Fill to the brim
Intensive Plant Spacing
by Ben Gramkowski
Reading the back of any seed packet will provide you with a great deal of information regarding seed sowing, depth, row spacing, thinning and transplanting. For instance, the information on the back of a Johnny’s Selected Seeds packet of kale recommends that we sow between six and 12 seeds per foot, in rows 18 to 30 inches apart, and then later, once the kale has sprouted, that we thin to eight to 12 inches between plants in the row. That all sounds reasonable, because we’ve read it. Or we have read something similar a hundred times before on small white envelopes of seeds, but—hang on—when’s the last time you saw a home garden with perfect rows two and a half feet apart, and why are we using a method that throws out up to eleven seeds (92 percent of seeds sown) for each final plant? The spatial inefficiencies of row planting, on a small scale, are staggering.
For a more intensively planted garden, take the final in-row spacing after thinning (eight to 12 inches, in the instance of Johnny’s kale), and set a grid across your bed, with each vertical and horizontal line eight inches apart. With a kale plant at each intersection, you can fit as many plants in a four-by-six-foot bed as you would in a 40-foot long row (roughly 60 kale plants, which is probably more than you were thinking of growing this season). Moreover, with the plants growing closely together, without two and a half feet of dead space on either side, water and nutrients are conserved, and weeds are shaded out (once the kale gets bushy enough). It takes a lot less time to water a space just six feet long than a 40-foot row. Naturally, there is some loss in the productivity of each individual plant, being somewhat crowded, but then again you are not throwing out 90 percent of your seeds, you are not watering 200 square feet (the area of dead space on both sides of a traditional, 40-foot row) of ground with no plants in it, and any fertilizer you apply stays in your bed, rather than running off onto the compacted, poorly draining walkways on either side of your row.
If you have fewer beds in your garden than varieties that you want to grow, then I recommend looking into companion planting. There are some great books on the matter, but if you want to save money and time, the Internet has a surprisingly comprehensive list of companion plants, complete with information about the particular benefits a group of companions provides. When spacing your companions, place the shorter plants on the south side, so they receive more sunlight, and use spacing intervals somewhere in between the recommendations for the two varieties. For instance, if you wanted to grow some garlic (four to eight inches) next to your kale, the garlic would be placed to the south of the kale, so it would not be shaded out, and would be given around six inches from the kale and four inches from its brethren. This way you can fill your beds to the brim with a diverse and tight-knit community of food and flowers. Look for the number on the back of your seed packet that says “thin to” or “transplant…apart.” It’s the only number you need.