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Gardening : Getting Most Produce Out of Small Plot

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975</i>

It’s either limited-space vegetable gardening--or no vegetable gardening for many of us in Southern California. As traditional back yards become smaller and smaller, gardeners have to turn to creative gardening techniques to grow their own fresh vegetables.

Techniques, such as intensive planting, “interplanting” and vertical planting, enable a gardener to get high yields from small spaces.

In traditional vegetable gardening, plants are supposed to grow in tidy rows, each to its own section. That’s the way we used to do it, but rows waste a great deal of space.

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With intensive planting, you eliminate rows. Seeds or transplants are spaced throughout a small plot at distances recommended in the seed packets, but you ignore the distance between rows. For instance, it is often recommended that you space cabbage plants one foot apart in rows that are three feet apart. Instead, you simply space the plants at one-foot intervals throughout a small plot. You are then able to use the three feet that would be wasted by the traditional row for an additional planting area.

In the interplanting method, fast-growing vegetables are grown among slow-growing crops. The fast-growing crops reach harvest stage quickly and are removed--before the slow-growing vegetables need their space. An example would be planting broccoli and radish seeds in close proximity. Radishes typically take about 25 days to reach harvest stage, while it takes the slow-growing broccoli at least 120 days to mature. The radishes would be long gone when the broccoli plants require their full growing space. Interplanting can also be done with corn and beans. When young corn stalks reach 12 inches high, pole beans are planted next to the stalks. As the corn matures, the beans climb the corn stalks and you get two crops in one space.

Good fast-growing candidates for interplanting with slow-growers include, radishes, garden cress, leaf lettuce, Japanese turnips, spinach and green onions.

In vertical gardening, vining vegetables such as pole beans, cucumbers and pole peas are trained up a fence or trellis rather than being allowed to spread throughout a garden. Even tomato plants can be trained up a string attached to an overhead frame.

I visited with Paul Pirtle, a Huntington Beach gardener, who practices all three of these methods. And he uses these methods in space-saving garden structures--raised beds. Raised beds are ideal for limited-space gardening because if done correctly, they provide exceptionally good soil, and good soil is perhaps the most important variable in successful gardening in small spaces.

In Pirtle’s six 3-by-6-foot raised beds he grows all the vegetables he and his family need; with much surplus produce given to friends and neighbors.

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Pirtle gardens in his beds on a year-round basis. In the spring and summer, he grows the warm-season vegetables (tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans, etc.) and in the fall and winter his beds produce the cool-season crops (cabbage family members, peas, the roots crops, etc.)

Pirtle does not have much suitable gardening space in the sunny areas of his yard, but he makes the most of what he has. His raised beds are located in a narrow area on the south side of his home; an area once occupied by a shed.

According to Pirtle, he first became interested in limited-space gardening by watching the “Square Foot Gardening” television show. He then purchased the book “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew (Rodale Press; still in print). He incorporated many of the techniques from the book into his raised beds.

To build his beds, Pirtle used 1-inch by 12-inch redwood boards. Each of the 3-by-6-foot beds is reinforced by another 1-by-12-inch board placed in the middle of the bed across its width. The beds are anchored by corner redwood stakes. By using redwood, Pirtle avoids the rot problem that would occur with other types of wood.

Pirtle filled the beds with a mixture of top soil and compost. He continually adds compost to his beds. Pirtle, who is a strict organic gardener, has a large compost bin that he tends to religiously on a year-round basis. He credits much of his gardening success to the rich compost mixture in his raised beds.

Pirtle has designed an irrigation system that allows him to mix fish emulsion fertilizer into the system. He then attaches soaker hoses to his system and both irrigates and feeds the plants in his beds at the same time. Pirtle uses a moisture meter to determine when to water his beds.

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During the warm season Pirtle grows eight tomato plants in one 3-by-6-foot bed. This, of course, is much closer spacing than the recommended two to three feet between plants. He accomplishes this by pruning each plant to eliminate all branches except for the main stem and two sucker stems at the base of each plant. He then trains these three stems up three strings that are attached to an overhead frame. Each week he pinches off any new sucker growth and continues to twist the growing stems around the string so that the stems follow the strings vertically. They continue to climb and produce over a long season.

Also during the warm season, Pirtle grows pole beans and corn together in one bed and lets the beans climb the corn stalks. Squash plants usually sprawl over a garden area, but Pirtle confines his squash plants to one bed by training them inside tomato cages. Peppers and eggplant are produced in another bed.

During the fall and winter, Pirtle attaches trellises to several of his beds and grows pole sugar snap peas, which are trained to the trellises. Potatoes are grown in another bed. Other cool-season crops fill the other beds.

Lettuce is supposed to be a cool-season vegetable, but Pirtle is able to grow it year-round by shading it with a 50% shade cloth during the hot summer months. Pirtle finds his raised beds are ideal for growing leaf lettuce. He fills his beds with plants spaced six inches apart throughout a bed. He does not harvest the entire plant at one time. Instead, Pirtle harvests only a few outer leaves off each plant per picking. The plants continue to grow and he has four or five harvest sessions before the plants go to seed.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to construct raised beds, intensive planting, interplanting and vertical gardening techniques can all be applied to small plots of garden soil with good results.

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