Friday, March 11, 2011

Making the Most of Small Gardens

Over at the blog called Our Engineered Garden, EG has a post up about setting up his trellises. Growing big, climbing plants up trellises is one way to get more food from a small garden space.

His post made me think a bit about why I don't use more trellises in my own small garden, and what it mostly comes down to is height. I am not at all tall. Growing things up trellises, where I can't reach them to take care of the plants and harvest the produce, just isn't practical for me. For taller people, trellises make a lot more sense. It turns out that EG is well over six feet tall.

My strategies for maximizing production have relied more on using the gaps between plants on the ground. As I plan where in the garden to plant each crop, I consider each plant's eventual height and sprawl. Plants that will spread across the ground, like sweet potato vines, can be planted next to a crop that uses less ground space and more air space, like okra, corn, or peppers. The vines can then be aimed toward the bare ground under the other taller crop, where they act like a mulch over that ground, shading out weeds. This kind of planning lets me have sweet potatoes in a small garden.

When the sprawling crop is one that uses tendrils to climb, like in cucumbers, squashes, and melons, some extra effort is needed to keep these from climbing up the taller plants (and possibly pulling them over), but that doesn't take much time.

Another strategy is using the close, grid-like spacing described in books like Mel Bartholemew's "Square Foot Gardening" and John Jeavon's "How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine." I do a lot of this. When bush beans are well-grown and spaced as in this strategy, they are a beautiful sight.

Yet another strategy I use is intercropping, which means pretty much what it looks like it means: crops "in between." One way to intercrop is to plant root crops in spaces between leafy crops. An example would be carrots interplanted with lettuces. When intercropping, the standard planting distances can be reduced in ways that allow the garden to produce a little more food from one patch of soil. The lettuces could be planted at the usual distances (6-8 inches apart) but in the open spaces, carrots could be sown.

When one crop produces mostly above ground and the other mostly below ground, competition for space is greatly reduced.

The two crops should be genetically different enough that disease and pest problems are also reduced. For example, even though chard and beets don't compete for exactly the same space (one produces a big bit of its harvest-able food below-ground, one produces all the food above-ground) they are too similar genetically for intercropping to be a good idea.

Before the recent big rains started, I planted some seeds outside, and I set them out as intercropped rows in the bed nearest the road. The rows alternate leafy veggies (lettuces, mustard, chard) with root veggies (carrots, beets, radishes).

If I am lucky, the seeds are all still there, rather than having been washed away. In another week or so, I will know. I did set them out as homemade seed tapes, which should have helped keep the seeds in place. Amazingly, I have a contingency plan in place! (Some years I am more organized than in other years.) If not all the seeds come up, I can replace some with plants I've started in a seed-tray in the house. Those, mostly, have begun to emerge.


  1. Excellent post, I intend on doing more vertical stuff this year, as well as keeping those cukes and squash away from the rest of the garden, the bugs were horrid last year as they were even on my tomatoes!

  2. I tried the intercropping last year with sweet potatoes and bush beans, but I had a pretty lousy sweet potato harvest, compared to the previous year. I wasn't sure if the intercropping had anything to do with it. Do you think it was just coincindence? It did help on the space utilization, so I would like to do it again if it won't hurt my harvests.

  3. Erin, In my yard, some years are more "buggy" than others, and the reasons aren't usually obvious.

    Last year, the Mexican bean beetles were bad in my yard, but everyone else I talked to in this area had the same problem. Sometimes, the cucumber pickleworms are bad, and some years they don't seem to show up at all.

    I can see wanting to keep the cukes and squash away from everything else, though. They seem to attract lots of special problems. Hope the trellises work for you!

  4. Owlfan,

    If I were intercropping bush beans and sweet potatoes, I would make sure the sweets were planted 10-12 inches apart, with the beans running in rows between (with five or so inches between them and the sweets), but I would also pull up the bush beans around the end of June to let the sweet potato vines get as much sun as possible. That would be about the time that the sweet potato vines would really start to run.

    My concern would be that the bush beans might shade the vines too much. That is the only thing I can think of that might have caused a problem with interplanting those two crops. Could that have been what happened in your yard?

  5. Owlfan--an edit:

    In my fictional sweet potato/bush bean planting, the beans would have been planted in early May (maybe late April for in your yard), with space left for the sweets, which would have been planted at their correct spacing after the beans were already up, three to four weeks later. Sweets prefer to be planted in soil that is warm. Starting them out too soon can result in less production.

    I hope that something in all that rambling is useful! If you try again, I will be interested to hear how it goes. -Amy

  6. Amy,
    I planted the beans first (mid to late April) and left extra space in between the rows for the sweet potatoes. Then in mid May I planted the sweets. I had figured that the beans would be done by end of June, but they were still producing, so I left them in. They might have shaded the sweets too much. Even the one plant I put in between the cukes and the tomatoes, which was not really intercropped still put out small sweets. It may have just been a bad year for sweets?

  7. Owlfan, Sounds like you did everything right! Could have been a shading problem, but it could be that it just wasn't a great year for sweets.

    Mine did acceptably well, but my harvest wasn't exactly an all-time high, either. We were happy with the harvest at the plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden, even though we never really calculate pounds per foot of row. For that garden, the relatively low level of wireworm damage was a huge cause for celebration. We had the highest percentage of sweets in good enough condition for donation that we've ever had. The beneficial nematodes have been doing their good work!


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