Spring is the time for leaf unfurling, and this weeks-long process in itself is part of the joy of the season. Who can resist the slow-motion appearance of fern fronds, as their fiddleheads rise and uncoil? But for plants stuck in a crowd of other plants, the race for light is anything but decorous; in fact, it is cutthroat. Some plants have evolved to live on a lesser diet of photons and inhabit shadier areas other plants cannot abide. Vines do the opposite: They stand on the shoulders of others.
For the gardeners, observing this dance between plants and light levels is more than just nature appreciation; it’s an essential aspect of the whole enterprise of cultivating and appreciating plants.
A young sunny garden can become an increasingly darker one after just five years, and because you are so close to it, you don’t see the fundamental shift. But there are signs. The daffodils stop blooming, perennials grow weak and shrubs become scrawny. Time to do some trimming and adjust the underlying plant palette.
Plants in a crowd compete for more than light; they are also jostling for space, nutrients and moisture. If they are overcrowded, they will be inherently weaker but also stretch more, and the result is something lofty but feeble.
This is why, when you are growing vegetables and annuals, you have to cull some for the sake of the others. This thinning is one of the hardest things for novice gardeners to confront, but it is essential for success.
As soon as the true leaves have appeared above the embryonic ones, it’s time to start pulling to leave seedlings with the space they need to get to the next stage. If this threatens to dislodge the keepers, you can use scissors.
Take lettuce, which grows to maturity over a period of eight weeks or so. You might need three thinnings, the first to give an inch between plants, the second three inches, the third four to six inches. The later thinnings will provide greens for sandwiches or salads.
One reason to sow seeds too thickly is to anticipate a poor germination rate. Another is to get the sowing over with — many seeds are small and fiddly. Here’s a tip: Don’t sow seeds when it’s raining; they stick to your cold, raw fingers and won’t let go.
Another thing I’ve learned the hard way: Get comfortable — on your knees, perhaps — and do your seed spacing when you sow, even if this focus on separation becomes tedious. This will save so much effort later at thinning time. After germination, if you have gaps in your seed rows, you will soon know and can resow those voids.
There’s another reason to be careful with your seeds. The pandemic has burdened seed companies and led to shortages of some varieties, reminders that seeds are precious and thrift is a virtue. Who wants to waste seed, especially now? Fold up a half-used packet and place it in a cool, dry environment. The seeds will be good for future harvests.
Giving plants their space produces optimum results — but is not always necessary or desirable. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.
Advocates of naturalistic gardens, including me, point out that meadows are dense with wild plants that occupy two or three different layers. In natural grasslands, there is no double-shredded hardwood mulch, but a group of low, creeping plants that have evolved to fill the void.
English hedgerows, which frame farm fields and line country roads, are made by humans but copy new growth woodland in all its primal race to survive. They can last for centuries with the occasional chop to stop them turning into trees. I saw a newly planted one a few years ago and was astonished at how close the shrubs and trees are set to one another — maybe just eight inches apart, in double rows just 20 inches wide. A typical mix might include the hawthorn, blackthorn, wild roses, hazel and bloodtwig dogwood.
The resulting throng seems doomed to throttle itself, but the hedgerow comes together beautifully as a practical screen and a celebration of sustainable horticulture. It keeps a host of creatures safe and sated, and it delights us with the haw flowers of May through to the sloe berries of November.
It might be fun to play with such woody plant groupings and communities in your backyard — we typically don’t plant densely enough — but in the vegetable garden, your plants will need elbow room.