Planting to Save Space and Grow More Food

Much of Canada is still under a blanket of snow but that’s not stopping me from thinking of warmer days. In fact, it’s the dreaming of warmer days that are getting me through. I have to admit, I’ve about had enough of winter.

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The little tips and tricks used to get more bang for your buck (or in this case, more food).

Compact Gardening

As someone who has had gardens of different sizes over the years, I prefer the more compact ones. My reasons are two-fold.

Firstly, saving space is a big concern for anyone who has limited real estate. I am a big fan of Square Foot Gardening (a method designed by Mel Bartholomew) because it serves more than one purpose.

  • Space Saver. His method encourages close planting. In his book he states, “most gardeners are not farmers”. We don’t have tractors and big equipment to get between the rows to keep the weeds down. As a gardener who has spent countless hours trying to get a handle on the weeds after several rainy days, I am with him one hundred percent.
  • Better soil aeration. Anyone who has had a traditional row garden will know the consequences of walking between the rows, especially after a rain. You sink into the soil and it is no longer light and fluffy; it’s compacted with every step. That’s not healthy for the roots because it inhibits air circulation and encourages drowning in wet conditions. And if your soil is mostly clay, you’re just asking for trouble. (Ask me how I know.)
  • Less weeds. I have to admit, this is my favourite part of this method of gardening. I hate weeding, especially when the weeds are more prolific than my crops. That in itself has caused me to throw my hands in the air, say a few choice words, and walk away. Of course, that didn’t solve anything, but it did make me feel better for a few minutes.

Secondly, a bumper crop is more easily achieved. That’s what I have found in my experience anyway. The reasoning for a better crop not only comes from what I mentioned earlier, but also because there’s less chance of the plants being stressed.

The water doesn’t evaporate as quickly, the close proximity of the plants inhibits weed growth (and any weeds that do start to grow are usually spindly and easy to pull), and by companion planting more can be grown in the small area.

What is Companion Planting?

Planting vegetables, fruits and flowers together helps them benefit from each other. For example, planting runner beans at the base of sunflowers not only saves space but it also provides a natural “pole” for them to climb. A little tidbit on this strategy though: give the sunflowers a head start, or else the beans will soon be too tall for the “poles”. (Yep, you guessed it; I did NOT do that the first time.)

Planting flowers amongst the vegetables will also attract the pollinators. Sometimes they need to be bribed to come to the garden, especially if it’s a new one. I’m going to be ‘bribing’ more bees and other good bugs this year since I’m changing where my vegetables are going to be planted.

Other plants are pest-deterrent, such as onions, garlic, marigolds, and nasturtiums (all of the above are edible by the way). With the method explained in Mel’s book, no matter where in a block you plant it’s close enough to be beneficial.

When I first implemented this method of gardening, I made sure I had at least one square of marigolds in each section to help keep the mosquitoes away. I would brush my hand along the flowers as I walked by to release whatever it is in them that deters the mosquitoes.

One thing I did learn (the hard way of course) was to NOT plant a watermelon and zucchini in the same bed. Funny story: I was super excited when fall came along and my watermelon was almost the size of a football (but more oval). My mouth was watering just thinking of how good that watermelon would be. Imagine my dismay when I cut into the watermelon to find it the same colour as the zucchini.

Lesson learned: they cross pollinated and I had an oval zucchini and a regular zucchini. Aside from the outside, nothing resembled a watermelon. Now I have yet to figure out just how far apart I should plant the two so it doesn’t happen again, but I will say eight feet is too close. Maybe this year I’ll try again but with a much bigger distance between the two.

Succession Planting

In the SFG method, new crops can be planted in squares which have been harvested. The key to remember is to not plant the same type of vegetable, otherwise you’ll most likely end up with soil-borne diseases. This is known as crop rotation, just like the farmers do when they plant their fields year after year.

By filling in the squares with plants you have waiting in the wings you’ll be utilizing your growing space. Not only will you not end up with blocks of weeds, you’ll be producing a lot more food per season. I have harvested radishes, then planted tomato plants in that spot. I essentially was able to get two completely different crops out of one square, where in a traditional garden I would have had separate rows for each.


Interplanting works well in this method. For example, a pepper plant can be put in the middle of a square because it needs twelve inches of space when it’s mature. Adding some radishes or lettuce in the same square will utilize the soil and space. By the time the pepper has grown enough to fill in the space your radishes and lettuce will have been harvested and enjoyed.

Remember the sunflower and bean example I used earlier? That’s a perfect example of interplanting. Another is to plant vining crops on the north-most side of your garden bed and install a support, such as a trellis. Lower crops can then be planted in the front part of those squares. For example, cucumbers for climbing and say, lettuce to help shade the roots.

In-ground or Raised Beds?

In Mel’s book he shows the system in place in an in-ground format. I have tried it and it does work well. However, with that being said, using raised beds also works well for anyone with mobility issues. Sometimes it’s not easy to get back up after being on your knees for any length of time. And if you have bad knees or a bad back, you’re not doing yourself any favours by subjecting yourself to injury.

Raised beds is my preferred method, and for more than just the safety aspect of it. The soil heats up sooner in the spring so you can begin gardening sooner. And to extend the harvest, you can easily add hoop houses to each bed. (I’ll be talking more about hoop houses in a future post.)

When I had my raised beds several years ago, they were only a few inches high. That was fine for the warming aspect, but it would still be too low for the ease-of-access aspect. My goal this year is to build my garden beds almost waist-height to make planting, maintaining and harvesting easier on my knees and back. I don’t consider myself old, but my body sure feels it.

The options for raised beds are becoming more readily available, and easier to build. The key to remember is to use pressure treated lumber and not chemically infused (such as railroad ties). The best option is to use naturally rot-resistant wood such as cedar, but that can become quite pricey if making several beds.

Granted, by using the Square Foot Gardening method, less really is more.

In Conclusion

Planting a huge garden isn’t necessary when you know the tricks to get more produce from a smaller space. Saving water, time and energy by compact gardening will give you more time to stop and smell the flowers. Stay tuned for how you can design your garden beds to accommodate relaxation features as well as being practical.

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