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Intensive Planting & Square Foot Gardening

Intensive planting has been used to grow vegetables for thousands of years to get high yields from minimal space. Today it goes by many names but they all share the same basic principles.

Even though it’s what most of us are used to, traditional row-style gardens haven’t been traditional for that long. Instead, they were adopted to accommodate machinery like tillers and tractors.

Growing food in rows leads to a lot of wasted space and bare ground. Switching over to intensive planting methods solves both of these problems and many more!

What is Intensive Planting?

Intensive planting is a method of growing closely spaced (not crowded) plants of different varieties together in a way that benefits them all.

It works best with a wide bed layout, where you have permanent paths between garden beds. The beds can be in the ground or raised, with or without frames.

The close spacing between plants maximizes your harvest, reduces watering, blocks out weed competition, invites pollinators, and confuses pests. All at the same time.

Maximize Harvest

This is probably the most logical conclusion you can reach, planting more plants equals a larger harvest. But it’s also a different harvest in a few ways.

Once the garden really gets going you have a pretty constant cycle of planting and harvesting. Sometimes that means pulling the lettuce you planted between your tomato plants and sometimes that means throwing in another crop of bush beans after harvesting the last of the spring broccoli.

Incorporating techniques like interplanting (planting different species together in a single row or patch) and succession planting (planting multiple times in smaller amounts over a longer time period) will also elongate the harvest period window and maximize your production.

Reduce Watering

Water is critically important for a garden, even plants that prefer drier conditions need some water. There are a few ways to cut back on constant watering and two of the best are built into intensive planting.

Organic material does a great job holding onto the water while still draining to prevent waterlogging, which is much better than straight sandy or clay soil.

Intensive planting requires a lot of nutrients to keep all of the plants growing so you’ll likely be filling or amending your beds with a lot of compost anyway

Another way intensive planting helps to reduce water needs is by creating its own living mulch. If you plant your peppers so they ‘hold hands’ they’re going to do a decent job blocking out the light that hits the soil, keeping it cooler, and slowing evaporation.

It does take a while for the plants to fill in, especially the warm-season crops that seem to sleep for a month and then suddenly double in size overnight.

That’s a great place to dabble in the art of intercropping, where you plant two (or more) different crops together and harvest the faster one to make more room for the slower grower.

Radishes are always a great option, they grow really quickly (30-ish days for the small guys) and the tap roots do a good job breaking up the soil as they grow.

Learn more about Growing Radishes and 5 Reasons you Need them in your Garden

Eliminate Weeds

The same close spacing that lets you water less works to prevent weeds from taking hold, especially later in the season. If you plant your peppers are holding hands they’re going to do a great job shading the soil and blocking the weeds from getting the light they need to thrive.

Attract Pollinators

Quite a few of our garden favorites require a little help for pollination, including tomatoes, peppers, and squash. The best way to ensure you have pollinators when you need them is to make sure they’re always welcome.

When you toss out the traditional row setup, it’s easy to throw in a few flowering plants along with the rest of the veggies. One of my favorites is Borage, a flowering annual with edible flowers (and leaves) that taste like cucumbers.

Borage gets big (up to 3 feet tall) when allowed to grow wild but you can keep it smaller and bushier by pinching back the leaves. It’s also known as Bee Bush and all sorts of pollinators are big fans, from introduced honey bees to a whole host of native pollinators you’ve never even heard of.

Read more about Edible Flowers

Confuses Pests

If you don’t want to fight pests in your garden the best thing you can do is break up your planting blocks with different species. Most garden pests are specialists or at least have a preferred food source and if you space them out you make it harder for the pests to have a good time.

You can also be super sneaky and add in plants that actually deter certain pests. Onions are known to repel quite a few pests and I’m all for any excuse to toss in extra scallion seeds!

Now that you know what intensive planting is & why you should be doing it, let’s jump into the how.

There is a lot of good advice in this article, even if you’re happy with your row garden you might pick up a nugget of wisdom that helps you in your gardening ventures so stick around!

Soil Fertility

I think a lot of new gardeners overlook the importance of the soil. To grow a great garden, you need to cultivate great soil.

One reason people have such good luck with raised beds is the quality of the soil, when you’re starting with 8+ inches of well-amended, well-draining soil you’re really setting yourself up for success.

You can have just as much success without raised beds you’ll just need to put a lot more work into getting your soil up to par.

You can’t just dig up the grass, throw down some seeds and expect great results. It just doesn’t work that way.

Let’s start things off with two of the most important things you’ll ever learn about gardening (and they;re both about soil, not plants!):

Never Walk In Your Garden Beds

Plants grow best in loose soil where water quickly drains and the roots can easily branch out and grow down. Walking (or driving tractors) on soil compacts it, making those two things more difficult.

Tillers will break up the top few inches of soil but the vibrations create ’tiller pan’ or a hard layer right below the depth the tiller hits. This layer basically adds a bottom to a bottomless bed.

Instead of compacting your soil, save your walking for the permanent paths between your garden beds.

It’s a lot harder to accidentally walk through a raised bed so they have some built-in protection here but stay out of your in-ground beds too!

If you have compacted soil you can break it up with deep-rooted cover crops (radishes are great for this) and by adding organic material to entice the earthworms to give you a hand.

Read more about Cover Crops

Never Leave Soil Bare

Soil is living, or at least it should be. Good soil is filled with organic material, microbes, fungi, and worms.

If you dig it all up and leave the ground exposed to the hot sun all the time you’re going to kill off a lot of that goodness.

Not to mention you’re just begging weeds to move in and take over.

Instead of leaving the soil bare keep it constantly planted with either a vegetable, flower, herb, or cover crop. If you have to leave the ground empty cover it with a layer of compost and top it with mulch to protect it from the sun, maintain moisture and encourage earthworms to earthworm.

My favorite early spring cover crop is field peas, they grow really quickly even in cool weather. By the time it’s warm enough to move the heat-loving plants into the garden, they’re big enough to be chopped up and left as mulch on the surface.

Garden Preparation

Whether you’re starting with premade raised beds or just marking them out on the ground, it’s critical not to mess up the spacing between the beds.

I know how tempting it is to pack everything in so you really can get the most out of the space but if you don’t leave enough room between beds you’ll end up cursing yourself out every time you try to pick a tomato.

At an absolute minimum, I would leave a 2-foot path between beds but I rely on my gorilla cart and I need to be able to take it all over with me so I prefer to leave 3-3.5 paths.

When the garden is empty the paths seem huge but when the plants fill in and start to spill over the beds you’ll be grateful for the extra space!

When it comes to deciding on the length and width of your beds you need to take into account how far you can reach.

I already yelled at you about walking on your soil so we might as well carry on with that and add in kneeling. Just stay out of the beds ok?

All of my garden beds are 4 feet wide, I’m 5’10 with long arms and that works for me but I imagine my 5-foot-tall grandma would struggle a bit to reach things in the center of the beds.

As for length, my original vegetable garden was built with raised wood beds that are 4×16. It was based on the length of the wood we could buy.

After years of use wood has all rotted away and I just have 4×16 rectangles that I plant in. I think that’s the maximum length I would go to.

Any longer and it gets too tempting to just walk across really quick… It also makes it easier to set goals when ‘one bed’ is a reasonable space to weed, water, or plant.

The metal beds I put in the herb garden are only 4×8 but they still hold a surprising amount! Especially when they’re planted intensively.

Intensive Planting

While it is likely you’ve never heard the phrase ‘intensive planting’ you’re probably already familiar with the technique. The Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans & squash) and Square Foot Gardening are both intensive planting methods.

I like the idea behind square foot gardening but I think the system has its flaws and the book makes me want to rip my hair out (it reads like a late 90’s infomercial and you’re the dumb one that can’t open a Tupperware cabinet without being buried in an avalanche).

On the other hand, it’s hard to hate on something that gets people interested in gardening. As with everything else in life, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

As for the Three Sisters, I love the idea and think it’s a really good example of synergy in the garden. I just have terrible luck with corn so I haven’t ever pulled it off.

It doesn’t help that I live in a very windy area and it causes issues with taller crops like corn and even sunflowers.

Spacing & Plant Selection

When we think about traditional row garden spacing you usually have two numbers, one is the spacing between the plants and the other is the spacing between the rows.

Plants need nutrients, water, room for their roots, and room for their leaves to grow. It’s easy to find charts and tables with simplified spacing information but in reality, there is a lot of variation between varieties of a single crop.

Little Gem lettuce, a baby romaine type, only gets 4″ wide and it needs a lot less room than a full-size Black Seeded Simpson that gets 10″ wide. If you go with a straight 6″ spacing your smaller lettuce will have a bunch of wasted space and your big guys will be overcrowded.

The exact amount of space each plant needs can also be tweaked based on what you plan to do with it. For example, if you don’t want huge onions you can plant them closer together and end up with a larger quantity of smaller onions.

Likewise, if you plan to harvest your spinach or lettuce as baby greens instead of as full-sized heads, you can plant them much closer together.

Most seed packets are written with row gardening in mind and the numbers don’t always translate well to an intensively planted garden bed.

Instead of just going with the smaller number on the packet I like to split the difference between the spacing in rows and the spacing between rows.

You should always check the spacing on your seed packets but these general guidelines will get you started. The spacings above will work with most varieties by not all.

Harvesting and Yield

One of the hardest parts of intensive planting is feeling like you’re never done. There isn’t really a single beginning and end to planting, tending, and harvesting.

Instead of having one start date for everything you’ll be starting your tomatoes under lights in March, putting peas in the ground in April, transplanting the tomatoes & starting your beans and squash in May after frosts when the soil is 70 degrees and starting another round of cool crops under lights in July to plant out in August.

Obviously, your dates might look different if you don’t live in a similar climate but the ideas are the same.

In a way I prefer it, there is always something to do in the garden, and the more time I spend out there the better off I am mentally and physically.

The elongated harvest is great for cooking fresh from the garden, things ripen over a longer period of time, and you’ll have a little bit of a bunch of things ready at dinner time.

With traditional row gardening, where everything is planted at once (and harvested at once) can leave you overwhelmed with produce for a short timer and staring forlornly into the produce drawer in search of something fresh during the rest of the year.

Check out my Vegetable Garden page for more ideas or start here:

how to weed your garden hand pulling weeds