When it comes to gardening, I’m a rule breaker. Yes, I’ll admit it, I don’t map out my garden on graph paper to predetermine where each plant will go; I overlook companion plantings and I totally ignore suggested plant spacing. Call me a rebel with trowel-in-hand.
Breaking the Rules
I tried to follow the rules, once. When I converted to raised beds a couple years back, I embraced the square foot method of organizing and planting the garden. It had the promise of being the best way to maximize space and grow lots of vegetables – and that’s what I was after.
The 2nd Street Chicken Ranch is on a very small lot and our growing space is made even smaller due to the shade cast by an old and very large maple and an equally large English walnut. Tucked in the only sunny spot in the backyard are four 4′ x 8′ raised beds and one 3′ x 16′ bed. I needed to maximize every square inch.
And so, with a square foot planting guide in hand, I tromped out to the beds and marked off the square foot blocks. With one bed marked I stood back and looked at the diagram in my hand. Really? Are you kidding me? Four lettuce seeds per square? Nine spinach seeds? On paper this looked pretty good. In reality, well, it just seemed like a waste of space to plant only four lettuce seeds. And what if one of those four seeds failed? Your harvest is cut by 25%.
Please note, I’m not criticizing the square foot method; it does work for many people and remains a quite popular method of gardening. Let’s just say it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t adhere to the square foot rules.
Planting Out of the Box
I garden by the seat of my overalls and I like to experiment with new seed varieties. Each year I’m more ambitious and push the garden’s production limits, cramming a little more into those beds.
There is a risk involved with over-crowding, including disease and a depletion of soil nutrients. These risks can be reduced by good garden management. At the turnover from spring crops to summer plantings and throughout succession plantings, each bed gets a new layer of compost worked in. During the heavy growing season, the garden is fed a fish emulsion solution about every three weeks (stinky, but worth it). Plants that appear to be lagging or otherwise not doing well are pulled. Crowded is okay, sick and diseased is not.
This year I have exceeded my own record and have 41 tomato plants in the ground (okay, seven are in pots). The garden has at least one of each of the 16 heirlooms I started from seed. A little excessive, I’ll agree. But the plants are healthy and I really won’t mind climbing through a tomato jungle to harvest those jewels of summer.
Among the tomatoes grow lettuce and onions, beans, a few squash plants, rosemary and sage. Only one bed remains completely tomato-free, and it’s loaded with garlic, peas and lettuce. My planting style may be a bit unorthodox, but it works. We’ve had abundant harvests all season, and that’s reason enough to break the rules.
So if you’re feeling a little restricted by your square feet, start planting out of the box and use every square inch of your garden plot. You may not be up to planting 41 tomato plants, but I’m willing to bet you can get more than two in your raised bed!
I’d love to hear about your planting style – square foot or free-for-all! Please share it in the comments below.