Shazam! All of a sudden everyone is thinking about growing a vegetable garden. Essentials disappearing from the local supermarket is, at best, a wake-up call. But you also may be thinking you have no plot, because don’t you need, like, an acre of space? The answer is, no, you don’t. You can go small and intense. French intensive, square foot, interplanting, vertical, wide row, gardening by the yard, and succession planting are all names for intensive gardening.
The purpose of intensive gardens is to harvest the most produce from a limited space. These spaces usually are small blocks or raised beds, compared to traditional gardens which consist of long, single rows that are widely spaced. Much of the traditional garden area is taken up by that space between the rows.
An intensive garden minimizes wasted space, but there is a limit on how tight you can plant. When you go beyond certain limits, you open the door to disease and insects.
Intensive gardens concentrate efforts to create better yields with less labor. And fewer pathways, along with closely spaced plants often mean less weeding. Here’s how to start your mini plot.
Prep the soil
Soil preparation is the key to successful intensive gardening. Plants must have adequate nutrients and water to grow together so closely. Providing fertilizers and irrigation helps, but there’s no substitute for deep, fertile soil that is high in organic matter — about 3% to 5% would probably give you that proverbial green thumb.
Humus-rich soil will hold extra nutrients, and existing elements locked up in the soil are released by the actions of earthworms, microorganisms and humic acids. Nurseries and garden centers have specially prepared mixes that are excellent to use alone or incorporated in your soil (many are doing online or phone orders with curbside pickup).
The raised growing bed is the foundation of an intensive garden. Several beds allow the gardener to focus soil preparation in small areas, resulting in effective use of soil amendments and creating an ideal environment for vegetable growth. Beds are generally 4 to 5 feet wide and segregated into blocks. This allows gardeners to work from either side of the bed, reducing the compaction on the soil. Use landscape timbers or railroad ties to enclose your bed; I even once bought a kit from a local grocery store. A 6- to 8-inch-high bed is ideal.
Plan your plot
A good intensive garden requires early, thorough planning to make the best use of time and space in the garden. Consider the interrelationships of plants before planting, including nutrient needs, shade tolerance, above and below ground growth patterns and preferred growing season. It is suggested, if possible, to run your rows north to south, which allow for most sun exposure.
The first step in deciding what to grow is to select what your family likes to eat. Next, look at what costs you the most at the market per pound. Tomatoes, green onions, leaf lettuce, turnips, summer squash, beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, head lettuce and cauliflower are all among the top 15 economic crops to grow.
For interplanting, in general, add up the inches of recommended spacing for the two crops you are planting together and then divide the sum by two.
Prime example: Tomatoes have a 24-inch spacing and leaf lettuce has a 4-inch space recommendation. The total of 28 inches divided by two means that you can plant your leaf lettuce 14 inches from your tomatoes. A caged tomato surrounded by lettuce sounds like a good salad combination.
And, by all means, grow up! Take every opportunity to grow vertically with pole beans, cucumbers and more.
Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow and harvest a bounty of produce from baskets and containers. If you are blessed with a large plot, then grow enough to share. Your local garden center will have everything you need, including seeds and transplants, soil and fertilizer and, best of all, expertise. Give them a call or look online for advice.
Norman Winter is a horticulturist, garden speaker and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.”