be reduced in ways that allow the garden to produce a little more food from one patch of soil. The lettuces could be planted at the usual distances (6-8 inches apart) but in the open spaces, carrots could be sown.
When one crop produces mostly above ground and the other mostly below ground, competition for space is greatly reduced.
The two crops should be genetically different enough that disease and pest problems are also reduced. For example, even though chard and beets don’t compete for exactly the same space (one produces a big bit of its harvest-able food below-ground, one produces all the food above-ground) they are too similar genetically for intercropping to be a good idea.
Before the recent big rains started, I planted some seeds outside, and I set them out as intercropped rows in the bed nearest the road. The rows alternate leafy veggies (lettuces, mustard, chard) with root veggies (carrots, beets, radishes).
If I am lucky, the seeds are all still there, rather than having been washed away. In another week or so, I will know. I did set them out as homemade seed tapes, which should have helped keep the seeds in place. Amazingly, I have a contingency plan in place! (Some years I am more organized than in other years.) If not all the seeds come up, I can replace some with plants I’ve started in a seed-tray in the house. Those, mostly, have begun to emerge.