Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting Started: Rows vs. Beds

Years and years ago, my Great Aunt Mickey and Uncle Leonard, who lived outside Claremore, Oklahoma, grew vegetables. They had a tombstone in front of their house that said, “God’s Little Acre.”

Their garden looked huge to me (I was pretty young last time I saw it), but my mother thinks it wasn’t anywhere close to an acre—that it was more like 50 by 70 feet. They did get enough food out of it to can; what didn’t fit in the kitchen was stored in the root cellar that also served as a tornado shelter. The garden was laid out in long rows, like on a commercial farm.

Traditional row gardening worked really well for them, and I think it would work well for most people who are working on big gardens in flat, sunny spaces. When done correctly, the rows would be spaced widely enough apart for people to work comfortably with hoes, fertilizer spreaders, and other useful tools. In addition, plant roots could spread out into those aisle spaces to gain access to more water than is just in the planting rows. Also, the spacing would allow for good air circulation, so plants would be (in theory) less likely to be affected by some kinds of fungal diseases that thrive in moist, shady areas.

Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in and around Atlanta, big, flat, sunny areas for gardening are non-existent. The lot my house is on, for example, has many very tall trees. Most of them, but not all, are in the backyard. My veggies are grown out front, because that's where the most sunlight is, even though the front yard isn’t especially large and it has a definite slope. The size and slope are why my veggies are grown in slightly curved, terraced beds rather than long, beautiful rows.

Many people in this area who are growing food for the first time are going to have similar problems finding a sunny spot. Luckily, plenty of books about gardening in small planting-beds are available. One of the best known is the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Another is How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruit, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons.

An important point to remember when creating new planting beds is to make sure they aren’t too wide for the gardener to reach into the middle fairly easily. I am short, and I have a couple of wider beds that I have to place stepping stones in when I plant them, so I will be able to reach all the plants without stepping onto the carefully prepared dirt. This wastes planting space, but it is the only way to reach into the middle for weeding and harvesting.

A point to remember when planting is to make sure that the spacing really is adequate. The tendency, even for me, is to plant some veggies too close together. I always want more than my small garden beds can reasonably support, and the desire to “make room” for just a few more plants is strong.

Tomatoes, for example, really do need to be at least 24 inches apart, and 30 inches would be better, to make sure each plant has good access to nutrients and water and that the upper plant parts get good air circulation, to help prevent disease. Let’s all hope that this year I resist the urge to cram too many tomatoes into their designated planting bed.

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