Maximize production with intensive gardening
Story and Photos by Kristi Cook
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges gardeners face is finding enough room to grow all the fruits and veggies on our wish list. Most of us must be content to whittle our selections down in order to provide the best growing conditions possible. Yet, small backyards and seemingly tiny raised beds can produce vast amounts of produce. The trick is to develop healthy soil, plant tightly, and monitor moisture levels closely. Follow these practices and you’ll be on your way to a larger garden without breaking new ground.
Build the Soil
Intensive gardening is the practice of packing a given space with the maximum number of plants in order to achieve the maximum amount of production. For instance, a 3-by-12-foot space under normal gardening practices produces around 12 feet of row with walking space on each side and can accommodate four to six tomato plants. With intensive gardening, the same space creates 24-36 feet of row with no walking space between rows and can accommodate eight to 12 tomato plants. However, to accomplish this feat without stressing the plants, the soil must be as healthy as possible through proper pH, ample – and continual – fertility, and good drainage.
Regardless of whether you’re planting in a raised bed or in the ground, have the soil tested at least every three years and adjust soil pH accordingly. In addition, ample applications of 1 or more inches of compost should be applied not just once a year as is commonly practiced in traditional gardening, but rather any time a new crop is planted in the given space and again at the end of the growing season. Many times, this continual application of compost will be sufficient by providing a slow and steady supply of nutrients throughout each crop’s production cycle; however, additional amendments may be required and it also depends on the quality of the compost and even the crop selected (heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, often require additional fertilization). Follow soil test recommendations to determine if additional amendments are needed and boost production with side dressing of fertilizer as the season progresses.
The biggest difference between traditional and intensive practices is the closeness of plantings. Unlike traditional rows, which space plants single file from one end of the garden to the other with pathways between each row, intensive plantings place two or more rows side by side with no paths between. These side-by-side rows not only save space, but also allow gardeners to focus their resources – such as compost and fertilizer – on a specific space rather than wasting resources on empty pathways.
Additionally, many intensive gardeners, myself included, tend to space plants a bit closer than labels recommend. For instance, if my tomato variety suggests 2-foot spacing, I’ll go closer to 1½ feet. If 3 feet is recommended, I prefer 2-2½ feet. The only exception tends to be those plants that continue growing throughout the season, such as indeterminate tomatoes and some that require 6 inches or less, such as lettuces and spinach. But, these exceptions are not the rule, so experiment with your particular varieties and crops to determine the best spacing for your selections.
Another characteristic of many intensive gardens is planting in staggered rows. For instance, when you place your first plant, place another at the recommended distance in front and behind, continuing down the entire bed. Measure the same distance on each side of your first plant for proper row spacing. When planting the adjacent rows, don’t plant parallel to the plants in the original row; instead, stagger the plantings so that the plants on either side are next to the empty spaces of the original row. This staggered pattern gives each plant roughly the same amount of growing space of traditional rows in a smaller area. I have found this is particularly helpful with the more thirsty crops as each plant has ample opportunity to stretch its roots down and out in search for water.
Increase the Water
Perhaps the biggest challenge of intensive gardening is providing sufficient water for the closely spaced plantings. Most will require more frequent, deep watering, especially when planted in raised beds. Closely monitor plants, particularly the heavy drinkers, such as tomatoes and squash. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation work especially well and are preferable to overhead sprinklers. A thick layer of organic mulch helps by not only slowing moisture loss, but by suppressing water-hogging weeds as well. However, this increase in water demand is not a deal breaker, just be aware and monitor closely.
If you wish you had a bigger space or simply want to maximize your garden’s potential, give intensive gardening a try. With only minor adjustments to your current methods, you’ll be reaping the harvests of gardens twice its size in no time.