Tiny yards, tiny houses, tiny garden beds. Over the last few decades, “tiny” has gotten big.
This is especially true in gardening. Even when I was growing up and learning how to garden, I learned that wide garden spacing was the “old way” to do things and was an artifact of commercial farming and tractor usage. See, if you had tighter spacing, a tractor couldn’t get through the field. Wide spacing in your garden is just a waste of space – after all, didn’t John Jeavons and Mel Bartholomew prove that you could grow tons of food in really tiny spaces?
Great-Grandpa’s methods went out with gas lights and top hats, don’t you know? But, maybe there’s more to know that we think. Today we’ll reconsider the current “common wisdom” on intensive gardening. Despite the mighty army of tiny raised-bed aficionados, mthere are good reasons to adopt wider spacing andlarger garden plots.
Some years ago I was getting ready to plant corn in a sandy, unirrigated field near Ocala, carefully marking out lines at 18” apart. As I did so, the neighbor stopped by to see what I was doing. He was an old farmer with a cowboy hat and a collection of aged tractors.
“What are you plantin’?” he asked.
“Field corn,” I replied. I knew this farmer grew corn without irrigation, so I asked, “am I doing it right?”
He shook his head. “Too close.”
“Too close?” I said. “It’s at 18”!”
“Three foot,” he said.
“I need to plant my rows that far apart?” I asked, incredulous.
“Three foot,” he replied.
I did what he said. And that corn grew and yielded a crop without irrigation. It was like magic to me. I had always grown plants close together in the modern, fashionable way… and had to water them all the time to get a harvest. When you plant your crops at wider spacing, the roots can take advantage of the limited water in the soil and sometimes grow without any extra irrigation at all.
Crops are pretty good at getting what they need from the soil when competition is suppressed and they have room to spread out. Watering an intensive garden bed twice a day to keep it from wilting is common, yet a widely spaced garden might go three days on one good soaking.
If you’ve ever grown a tightly-spaced little garden bed, you know how time-consuming weeding can be. It’s a job to be done by hand, not by hoe. When you utilize wider spacing in your garden, you can use a hoe without crouching down and hand weeding. Extra space around the plants makes your job easier.
One of my favorite weeding tools is the Planet Whizbang wheel hoe. It’s a re-creation and re-invention of a classic gardening implement and it saves me a ton of time. If I plant in rows with adequate spacing, I just walk in between the rows with my wheel hoe and decapitate all the weeds in a couple of minutes, then do a little cleanup work with my standard garden hoe right around the crops themselves. No crouching required.
Though we hear a lot about tiny spaces and HUGE yields, it can actually take more inputs to grow an intensive garden bed than a widely spaced traditional garden.
When you pack a bunch of plants together, they fight for water, nutrition and sunlight. Since I focus a lot of my gardening on growing the most of food for the least amount of work, I don’t like having to baby plants. I’d rather let them take care of themselves – and they can do that better when they have room to spread out without much leaf and root competition.
I’ve seen this first hand and you probably have as well. Once year I grew a big patch of turnips by broadcasting seed across a tilled area. The turnips in the middle where the seed was thickest grew leaves but not a lot of roots, whereas the turnips in the thinly seeded areas grew fat rapidly. As I pulled turnips, the remaining roots got some breathing room and started to fatten up as well. With many crops you won’t be that lucky and if you overplant an area, you’ll get next to nothing.
Think about it: you’re better off planting six tomato plants with lots of room than packing in a tomato seedling every six inches.
As you plant your gardens this year, I recommend you set aside some of your land and give wider spacing a try. If it worked for the settlers – who didn’t have fancy amendments and running water yet fed themselves from their gardens – it will work for you.
David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. Find new inspiration every weekday at his popular gardening website TheSurvivalGardener.com and subscribe to his YouTube channel for lots of entertaining videos.
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