If you’ve ever been lost when trying to determine how to space vegetables in a raised bed, don’t give up hope. There are ways to space food crops in virtually any possible location!
While working at a Washington D.C. based food-access nonprofit organization, I drove around town in a big green pickup truck affectionately known as The Truck Farm. This farm on wheels was a tiny, thriving urban garden that we took to community events, local libraries and schools as an educational tool to show kids where fresh food comes from.
We planted leafy greens like spinach, fragrant herbs like basil and showy tomatoes to entice kids to interact with them. Kids could even make their own salads with these ingredients! We also turned quite a few heads on the road. My colleague, who took care of the garden, was a farmer before joining our team. He later expanded the program to include a clear rear gate so kids can learn about root vegetables and observe worms in the soil! He is the real-life Ms. Frizzle.
The Truck Farm is an extra-tall raised garden that uses many principles of small space vegetable gardening that we’ll cover later in this piece. For example, we added trellises to maximize the vertical growing space and had to adapt the system for a moving vehicle! We also put a lot of consideration into the selection of plants so they can thrive in less space and are appropriate companions for each other. This tiny mobile vegetable garden brought a lot of joy and wonder to people’s lives.
You don’t have to wait for the perfect plot of land to start cultivating your green thumb. You can purchase containers like grow bags or quickly put together modular wooden or metal raised beds. The key to having a great garden is getting started. It will all payoff in the end because nothing beats the taste of a home grown tomato!
About Vegetable Spacing
Being able to balance water, nutrients, sunlight and space is essential to growing vegetables. Plants will naturally compete for these resources when crowded into a confined area. In nature, some plants, particularly trees, have evolved to release chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth or germination of other plants nearby.
In your home garden, overcrowding can lead to smaller fruits or no fruits, weak plants and more diseases and pests. Fungal diseases are especially likely to reach neighboring vegetables if there is not enough air circulation within a tight space.
Raised Bed Plant Spacing Tips
When you pick up a seed packet, you’ll find that the back or inside of the packet typically contains information about the vegetable such as soil pH, seed sowing depth, sunlight requirements and how far apart each plant should be from its neighbors. If you are growing a garden using containers or raised beds, you may be put off by the spacing recommendations. I’ve seen packets of corn with row spacing recommended at three feet which is not possible for me since that’s the entire width of my raised bed!
These seed packets have row spacing requirements because in commercial agriculture, farmers need to be able to drive machines through their fields to plow, sow, water and harvest. Planting in widely spaced out rows does not make a lot of sense for the average home vegetable gardener. Don’t throw away your seed packet because it still contains other valuable information, but you can follow the tips below and combine multiple ideas together to customize your own garden.
Select Your Seeds Carefully
If space is a limiting factor in your vegetable garden, your first step should be to make a list of what you want to grow and carefully select a cultivar that is suitable for containers or raised beds. For example, you probably cannot grow all types of winter squash because they tend to sprawl on the ground and take up a lot of room. However, you can pick a variety like the Bush Acorn Squash that is more petite. Planting a determinant variety of tomato could make more sense for your space over planting an indeterminate variety. The Tiny Tim Tomato, for example, is a dwarf cherry tomato that will reach up to 24 inches in width and height at maturity and is an abundant producer.
You also don’t need to harvest your plants at their full maturity. Peas can be harvested both for their pods and shoots. Beets like the popular Early Wonder variety have edible leaves that taste like chard. Turnip greens are prized in certain cuisines. You can grow many fruiting or root producing vegetables specifically for their greens and sow the seeds much closer together than you would otherwise. By coming up with new ideas to use your crops, you can dramatically increase your productivity per bed.
If you want to put your raised bed garden on hyperdrive, you can also select early maturing cultivars. An earlier variety will need fewer days to mature than a late variety. Lettuce is commonly known for being a fast grower but even in this family, there is a big range. Butterhead lettuce can be harvested after 30 to 40 days whereas Bibb lettuce can take up to 70 days. Many cultivars are named after this attribute including the Early Wonder beet mentioned above, Early Xtra sweet corn, Early White Vienna kohlrabi, Early Snowball cauliflower, etc.
Mounding To Increase Surface Area
Small-space gardening is not just about the width and length of your raised bed, it is also about the depth of the bed and the amount of vertical space you can create on top of the raised bed. Mounding is a method to increase the depth of your bed without digging further into the soil.
Potatoes are a typical vegetable to progressively mound more soil or compost around as it grows. Potatoes form along the stem. By mounding along the stem and covering some lower leaves, you create more surface area for the plant to produce a crop.
Applying Square Foot Garden Techniques
Square foot gardening is a method of gardening developed in the late 1970s by Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer and gardening hobbyist who was tired of wasting time, space and seeds. During his engineering career, his job was all about making systems more efficient. He looked at his home garden through this lens of efficiency and questioned a lot of gardening conventions at that time.The simplicity and approachability of his plant spacing method took off and his book became a tenet of modern gardening.
A typical square foot garden uses 4×4-foot raised beds with clearly marked 12×12-inch grids and three to four feet between each bed. The size of the bed is designed so that a typical gardener can reach across and comfortably care for the plants in the back.
He specifies that there should be clear and permanent guides every 12 inches to create a visible grid template. Each square can be further divided into four, nine or sixteen smaller squares and each of these small squares would contain a single plant. Mel did the hard work of experimenting with different flowers and vegetables and eventually found the optimal spacing for them without compromising their productivity.
Naturally, different plants have different spacing requirements. A single cabbage, for example, needs the whole square foot to be able to yield a full-sized head. On the other hand, swiss chard can be planted four to one square foot and so on. His book contains helpful guides for common vegetables and a master chart for when to direct sow, start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings outside.We like that book so much here that it’s on our top garden book list!
Skip The Rows
If you have an oval or circular raised garden bed, you may want to skip the rows entirely.
Some benefits of the using circular or oval raised beds like those available through the Epic Gardening store are their accessibility from all sides and their aesthetic appearance. Keeping the perimeter of two raised beds the same, the circular bed will have a larger surface area than a rectangular one.
When planting a circular or oval bed, you want to consider the perimeter of the shape and concentric rings radiating from the center. For example, plant the longest maturing vegetables or perennials in the middle surrounded by vegetables that you will harvest more frequently. Mounding up the center with compost or soil can create a dome shape that results in more growing surface area in your raised garden. Along the same lines, you can also add a cage or trellis in the center of the circular bed and plant beans, peas, tomatoes and other vining crops.
Another way to space plants in a circular or oval bed is to stagger your plants. For example, if you are growing carrots and the seed package specifies 16 inches for row spacing and 2 inches of plant spacing, disregard the row spacing entirely and only use the plant spacing as your guide. Stagger your carrots in a diamond formation so that each carrot is 2 inches apart from the nearest carrot. Repeat this staggered pattern across the growing surface to optimize your space.
Broadcast Your Leafy Greens
A common conundrum for the beginning gardener is having all of one type of plant ripen at the same time. By using different sowing and harvesting techniques, you can stretch out your growing season, produce a higher crop yield and waste less food.
For leafy greens such as spinach and kale, try broadcasting your seeds across the growing surface and then use the cut and come again method to only harvest a few outer leaves at a time instead of the whole head. This way, the plant will continue to produce leaves from its center and you can have a much bigger total harvest overtime. As a bonus tip, if you sow a packet of mixed greens, you’ll also get different flavors, colors and textures in your salad every time you harvest.
Succession Planting For Success
Succession planting is another technique to increase the productivity of your garden. Rather than planting all of your seeds or transplants at the same time, space the planting out by a few weeks so you can stagger your harvest.
For early vegetable varieties that mature quickly such as beans or radishes, you should be able to get several plantings throughout the season. Sometimes, it might be worthwhile to pull out older plants and transplant new seedlings to ensure that all plants are producing at their peak state.
Setting up an indoor grow light system to start plants from seeds and have transplants ready to pop into your garden bed is a best practice to stay on top of succession planting. You may also want to amend your soil with an extra compost in between succession planting to replenish the nutrients and push the total harvest per area.
Interplanting and multi-sowing are two additional ways to ramp up your garden production. Using the interplanting technique, add earlier maturing plants in between long-season crops to get more yield in the same space. For example, shallow-rooted vegetables like spinach and green onions can be planted next to peppers or corn that take longer to mature.
You can also try the multi-sow technique with certain vegetables where you transplant a cluster of seedlings and harvest the largest one out of the cluster to give the remaining plants room to expand. This technique works well for vegetables like beetroot and leek.
Taking It To Greater Heights
Creating trellises is another good way to add more growing surface area to a raised bed. An additional benefit of training plants to grow vertically instead of sprawling along the ground is that it prevents soil-borne diseases from getting on the fruits or leaves and improves the overall air circulation.
Plants that are particularly suitable to grow on trellises include tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers, squash and even melons! In my own patio, I use this method to create a beautiful and edible green wall as a privacy fence. I have really enjoyed planting scarlet runner beans for their bright red flowers that also attract pollinators and hummingbirds to my garden. My vegetable garden serves multiple purposes on top of food production and the trellis system is an integral part of landscape design.
Trellising can also create a canopy to cast shade over the vegetables underneath. For example, as a part of your early spring garden, you may want to plant some cold-hardy varieties of peas and lettuces. However, many lettuces are not heat tolerant and will bolt in the summer. As the seasons transition, the peas will climb up the trellis and provide some shade over the lettuce to help extend your harvest.
Frame Up A Longer Season
The weather plays a huge role in the production of a garden. For those of us who live in colder climates, we can extend our growing season by adding a cold frame on top of our raised beds.
A cold frame can be as simple as using some plywood or PVC pipes with plastic sheeting to create a protective barrier over the plants. The plastic traps heat from the sun to create a warmer microclimate in the raised bed and enables some hardy vegetables to grow long past the first frost. Plant cultivars like the Giants of Winter spinach or mache are great additions to a winter garden.
Pick The Right Companions
Companion planting is growing multiple plants next to each other to help improve harvest, manage pests, more efficiently use the space or add aesthetic value. A classic combination is planting marigolds next to tomatoes because marigolds deter root-knot nematodes and other garden pests. In general, adding flowers or letting some of your vegetables go to flower can be a good way to attract pollinators to your vegetable garden. Plus, flowers can add a beautiful pop of color to an otherwise green patch and jazz up your overall garden design.
Pungent vegetables in the allium family, such as onions and chives, can also be interplanted between other vegetables to mask their smell from potential garden pests. In raised beds and container gardens, you can plant companions closer to each other and wherever you see space free up.
On the other hand, avoid planting too many plants from the same family close to each other like designating a brassicas garden bed. Members of this family including kale, cabbage and brussels sprouts are all susceptible to very similar pests and diseases. This bed would be a goldmine for cabbage loopers!