Garden Layout and Some Cultural Requirements for the Vegetables

Some Ideas from Malaine’s Garden

Dear Gardeners:

I’ve had several of you ask about how to lay out your garden for the plants you’d like to grow and so I’m going to provide some “Guidelines”. These are just guidelines, not set in stone, and can be broken at your convenience! But they can be a starting point if you have never laid out a garden before and don’t know how much space plants can take up.

If you really want to get technical, pull out a piece of graph paper and mark out a 20×20 plot on your paper (you can get free graph paper printouts from www. incompetech.com/graphpaper). Your first decision is whether you are going to layout your garden in beds or rows, or a combination of the two (my garden at home is both). At my Dad’s garden on a farm in PA, I typically lay out his garden in rows–his large garden is plowed by the tractor and since he is 80 and cannot get down on the ground to weed, I lay out sheets of 3’wide black plastic from rolls (the black plastic blocks the weeds) the width of the garden. I use rocks to hold the sheets of plastic down. I lay two sheets side by side, leaving a little gap between the sheets all across the width of the garden, then plant rows of seeds between the sheets of plastic. The exception is for plants like squashes, pumpkins, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflower, peppers, basil and cabbage. For them I overlap the sheets of plastic a little (forming a continuous surface of plastic-no gaps between the rows), then poke holes in the plastic to put in the seeds or plants–the only place the weeds can come up in those areas is around the base of the plants. This style of planting works well for my father. The plastic warms the area around the tomatoes, eggplant and peppers (warmth lovers) and the plastic blocks the bulk of weed growth. The disadvantage to this style of gardening is that it’s not very space efficient–there’s typically a 3′ gap between rows of plants and all that black plastic can be expensive and is not ecologically beneficial (although we do reuse it). However, Dad can plow his garden as big as he likes (no space constraints), so we don’t need to worry about how much space each row takes up. Although black plastic is not a sustainable product because oil is used in its manufacture, organic gardeners do use is, especially to warm the soil under heat loving plants. This method is also fast and easy.

An alternative way to lay out your garden is in beds. The beds can be as long as your garden (say 20′), but each bed should only be 2′-4′ wide (you don’t want them to be wider than you can reach from either side). The beds can be 4’x4′ or 4’x8′, triangular or even curved–be creative! In this style of gardening soil is mounded up to form the bed, leaving a slightly depressed area to form the pathway. If you look at plot #17 in the Community Garden, you can see an example of raised beds. The pathways can then be mulched with wood chips, several layers of newspaper or cardboard (usually then covered with another mulch) straw, landscape fabric, black plastic, coarse leaf mulch (please do not use our precious compost for this though–the black compost at the garden is to mix in with the plants to help them grow) –basically a material that you don’t mind walking on and that will keep down the weeds. The pathways between the beds should be at least 1′ wide, but can be wider, depending on the width you feel you would need to get down to weed in the beds. The advantage of beds is that more space is spent on plants and less on walkways and you can keep improving the same beds from year to year (add compost to the bed yearly and don’t walk on the bed–makes for nice fluffy soil).

Now that you’ve made the row versus bed decision, let’s talk a little about orientation. Typically rows/beds of plants are oriented East to West. That way the sun tracks the sky East to West and theoretically, the plants in a row/bed get an equal amount of light–that’s particularly important if you have tall plants (corn, pole beans, tomatoes). Taller plants are also typically situated on the North side of a garden–that way as the sun drops South in the sky (come August) they won’t be shading other plants. One other concern you should pay some mind to though are your sprawling plants–if you have a garden along a fence line, you might want to situate sprawlers ( eg. pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers) along that fence line so that you won’t have to be chasing your sprawling plants from your neighbor’s beds-let them sprawl on to the walkway along the fence.

For several types of plants I’ve particularly noted that they are heavy feeders, or that they like fertilizer. All the vegetables need at least some fertilizer, but the ones I specifically comment on below seem to need more, or would benefit from additional fertilizer added midway through the season. Now, on to the plants–how much space should you leave for any given plant?, well…

Basil–space 8″- 12″ apart

Beans–follow the directions on the seed packet, but seeds are typically spaced about 2″ apart (1″ deep). You can form a 6″ wide row of seeds. Decide on how long of a row you want. Since the beans tend to produce all at the same time, you might want to consider doing two plantings, one now and another 3 weeks or so from now to spread out the length of bean season. A typical row of bush beans will be 18″-24″ wide (especially if you sow a 6″ wide “row” of them).

Beets-I typically broadcast sow (scatter seeds in a bed). After the beet seedlings come up, thin extras so that the beets are 4″-6″ apart. Each beet “seed” is actually a dried fruit containing several seeds–need to thin, leaving one seedling per area. Beet seeds benefit in germination from being soaked in room temperature water overnight before you plant. Can also be sown in rows.

Bok Choy- I typically broadcast sow (scatter seeds in a bed). Once the plants are a couple of inches tall, I transplant them around the bed to the spacing recommended on the seed package. Slugs have a fondness for bok choy, for which I use an organic product called Sluggo–sprinkle it on the ground by the slug susceptible plants.

Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts and Cabbages–leave about 18″ between plants and 2′ between rows. Set plants into the ground about 1″ deeper than they were in their container (up to their first true leaves). These plants are heavy feeders (like fertilizer). Sometimes I “interplant” with broccoli–meaning that between the broccoli plants I’ll plant radish seeds or lettuce plants–these crops mature quickly and are eaten before the broccoli plants get too large to crowd them.

Carrots- I typically broadcast sow (scatter seeds in a bed). After the carrot seedlings come up, thin extras so that the carrots are 4″ apart (or whatever it says on the package). Carrots can also be sown in rows. Carrot seeds like to stay moist for germination–I usually water the surface of the soil daily to keep it from drying out until germination occurs. Carrots love soil that is FREE OF ROCKS OR OTHER IMPEDIMENTS–the roots will object to hitting hard things in the soil–go over your carrot bed carefully to remove rocks and dig deeply (10″-12″ is not too deep!) Add compost–make the soil fluffy!

Cauliflower- leave about 24″ between plants . Set plants into the ground about 1″ deeper than they were in their container (up to their first true leaves). These plants are heavy feeders (like fertilizer).

Celery-leave about 6″-8″ between plants. They need moisture during the heat of summer, or become woody.

Chinese Cabbage-These are best grown in the fall (they hate heat and will bolt in the summer). The spacing depends on the cultivar, and I’ve found that slugs LOVE Chinese Cabbage.

Corn-Corn is wind pollinated, so it’s best to plant a BLOCK (4-6 short rows) of corn, rather than a long row or two. Follow the directions on the package, but a generous guideline is for corn planted 1′ apart and 2′ between rows –it’s not a bad idea to put two seeds in per spot though to ensure germination (thin the extra if both plants germinate). There are also early, midseason and late cultivars of corn–to extend your corn season, plant several cultivars timed to produce at different times. Corn is a heavy feeder—needs fertilizer. Be mindful that it can grow 6′ tall and shade other crops.

Cucumber-Cucumbers are sprawling plants that can take up an area of 6 or 8 square feet. You can let them sprawl (my Dad’s garden on the black plastic), or they can be trained on to a vertical support (I use six- 8 foot long 2″x4″s lashed together at the top, then spread apart to form a “tepee”, which then has clothesline woven from one leg of the tepee to another to form a grid for the cukes to climb on–Look on the internet for ideas for vertical supports if you want to do that. Generally you can get more cucumber plants in a given area if you use vertical supports (fence, trellis, arbor, netting, bamboo poles, etc). I usually start my cucumbers from seed, but plants from the garden center should be fine too. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to do a second sowing of cucumbers 3 or so weeks after the first–extends the season and also is some insurance against bugs (if the bugs get the first plantings, they might not get the second!) Cucumbers like fertilizer.

Eggplant-Set plants 18′-24′ apart. They sometimes benefit from supports (tomato cages work well) to hold the plant up once it sets fruit. They love HEAT, so spreading black plastic under the plants might be helpful.

Greens, eg. lettuces, spinach, collards and kale (it’s probably too late for spinach this year–likes the cool temps of spring and not the heat of summer.) I usually follow the directions on the package for these plants, broadcast sow them (scatter seeds in a bed), then thin/transplant as directed on the package. Some lettuce varieties do not enjoy the heat of summer, so be mindful as you read the seed package. Lettuce can also be planted in an area that gets shaded by taller plants, so it gets a little less sun in the heat of summer.

Kohlrabi-These seeds like to be planted either early spring (now is likely too late) or midsummer for fall harvest.

Leek-I usually plant my leek plants about 4″ apart in all directions. I use plants with the greens attached.

Lettuce-See Greens

Melons- Here’s another sprawling plant. They like HEAT. Plants can go 3′ apart in rows spaced 6′ apart, or in beds with 4 or more feet between plants. Some of the smaller melons can be trellised (see Cucumbers above). Plants can be started from seed (but be mindful of season length–melons can take anywhere from 70-140 days to ripen) At this point of time (May 20’s), I’d opt for either getting plants that are already started, or using seeds that have a shorter harvest time (90 days or less).

Okra-Here’s another one that loves HEAT! Plant 12″-16″ apart. This is my first year planting okra, so I don’t know much about it, except that plants are supposed to be pretty and can grow 3′ tall.

Onion-Set out either onion sets (small bulbs) or onion plants (with the green tops intact) about 2″-6′” apart, depending on the size of the mature cultivars bulb. Onions are best planted around here in April to give them as much time as possible to grow (growth slows after the days start to shorten), but I’ve planted sets at Dad’s on Memorial Day weekend for years now, and the results are fine.

Parsnip-These are best started from seed with the surface of the soil kept moist for the 2-3 weeks it may take before germination. They have a long growing season and are best harvested in the fall after a frost.

Peas- Peas are wonderful, but they like the cool of spring–plan on planting them in April – it’s likely too late for them to be happy now –by early July the plants usually start to shrivel from the heat. I usually plant them in rows, following the spacing recommended on the package.

Peppers–They love HEAT! Space plants 14-16″ apart. Sometimes they appreciate a tomato cage support (put the cage around them around the time you plant). If the plants get loaded with fruit they will sometimes fall over without support.

Potato- A 5-pound bag plants about 25 row feet. Plant in furrows, 4″-6″ deep, in rows 32″-36″ apart. Space the pieces about 8″-12″ apart and cover with 2-4″ of soil. You can hill up the soil as the plant grows. Also after I’m done hilling, I spread straw over the potato bed (not on the plant itself, just on the dirt!). If developing potatoes are exposed to sun they develop green areas on the skin, which are not healthy to eat. So the straw (or I suppose a coarse leaf mulch would work well too) will help provide added coverage for the potatoes growing in the soil. Potatoes also like cooler weather, but can be planted now–they can usually be planted as early as mid to late April as well.

Pumpkin–A great class of sprawling plants. You can start from seed or plant, following directions on the seed package for spacing. They can send out runners 10′ or more long, so leave room for these ground coverers! Small pumpkins can be trellised (see Cucumbers above). They love fertilizer, so feed them well!

Radish- I typically broadcast sow (scatter seeds in a bed), then thin as needed by the directions on the package. Radishes like cool weather. The latest I’ve planted radishes in the spring has been late May. When I tried planting after that, they didn’t produce any roots (were very unhappy with the heat of summer). I’ll plant again in mid-August/early September for fall harvest.

Rutabagas-These are typically grown as a fall crop, but take 3-4 months to mature. This year I’m going to seed mine around June 1, to expect a crop in October. Sow seeds about 2″ apart, then thin to 8″ apart. They do seem to appreciate the space to grow.

Shallots-Plant about 4-6″ apart in all directions. You can plant either sets (small bulbs) or transplants (greens attached). I planted these for the first time in 2008 and was very pleased with the results- I still have a few left from last year’s harvest and they look and taste as fine as when I harvested them–compared to how expensive these are in the store, growing them costs pennies and the flavor is wonderful.

Summer Squash- Plant a few seeds about 6″ apart from each other to form a “hill”, then space the hills 3′-4′ feet apart. Squash like fertilizer.

Winter Squash- Plant a few seeds about 6″ apart from each other to form a “hill”, then space the hills at least 5′ feet apart. Squash like fertilizer.

Sweet Potatoes-Sweet potatoes grow from “slips”-set the slips deeply, to their first leaves. They like HEAT. These are rampant growing vines.

Swiss Chard-Sow seeds about 4″ apart, then transplant or thin to 8″-12″ apart. Like beets, chard seeds will sprout more than one plant. Chard is a happy-go-lucky vegetable, rarely troubled by pests or disease.

Tomato-These are also heavy feeders. Dig a basketball sized hole for each tomato plant–add compost and fertilizer–mix it up. If you have egg shells, crush them and add them to each hole as well (source of calcium)-this is not absolutely necessary, but nice to include if you do have shells. Plant deeply–up to the first set of real leaves–the plants will root along the length of the stem. There are two methods for tomato growth–at Dad’s I just “let’em sprawl” 3′ apart on the black plastic–this brings the plants down to ground level and may increase rot and critter (mouse) damage. But it’s easy and where he lives, works well. But again, he has plenty of space. If you want to conserve space, plant tomatoes and tie them up. They can be planted 2′ apart, 3′ between rows, or I’ve also heard of 30″ apart in all directions. You can use tomato cages, but the cages frequently tip over when the plants get big, so to prevent this I pound a 4′ stake down the middle of the cage when I plant the tomato–it helps to hold the cage in place. There are other alternative ways to stake the plants — tying them to wire fences–it might be worth looking on the Internet to see what other people have used as vertical support for tomatoes.

Turnip-They work well for fall planting. Sow seeds 1″ apart, 12″ between rows. Thin to 4″ apart.

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