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Growing Vegetables in Close Quarters

Some vegetables grow well when grown close together, allowing for maximum use of space in the vegetable garden.

From the March 2010 issue of Horticulture

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The traditional vegetable garden has lines of single plants in long, straight rows. Depending on what is being grown, there are spaces between the plants within the rows anywhere from an inch to a foot or more. Between the rows, spacing varies from several inches to a couple of feet.

If you add up all that empty space, you will find that most of your garden soil goes unused. It sits there growing nothing but weeds and allowing soil moisture to evaporate, all because of the long-held theories that plants benefit from lots of breathing room and that wide spacing allows the gardener to see and remove any weeds that emerge.

Many gardeners and small commercial growers have found a space-saving alternative to long single rows: broad, dense bands of vegetables growing shoulder to shoulder. In a 30-inch-wide bed, you can fit as many as 12 rows planted a little more than 2 inches apart. You can also broadcast seeds, once you have mastered the knack of even distribution.

When you pack vegetables tightly into a bed, it is extra important to pay attention to soil fertility and texture. Remember that a greater number of plants will be feeding from the soil. Add what a soil test recommends, plus a good two inches of finely screened compost, scratching it lightly into the top couple of inches of soil. The larger yield from your garden will more than compensate for this bit of extra attention.

Veggies to Grow Closely

True, certain crops demand air movement, particularly those that suffer from mildew diseases. But some vegetables are happy to grow closer together, and in fact benefit from it. If the soil is good—properly amended with compost and any necessary nutrients—there is no reason to give plants more space than they need.

Relatively small, fast-growing annual vegetables thrive in what looks like crowded conditions. Dense planting is well suited to salad vegetables. The leaves of greens grown for mesclun rapidly cover the narrow spaces between rows, conserving soil moisture and shading out weeds. The band of vegetables covers almost the entire width of the bed. You can alternate rows of various lettuces, say, with mache (corn salad) or some Asian vegetables, such as mizuna and tatsoi. If you do this, sow seeds of the Asian vegetables four or five days before the lettuce; they grow faster, and if you plant everything at the same time they will overpower the lettuces.

If each row contains a variety that is different in shape, color and texture, harvesting a wide band for a beautiful salad is quick and easy. Gently grasp the leaves, use a sharp knife and cut a small bunch. Ideally, drop the leaves into ice water to prolong their freshness. If you cut just above the growing crown of the plant, many lettuce varieties will regrow to give you a second and even a third harvest. This technique is called cut-and-come-again.

There are some large vegetables that need more space, and for these seed packet instructions on spacing should be followed. Examples are the cabbage and squash families, including brussels sprout, kale, cabbage, zucchini, cucumber and others of that ilk. Because it likes to spread its leaves, I plant spinach in rows five inches apart and still end up with a soil-covering band of dark green leaves.

Sowing Seeds

Sowing seeds closely takes a bit of practice, or some special tools. You can get the hang of doing it by hand by spreading a smooth cloth, such as a bed sheet, over a large table. Take a handful of seeds and try to scatter them as if you were sowing them in the soil. Some people like to work a few inches above the surface, while others hold the seeds a foot or more high, letting them float down like rain (which doesn’t work well in windy conditions!). Use a piece of card to gather the seeds back together, then try again. The objective is to have the seeds land a little less than an inch apart. Avoid making clumps; the seedlings will choke each other as they grow.

My favorite seed-sowing tool is the EarthWay Precision Garden Seeder, which costs about $100. I have had one for more than 20 years, and it is still in perfect condition. I have 11 seed plates for it, each of which fits seeds of a particular size. The seeder makes an adjustable-depth furrow, spaces seeds evenly, covers them and firms the soil.

I have grown five acres of vegetables with the EarthWay seeder as my only tool for that job. It works just as well in a small garden. I stretch a string to give me a straight row, then walk the seeder down the line. You’ll benefit from straight rows when cultivating later on, and when planting in dense bands you need to keep the rows parallel to each other. The Earthway seeder has an adjustable marker that indicates where the next row should go.

For extremely precise bands of vegetables, Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells a six-row seeder that can place rows as close as two-and-a-quarter inches apart, in one pass. It is not cheap, and it requires an almost perfect seedbed, but it does the job really well. You can fill the six little seed hoppers with one or several types of seed. To see the results, take a look at the photographs in Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2009).

In every inch of bare soil I see an opportunity. If nothing is growing there, it is wasted space. I aim to grow a crop, harvest it, prepare the soil again and replant it with something else. And at the end of the regular growing season in my Zone 7 garden, the last crop comes out and a winter cover crop goes down—in a dense band.

Read more about small-space vegetable gardening