Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 9, Issue 4 - April 2014  
A Super Productive Vegetable Garden
Authorís intensively planted garden
The author’s intensively planted garden from last season.
At 2,000 square feet my vegetable garden certainly isn’t small, yet there still never seems to be enough space for all the crops I want to grow. I’ve therefore come to rely on intensive gardening techniques such as succession planting, interplanting and vertical growing. This allows me to boost production by up to 50%.

1) Intensive Plantings
Perhaps the easiest way to grow more food is to plant crops closer together, an approach called intensive planting. Many of us, including me, grew up with traditional rectangular-shaped vegetable gardens planted in long, straight rows separated by a wide pathway. Looking back, I realize that we wasted up to 2/3 of our available growing space by leaving so much room between crops.

Today I garden in a series of 4’x10’ raised beds, and every square inch of the soil is covered by a canopy of plants so that no space is wasted. The foliage shades the soil, thereby discouraging weed growth and reducing moisture evaporation. For the most efficient use of space, I plant in a grid formation. I don’t overcrowd my plants because I don’t want them to compete for nutrients, sunlight and water. Instead, they're spaced so that the leaves barely touch as the crop approaches maturity. When planting intensively, pay attention to your soil, adding compost, aged manure and other amendments on a regular basis to keep production high.

2) Succession Planting
Succession planting is the key to a non-stop harvest, especially in small gardens where space is limited. As soon as one crop is finished, clean out the bed, amend the soil and immediately plant seeds or seedlings. To ensure success, a little planning is required. In early spring, I like to make a rough map of my garden indicating what I wish to grow in each bed and what crops follow the initial planting. For example, if I’m growing peas in one bed, I may follow that with a mid-summer planting of broccoli or cucumbers.

Succession planting isnít just about growing more food. It can also help you prevent pest infestations by avoiding their prime season. For example, squash vine borers, an annual problem in some zucchini patches, emerge from the earth and lay their eggs at the same time each year. Though this first harvest should still be decent, try planting a second crop slightly later to harvest an even better one. By this time, the pests will have finished laying eggs and wonít be laying any more. You can outwit the borers and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

3) Interplanting
Interplanted carrots and radishes   Interplanted corn and soybeans
Interplanted carrots and radishes   Interplanted corn and soybeans
I must admit that I’ve become an obsessive interplanter. Interplanting is a technique that involves combining two or more vegetables or herbs in the same garden space. It allows me to harvest up to double the amount of food from my beds. As with intensive planting, interplanting does not mean your crops compete for nutrients, sunlight and water. Instead, compatible partners are planted together based on different growth habits (upright and spreading), nutrient needs (heavy and light feeders), light requirements (full sun and partial shade) or growth rates (quick and slow).

A classic interplanting combination that relies on growth rate is carrots and radishes. The two types of seed are sown together, but it is the super-speedy radishes that emerge first. Once they’re ready to harvest, in three to four weeks, the tiny carrot sprouts are just beginning to need the space.

I also love to interplant salad greens (mesclun mix, lettuce blends, leaf lettuce, spinach, baby chard and more) in between my brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale). The low-growing salad crops form a living mulch on the soil surface that helps prevent weed growth and water evaporation. Plus, it looks ornamental!
Lettuce planted in a checkerboard pattern.   Lettuce planted in a checkerboard pattern.
Lettuce planted in a checkerboard pattern.
Lettuce, at various stages of growth, planted in a checkerboard pattern.
Five High-Value Crops
If you want to save some money on your grocery bill, concentrate on high-value crops that are pricey to buy, but easy to grow. These include tomatoes, salad greens, herbs, raspberries and beans (pole or bush).
4) Vertical Growing
There are many benefits to growing food vertically.
  • You’ll save valuable garden space and reduce insect and disease problems.

  • Harvesting is a snap: no more stooping, bending or trying to negotiate your way through a tangle of vines to hunt for hidden veggies.

  • Growing vegetables vertically also allows you to space the plants closer together, resulting in a significant increase in yield.
Best bets include vining crops such as indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, pole beans and small-fruited squash and melons. Keep in mind that vining crops need a sturdy structure to climb. I like simple-to-build A-frame trellises as well as arbors, teepees or pea-and-bean netting that is hung between two 8’ tall wooden stakes.
  Cold frames
  Cold frames being planted for the season
5) Season Extending
Putting season extenders such as cold frames and row covers to work in your garden can extend your harvest season by weeks, if not months. In early spring, you can get a jump on the planting season by sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings beneath the shelter of a mini hoop tunnel or cold frame. Come autumn, these devices can be used once again to extend the harvest into late fall or even winter.

The secret is to grow the right vegetables at the right time and protect them with the appropriate season extender. I wouldn’t try to grow heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes in mid-winter; instead, I would opt for cold-tolerant crops such as kale, carrots and spinach. A cold frame is perhaps the most versatile season extender. It’s simply a bottomless box that has a translucent top to capture solar energy and create a microclimate around your crops. Our cold frames are made from 2” thick local hemlock (rot resistant), but you could also make them from cinder blocks, straw bales or another material.

Cloches are another favorite season-extending device. Traditionally, they were bell-shaped jars that are very ornamental looking but are prone to breaking (at least in my garden!). Instead, I use 1 gallon milk or water jugs with the bottoms cut out to protect my newly transplanted tomatoes and pepper seedlings. I remove the bottle cap to prevent overheating and allow the cloche to vent.

Try some or all of these techniques for growing as many crops as possible in whatever amount of space you have to do so. You’ll save on your grocery bill and could even find yourself harvesting all year long!

Niki Jabbour

Niki Jabbour is the author of the book Groundbreaking Food Gardens (March 2014) and the award-winning The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (2012 American Horticultural Society Book Award). She also hosts the radio show The Weekend Gardener on News 95.7 FM, which airs April through October. Niki's work is widely published in newspapers and magazines such as Fine Gardening, Gardens East, Garden Making and The Heirloom Gardener. Find her online at www.nikijabbour.com as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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