What’s the number one worst thing when you think of a garden? I think of weeds. Tall weeds, short weeds, using a hoe to uproot the tiny ones, covering bare ground in as much grass clipping mulch as possible. But what if I told you there was another way to decrease weed pressure that would also result in more produce? Three years ago my jaw would have dropped a little bit. But now, I can’t wait to share with you how I maintain a relatively weed free garden with little weeding work and also grow more produce in a smaller area. It’s called dense garden spacing or high intensity garden spacing.
Decreasing Space Per Plant
I was first exposed to this concept by Luke at MIgardener and I was intrigued instantly. Check out their website here and their Youtube channel here. The main concept is to simply space plants closer together than recommended on the seed package. How much closer? It depends on the plant. In one of his videos, Luke dives into how he’s tested different spacings and how he’s concluded which spacing is best in his opinion for each plant type. He also brings up that the plant spacings often recommended on the package relate back to more of a field farming concept where implements were used to cultivate and care for the crop. I fully agree with Luke that this just doesn’t translate down to the home gardener.
So really, high intensity garden spacing is just finding how much space a plant really needs and then giving it only that much space. This means you can fit much more into the space you have available while still being able to manage and care for it. This also leaves less room for weeds to thrive. If you garden in raised beds, you can essentially fill those beds as full as possible as long as you can reach the center! If you garden in an open plot of land, you might have to still leave walkways, but maybe you don’t plant everything in straight rows so you can maximize your space.
I sure encourage you to go over and watch Luke’s videos because they’re a great resource. However, I’ve adjusted Luke’s method a bit to create a general rule of thumb for high intensity garden spacing that I use in my in-ground garden.
The Main Rule of Thumb
Luke talks about halving the recommended space on the seed packet. That’s great and all but sometimes I can be more of a visual person. I can imagine the size of the plant before I physically really think of how big in inches or feet it will be. So instead, I just think about the plant and how big it will likely get and any alterations I make to it that will affect that size. Then I plant them, whatever it may be, as close as I can possibly justify.
So, for cabbage, for example. I picture the full-grown plant. Then, I plant however many cabbage I want so that the leaves of one will touch the leaves of the other. For tomatoes, they’re a little different. I prune my tomatoes and grow them on a cattle panel trellis. So I’m actually doing quite a few alterations compare to the normal state of a tomato plant. So, instead I plant them as close as I can while accounting for the fact that they’re going to vine and overlap.
Freedom to Explore
The beauty of this method is that you don’t have to restrict yourself to a long single row of plants whether you’re in a raised bed or inground bed. If you did a long single row of beets and then had a walkway on either side of the row in an inground bed, that’s a decent amount of wasted space. Because walkway is wasted space! So instead, you might have a rectangle plot of beets. In that rectangle, you might have three small rows of just beets. This condenses the beets together and you produce maybe a whole normal single row in a simple little area. This means you’re wasting less overall space.
Taking this concept, I’ve incorporated in my garden some of what I’m calling block rows. Essentially, my rows are just rectangular blocks. And in one row I might have 4 types of vegetables located in their own blocks. The walkways on each side of the block row allow you to reach in from either side.
My garden used to simply look like long single rows of a single type of vegetable and my guess is I’m not the only one. If you break that mentality and start thinking of rows simply as guidance for walkways through the garden, you’re likely going to be able to free yourself to actually producing more. To designing your garden based on production, not simply on structure. Are there some plants where a single row still works best? Yes! For me, that includes tomatoes and green beans. But the point is to not restrict yourself! The goal is to limit the number of walkways to as few as possible.
A question you might have is, “Well that’s fine and dandy but how to you water your rectangle block rows?”. And I’d reply with still just a single soaker hose per row. When I water, I let my soaker hoses run for at least an hour at a time, most of the time two to three hours. And I’ll do this about 2-3 times per week depending on the weather. Since I let my hoses run for so long, most all of the time, the soaker hose will water an area large enough to cover the whole block row if it’s in the center. This is with a block row that’s about 2 to 2.5 feet wide. If you were to have a wider block, you might want to run a soaker hose up and back within the same block.
A Novel Concept
I know this isn’t exactly the most common method. Even some of the most seasoned gardeners still abide by the plant spacing recommendations year in and year out while planting long single rows in their garden. But I can tell you from experience, having my plants spaced more densely in the garden with fewer walk areas, I have encountered fewer weeds and therefore spent less time weeding. I’ve produced more food in small little plots than I thought possible. And because of these two factors combined with a love for planting, cultivating and growing plants, I have thoroughly enjoyed gardening.
I encourage you to give high intensity garden spacing a try. Start with a block row of just one vegetable type. See if you like this style. Or maybe you’re in raised beds. Pack them as reasonably full of plants as possible. The garden is a place for exploration, endless opportunities! You never know if you like it unless you try it!