I give my grandfather a lot of credit when it comes to teaching me the craft of gardening. But he wasn’t right about everything. Or, at least, not all of his techniques were the most productive. Like grandfather demonstrated year in and year out, I started off planting vegetables in neat-lined rows, one plant following the other. I did this for everything: carrots, beets, lettuce, corn, even squash and pumpkins. It was just the way he did it and always had.
Circumstance eventually changed my thinking. Given a tiny front yard, I began spacing plants together in enclosed, raised beds. As long as I could reach the center of the beds, everything was fine.
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Then, sometime in the 1980s, I discovered Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening (not being a television watcher in those days, I didn’t see the PBS series). What I took from it was a new, contained way to plan a garden that did away with the row method and thus decreased walkways between the rows where the soil became compacted. It also involved an intensive way to build soil contained within those squares and generous mulching. As a management technique — something that my idea of gardening sorely needed — it helped me organize the garden in a way that made sense to both me and, I assume, my plants.
Now there’s a lot more to intensive gardening than I’ve described here and I recommend that you grab the latest copy of Bartholomew’s book if you haven’t already — the multiple copies at my local library always seem to be checked out — and explore all of the good advice it carries.
When I was granted a small plot in a landlady’s yard, the square foot plan served perfectly. I had four squares with a + – shaped walk between them. I also dug a trench in which to grow tomatoes. The trench was deep and dug past the top soil. When I put my tomato starts out in the spring, I could stick them deeply in the ground just the way my grandfather had taught me (you don’t need me to tell you that deeply planted tomato plants will develop roots along the buried part of its stem.
Then, just in time for my new, larger garden plot, came Edward C. Smith‘s book The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. Smith’s gardening how-to also did away with single-row planting. His technique involved planting vegetables in rows as wide as you could reach apart. He used less space for walk ways, where the soil would be compacted, and more for growing. The other major factor involved making beds deep, like those tomato trenches, by digging down through the topsoil and also heaping soil in the growing areas.
This last bit made for more accommodating soil for plant roots. Smith wanted plant roots to have all the space they might need, both vertically and horizontally. Too often, he suggested, single row planting did not pay enough attention to depth, thus cheating your vegetables of the moisture and nutrients to be gained by deep and spreading roots. His great example involved carrot roots. Often we think we don’t need to have loose, friable soil much deeper than the actual carrot needs. Allowing its fine roots to go more deeply and spread will result in more vigorous growth. And sure enough, as we found out, he was right.
Smith’s wide row techniques also lets you get the most from your soil amendments and compost. It also helps control moisture, something so important to today’s gardens. And yes, Smith made extensive use of mulch.
There’s a lot more to Smith’s methods than what I just mentioned. He called his system “WORD,” an acronym for wide rows, organic methods, raised beds, and deep soil. Again, I urge you to check out his book. There’s a great section on composting and he gives detailed information, especially regarding minimum spacing, for just about any vegetable you’re likely to grow. That part about organic practice? It goes without saying.
Over the year’s I’ve adapted what I gained from these two books for my own uses. But the principles from each remain the same. It’s all part of intensive vegetable gardening — getting the most from your available space — while conserving soil resources and water. As you fine tune your garden plans this strange and wonderful winter, consider what you can do to use space more efficiently. Then let us know. Even my grandfather wasn’t so set in his ways that he couldn’t learn a new trick or two. And I’m always looking for new inspiration.
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