A hundred pounds of tomatoes in just 100 square feet. Twenty pounds of carrots by 24 square feet. Delicious vegetables from a 15 x 20 foot lot. Believe it or not, it’s not impossible to grow your own vegetable garden with yields of this nature. All it takes is some patience and smart tactics to get the most out of your garden space. Follow these tips and tricks to plan the vegetable garden of your dreams.
Develop a practical plan.
The first step in growing a healthy garden is to mark out exactly where you want to place the beds. Consider the size, shape, and location of your garden to find the best setup for you. Remember that it can always be changed over time if necessary.
Plant in raised beds with nutrient-rich soil.
Experienced gardeners agree that soil composition is the most important factor in increasing yields. Deep, organically rich soil encourages the growth of healthy, expansive roots that can reach more nutrients and water. The result: extra lush, extra productive above ground growth.
The quickest way to get this deep layer of fertile soil is to create raised beds. Raised beds yield up to four times more than the same area planted in rows. This is not only due to their loose, fertile soil, but also to an efficient spacing. By using less space for paths, you have more space for plants.
Raised beds also save time. One researcher tracked the time it took to plant and maintain a 30-by-30-foot garden with beds and found that from mid-May to mid-October he only had to spend 27 hours in the garden. Despite this, he was able to harvest 1,900 pounds of fresh vegetables. That’s a year’s supply of groceries for three people for a total of about three working days!
How do raised beds save so much time? Plants grow close enough together to crowd out competing weeds, so you spend less time weeding. The close spacing also makes watering and harvesting more efficient.
Round off the soil in your beds.
The shape of your beds can also make a difference. Raised beds become more space efficient by gently rounding the bottom into an arch. For example, a rounded bed that is 5 feet wide across its base might make a 6 foot wide arch across it. That foot doesn’t seem like much, but multiply it by the length of your bed and you’ll see that it can make a world of difference in the overall planting area.
For example, in a 20 foot bed, piling the soil in the center will increase your total planting area from 100 to 120 square feet. That’s a 20% gain in planting area in a bed that occupies the same amount of soil. Lettuce, spinach, and other veggies are perfect plants for planting around the edges of a rounded bed.
Consider worm droppings.
Worm droppings, also known as poop, is a natural fertilizer that can stimulate plant growth. It also helps the soil retain water, which is key to a healthy vegetable garden. Work into the snail droppings while turning and breaking up clods of earth. If you aren’t already seeing a lot of earthworms in your soil, be generous with the watering. Your local garden store can give you advice on how much to add.
Plant plants in triangles rather than in rows.
To get the maximum yields from each bed, pay attention to how you arrange your plants. Avoid planting in square patterns or rows. Instead, stagger the plants by planting in triangles. This way you can plant 10 to 14% more plants in each bed.
Just be careful not to space your plants too closely. Some plants won’t reach their full size – or yield – if overcrowded. For example, when one researcher increased the spacing between romaine lettuce from 8 to 10 inches, the harvest weight per plant doubled. (Remember that weight yield per square foot is more important than number of plants per square foot.)
Too close spacing can also stress plants, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect infestations.
Try climbing plants to make the most of the space.
No matter how small your garden is, you can grow more by going vertical. Grow space-hungry vine crops such as tomatoes, runner beans, peas, squash, melons, cucumbers, and so on upright, supported by trellises, fences, cages, or stakes.
Growing vegetables vertically also saves time. Harvesting and maintenance are faster because you can see exactly where the fruit is. Thanks to the improved air circulation around the foliage, fungal diseases are also less likely to affect upward-facing plants.
Try growing vine plants on trellises along one side of raised beds, using sturdy end posts with nylon netting or twine in between to create a climbing surface. Tie the growing vines to the trellis. But don’t worry about securing heavy fruits. Even squash and melons will develop thicker stems for support.
Choose the right pairings.
Interplanting compatible plants also saves space. Consider the classic Native American combination, the “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. Sturdy corn stalks support the pole beans while the squash grows freely on the ground below, shading competing weeds.
Other compatible combinations include tomatoes, basil, and onions; lettuce and peas or brassicas; carrots, onions and radishes; and beets and celery.
Know how to time your harvest well.
Succession planting allows you to grow more than one crop in a given area over the course of a growing season. This allows many gardeners to harvest three or even four plants from a single area. For example, follow an early harvest of leafy lettuce with a fast maturing corn, and then grow more leafy greens or overwintered garlic—all within a single growing season. To get the most out of your successor plantings:
- Use grafts. A transplant is already about a month old when you plant it, so it will mature much faster than a seed sown straight into the garden.
- Choose fast-ripening varieties.
- Fill in the soil with a ¼ to ½ inch layer of compost (about 2 cubic feet per 100 square feet) at each new planting. Work it into the top few inches of soil.
Cover the beds to extend your season.
Adding a few weeks at each end of the growing season can buy you enough time to plant another succeeding crop — say a planting of lettuce, kale, or turnips — or to harvest more tomatoes at the end of the season.
To get those extra weeks of production, you need to keep the air around your plants warm (even when the weather is cold) by using mulches, cloches, row covers, or cold frames.
Or give heat-loving plants (like melons, peppers, and eggplants) an extra early spring start by using two “blanket”—one to warm the air and one to warm the ground. About six to eight weeks before the last frost date, prewarm cold soil by covering it with either infrared transmissive (IRT) mulch or black plastic, which absorbs heat.
Then cover the bed with a slotted clear plastic tunnel. When the soil temperature reaches 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, put out plants and straw the black plastic mulch to keep it from trapping too much heat. Remove the clear plastic tunnel when the air temperature warms and all danger of freezing has passed. Reinstall at the end of the season when temperatures cool down.
But consider the disadvantages of mulching the seedbeds with straw.
A disadvantage of straw mulch is that it provides a hiding place for slugs during the day. Suze Bono, a savvy farmer, likes to pick them at night with a headlamp and a tub of soapy water to throw them in. Companion planting with alliums, which naturally repel snails, is also a good idea.
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