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Narrow Beds, Not Rows, For Planting

Spinach starts
Spinach staggered across narrow row
Spinach staggered across narrow row

Planting beds—not traditional rows—offer the best use of space for growing a home vegetable garden.

Planting beds that space two, three, or more plants across a bed 1½ to 4 feet wide are ideal for a home garden. These beds are often called narrow beds—they are just wide enough for you, the garden keeper, to reach the center of the bed to plant, maintain, and harvest crops, but they are not so wide that you have to step into the bed.

Narrow growing beds make more room for plants in the garden. That makes sense in a small home garden where the space you would find between traditional farm rows is unnecessary; farmers need space between rows to operate tractors and cultivators, but even small mechanized equipment is rarely required for a home garden. Traditional furrowed rows are usually 3 or 4 inches across with 12 to 18 or more inches between rows.

Wide planting beds, like you see in home landscapes, can be several feet or yards across—wide enough to grow shrubs and perennials. Narrow planting beds are just wide enough that you can reach into the bed from a path or paths on one or two sides without ever stepping into the bed. Stepping on fertile, prepared ground can compact soil and hurt your crop yield—something you want to avoid.

When you plan your garden, determine the width of each planting bed by how easy or difficult it will be to take care of the crops you plan to grow. It’s easy to reach across two, three, or even four rows of leaf lettuce, but more difficult to reach across two rows of cabbage or Brussels sprouts. The planting bed for four rows of lettuce might be 4 feet across—easy to reach to the center of the bed from either side. The bed for Brussels sprouts might be just 3 feet across, each plant staggered to get more plants into the bed, and also easily worked from either side.

When planning crop spacing for your narrow beds, put low growing crops next to each other in the same bed or if there is a path on either side of the planting bed reserve one side for low crops and the opposite side for taller crops. For example, if you plan to grow both tomatoes and lettuce, plant the tomatoes on the sunny south or west side of the bed and the lettuce on the opposite side of the bed under the afternoon shade of the taller crop.

By using narrow planting beds, you will need less room in your garden for paths, and you can optimize your growing space. Once you begin to sow seed or set out transplants in a narrow bed, you will soon find that you can abandon row planting all together. If you stagger seeds or plants across a narrow bed—imagine one plant at each of the four corners of a square with one in the center—you can easily increase your planted space by 33 percent. Equidistant, staggered planting is commonly called intensive planting–that is seeds or plants are set in the garden so that the leaves of mature plants touch each of the surrounding plants.

Advantages of narrow bed planting:

• Beds allow for the concentration of fertilizers, compost, and water; you will apply plant food only to the growing space, not across the greater garden. A bed 3- to 4-feet wide can be fertilized, planted, weeded, and harvested from either side without walking on the bed.

• The soil in a bed remains loose, optimal for growing vegetables; it is never stepped on or compacted. A single foot step can exert pressure of as much as 10 pounds per square inch—root hairs that absorb moisture and nutrients can be damaged or destroyed when the soil is compacted. . Compacted soil can contain all of the nutrients and moisture plants need but the nutrients and moisture may not be available to plants in soil that has been compacted. Beneficial soil microbes and earthworms also can be disturbed or destroyed when the soil is compacted.

• The space for plants to grow and the space for the gardener to walk are clearly defined once narrow beds are in place. These planting beds can be used again next year; you can rotate crops from bed to bed. You won’t have to re-till or cultivate the entire garden each year. Pathways can be lined with hay, straw, gravel, or stepping stones. Mulched walkways and work areas protect the soil from compaction.

• Narrow beds increase the growing space in a garden. A narrow bed can be planted in rows but also easily lends itself to equidistant spacing or intensive planting. Seeds or transplants can be set in the garden equidistant from one another—staggered—so that the mature leaves of adjacent plants touch, forming a dense canopy. Equidistant planting not only allows for more plants but ultimately forms a dense canopy over the soil which deprives weeds of the light needed to grow and also conserves water by slowing soil moisture evaporation.

• Narrow beds can be raised above the surrounding ground surface—just mound the soil into the bed or place a wood or stone frame around each bed. Mounded or raised beds make stooping unnecessary. Raised and mounded beds warm more quickly in spring and are well-drained.

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. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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