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Intensive Planting in the Vegetable Garden

Garden bed yields
Narrow beds for intensive planting
Narrow beds for intensive planting

Intensive vegetable gardening is the name given to a way of using garden space and soil nutrients to produce high yields of flavorful crops.

The intensive planting method of vegetable gardening is perhaps the most efficient and effective of all growing methods. It is both resource-conserving and sustainable.

The origins of this method can be traced back 4,000 years to ancient China. Two thousand years ago similar approaches were in use in Latin America, Europe, and parts of Asia. Just more than 100 years ago, market vegetable gardeners around Paris began using this method to supply fresh vegetables to urban shoppers; intensive planting produced enough food for a large population on relatively scarce land.

Modern vegetable gardeners call intensive garden by many names: the Chinese way to garden, French intensive gardening, biodynamic gardening, and more recently Postage Stamp and Square Foot gardening.

Backyard gardeners can easily employ intensive gardening methods to increase both the variety and yield of crops they grow.

Here are the principles and methods of intensive vegetable gardening:

Soil improvement: The soil is well-prepared before planting. The site for planting is cleared of all weeds and debris then 3 to 4 inches of organic matter is spread over the site and dug or tilled into the soil. Aged compost, well-rotted manure, grass clippings, chopped leaves, or combinations of these are the most nutrient-rich amendments for vegetable growing. It is best to add amendments to the soil a month or more before planting; this allows nutrients to disperse throughout the soil. Later a mulch of compost is spread across the bed to prevent rain and wind from washing or blowing away the soil. The soil can be pre-warmed with plastic mulch—black or clear plastic sheeting spread—before sowing or transplanting crops.

Narrow beds also called wide rows: Intensive planting means spacing crops closely. Plants are arranged two three or more plants or rows across a single bed—called a narrow bed or wide row. Seeds are sown or transplants are set in the garden so that their leaves grow to just touch at maturity; nearly every inch of growing space in a bed is used for growing. Permanent pathways run between planting beds. The number of plants in a narrow bed or wide row varies according to how far the gardener can reach. Once a bed or wide row is planted, the gardener never steps onto the growing soil; she simply reaches arm’s length into the bed to plant, tend, and harvest each crop. Narrow beds and wide rows make it easier to sustain soil improvement. Plant nutrients and water are never wasted on pathways or unplanted space between crops.

Raised beds: Raised beds are planting beds dedicated to growing crops season after season. A raised bed can be any shape but most commonly is rectangular or square. A simple raised bed can be created by simply hoeing up soil to make a bed that is higher than the surrounding soil. Spread ground cover bark, compost, or lay stepping stones into the pathways between beds. Raised beds are the home for narrow beds or wide rows. A raised bed should not be wider than the gardener’s reach to the center of the bed from either side—3 to 5 feet is common. Raised beds should not be any longer than the distance the gardener wants to walk to get to the other side; don’t be tempted to cut across your raised beds. A permanent raised bed can be created by bordering the bed a frame of lumber, cement blocks, or stones.

Succession planting: Following one crop with another crop is called succession planting. Succession planting allows you to increase your harvest without making your garden larger. For example follow a crop of spring lettuce with summer growing tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants. Then late in the summer, follow the summer-growing crops with cool-season crops such as lettuce or spinach. Succession planting takes a bit of planning; you will need to know how many days to maturity each crop takes and how many days you have in your growing season—that is the number of days from the last frost in spring to the first frost in fall.

Companion planting: The term companion planting can mean different things to different gardeners. Companion planting can include: (1) Planting different kinds of crops together in a garden bed to make the best use of garden space and each crop’s growing habit to increase the overall yield. This type of companion planting is called inter-cropping, for example, planting a low growing crop that requires shade between two taller growing crops. (2) Planting specific flowering plants near a vegetable garden to attract beneficial and pollinating insects, and also planting plants that will attract a particular pest; that, in turn, protects a desired crop from damage. This type of companion planting is called trap-cropping. (3) Planting specific crops alongside one another to improve the flavor of one of the crops. This type of companion planting is based on folk tradition and has not been scientifically proven. For example, old-time garden tradition says planting dill next to cabbage will improve the flavor of the cabbage.

Crop rotation: Crop rotation means planting crops in an order that maintains or enhances soil fertility. Some crops are heavy feeders—meaning they use lots of nutrients in the soil; other crops are light feeders; and some crops are soil builders; they actually give nutrients back to the soil. Heavy feeders include tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, corn, eggplants, beets, lettuce, and other leafy crops. Heavy feeders are planted after light feeders; light feeders include garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and turnips. Soil builders include peas, beans, and cover crops like clover. Soil builders are planted after light feeders.

You can implement an intensive gardening program in your vegetable garden by introducing each of these elements into your garden—in just the order presented here.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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