Traditional gardening advice is often based on a scaled-down version of agriculture: dig in manure, till the soil, plant the seeds, wait until they mature, harvest and then you’re done for the year. The problem with this is that it assumes you have plenty of land which is often not the case for home-growing. Over the years several techniques have been developed which can dramatically increase the quantity of vegetables you can grow in a garden area but how do you know which will work well for your situation? Here’s a concise guide to the available options...
Succession planting is where one plant is followed by another in the same garden space during a single gardening year. This works very well if you live in a warm climate with a long growing season because most crops will mature in a few months, leaving room for more plants once they have been harvested. In such areas it is common to separate the entire garden plan into Spring and Autumn plantings although with shading an extra summer crop can often be squeezed in. However, with a little ingenuity, succession planting can work in cooler climates too although you will be limited to quick-maturing crops such as radish, lettuce, rocket, spinach and quick maturing herbs (basil, parsley etc).
To make the very best use of the space, plants should be given a head-start by raising them in pots or as plug plants so that they are ready to plant out as soon as the area of ground is available. If these have been raised indoors then don’t forget that they will need hardening off before planting out. For cooler climates you may wish to consider extending the season using plant protection too.
Intercropping is sometimes confused with succession planting because it also allows you to grow more than one vegetable in the same area of land. The difference is that the plants are in the soil at the same time. This is useful where you have a slow growing crop that takes a long time to grow to full size. Many brassicas fall into this category such as Brussels sprouts, purple-sprouting broccoli and cabbages, all of which need to be spaced widely but take a while to use that space. By growing a quick-maturing crop (see the list above) early on between the slower-maturing main crop an extra harvest is possible, without the main crop being adversely affected.
Growing plants vertically up a lattice of poles and netting or by tying them to supports is an obvious space saver. There are two main categories here:
- Plants that naturally like to climb: Peas, beans, cucumbers and fruit vines all naturally seek out supports to wrap their tendrils round and head upwards. This is a great use of space but care must be taken that they don’t shade other plants that need the light so it is often best to site the supports on the northern side of your garden. On the other hand, in very warm climates, you may wish to use these plants to deliberately shade an area for cooler-season crops like spinach.
- Plants that can be encouraged to climb: Squash plants don’t naturally climb despite the little tendrils that many of them grow. Left to their own devices they sprawl over the garden taking up much more room than is required. One solution is to tie the plants to strong vertical supports – usually a frame or trellis, adding more ties as they grow. Once the ‘fruit’ appear they will usually need supporting – a piece of netting tied around them like a hammock is ideal. In this way pumpkins, butternut squash and melons can all be grown vertically.
Many systems have been developed for very small gardens that make use of deep beds – generally raised beds with 45cm (18") or more in depth of high quality compost to provide extra nutrients and hold moisture. The Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method is one such system and offers a simple, if slightly limited, approach to garden planning. Although these deep beds are more costly to build than a regular garden they have two important advantages:
- More crops can be grown in the same area due to the depth of high-quality soil available to the plants. SFG specifies closer spacing than you will find on most seed packets as a result.
- Closer-grown crops and the use of sterilised compost result in much less weed growth between plants making the gardens easier to maintain.
Is there such a thing as a free lunch?
You rarely get something for nothing when gardening and these intensive-cropping techniques all have one thing in common – more plants in the same space means more nutrients are being drawn out of the soil. That is why it is vital to pay extra attention to feeding the soil when using these methods. Although in a small garden it is tempting to use every spare inch for vegetable beds it is important to set aside a larger area for composting and make sure that you source extra materials to fill the compost bins unless using commercially produced compost.
Crop rotation also becomes more of an issue in these intensive systems because you may be growing crops from several plant families in the same area. To avoid the soil nutrients becoming overly depleted or pests building up it is important to rotate crops from the same family to different areas each year but if you are using intercropping or succession sowing then you have more variables to factor in.
Our Garden Planner Can Help
Our popular Garden Planner software has some great features to help with getting more from your garden:
- Succession Planting is built in so you can specify when crops are in the ground and then view your plan for different months. To see this in action just view this YouTube video.
- Intercropping can easily be achieved by overlapping the coloured areas around the plants and the succession planting feature makes it simple to show how the quick-maturing plants are harvested and ‘disappear’ from the plan in later months.
- Deep Bed Spacing – you can adjust the spacing for each plant or for particular varieties of plants so that the system shows the closer spacing and calculates the exact number of plants you can get into an area.
- Crop Rotation Advice works with succession planting and intercropping to make it simple to rotate crops without having to remember what was planted in previous years and you can now specify exactly which plans are linked in the system’s ‘memory’.
- Square Foot Gardening - Clicking the SFG button activates Square Foot Gardening mode, where plants are added in square-foot blocks with the number of plants to be grown in that space shown on the square of plants.
I’ll be using all of these techniques in my own garden this year to get the maximum harvest but there are many other ways of increasing yield. If you have your own methods for intensive growing please do share them by adding a comment below.