Sunday, February 26, 2017

Seed Spacing in the Home Garden

Forget everything you think you know about seed spacing. In the home garden we can easily double or triple our yields by giving up on planting our garden according to the guides on the back of our seed packets. Those guides are great for certain applications. But let's be clear, that isn't in the home garden. That's because those seed spacing guides are designed for large scale farming where seeds are planted in perfect rows because it makes mechanical harvesting easier. Row spacing is dictated so that specialized tractors can span several rows and their large tires can fit neatly between rows. In the home garden, we aren't using specialized equipment to harvest, so why are we even planting in rows? Take a look at how much we can gain with our carrots, spinach, onions, and cabbage when we give up planting in rows:

If we plant in rows, using traditional spacing, yields of these common vegetables is relatively low in a 4'x4' bed. At this level of production, it's no wonder so many home gardener's say it's not worth it. However, if we discard planting in neat rows a foot apart, we can produce as much as 3 times the yield in the same space! And since we're working in a 4 foot raised bed, we don't need rows to walk (or run equipment) through; we can reach those plants in the center perfectly well.

Lets also not forget, we can plant even more if we intend to harvest some young plants. Onions and spinach in particular can be planted at twice the rate shown above, and harvest every other plant for eating when young, allowing those left to grow to maturity.

Notice on the left the already more than tripled production when we stop planting in rows, but we don't need to stop there. Because young onions and spinach are so much smaller than mature plants, they can be planted with only half the distance between plants. Then, as they mature we can selectively harvest as shown by the outlines in the right picture to allow those remaining plants enough space to grow to maturity.

The effect of this type of planting is two fold. First, it allows us to have twice as many plants in the same amount of space, effectively doubling our harvest. Second, because the plants are spaced much closer when small they will quickly shadow any weeds that might try to grow between plants preventing them from taking root thus decreasing the need for weeding.

So many home gardeners find themselves plagued with low yields and heavy weeding. That's because the traditional methods of planting seeds aren't designed for the home garden. When we rethink how we plant and harvest our garden we can double, or even more than triple the harvest without a need for increased garden beds. And in the case of spinach and onions, we can reap more than 5x the produce by interspersing our baby spinach and green onions with those plants we intend to allow to grow to maturity. And we can do all this while decreasing the time invested weeding our beds. It doesn't get any better than that!

Let's get planting!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Starting Seed in February

It's just about a week into February, and my garden planning is in full swing. Depending on your plant hardiness zone (which you can find here) it's time to start sowing seeds indoors, or even directly outside under cover! If you're in zone 5-6, this guide should be just about right for you! You'll have to adjust by a week or two according to your exact last frost date. Ours is May 15th just for reference.

Some of the earliest seed you should be starting indoors (or out) is onion. For us, the first two weeks of February is golden. Planting onions later is not only possible, but encouraged, but it's this first planting that you'll leave in the garden all summer long to form large beautiful onion bulbs. Any bulb forming onion variety will work, but I prefer an open pollinated seed for reasons I'll discuss later. Also, ensure the variety you're getting is of the right day-length, which I'll also discuss later, but basically, northern states get long-day and southern states get short-day.

For starting onion indoors, just dampen a 6" pot of rich soul and sprinkle seeds in generously. Don't worry too much about crowding at this point. Onion roots are very thick and tough and will separate well in several weeks for transplanting even when crowded.  Keep the top layer of soil moist until the seeds sprout and then water only as needed until it's time for transplant.

After onions, find yourself a nice cold hardy variety of lettuce. Plant these in mid-February so they're ready for planting outside in April (or March under a cold-frame). Since these will be inside for a little while, I find it's best to plant them directly into 4" pots. Of course you can plant in starters, and then transplant later, but why bother? Just like onions, keep the soil misted with water until the seeds sprout, then water as necessary. Once the seeds are well established, pinch or snip off all but the strongest seedling in each pot; pull them, and you risk pulling them all!

Once my lettuce is well established, I start in on my spinach. It has basically the same care needs as lettuce with one notable exception: spinach does not tolerate transplant all that well, so always use a larger pot to avoid excess root disturbances. Just like lettuces, these seedlings can go outside in mid March under a cold frame, or in April unprotected. Contrary to what you might expect from seemingly delicate greens, they thrive in the cold and have a much sweeter taste and crunchier texture when grown before the heat of summer sets in.

Just remember when starting your seeds, that these are my personal start dates, and are good for those living in zones 5 and 6 with an average last frost date around May 15th. You'll need to adjust accordingly if you're in a significantly warmer or cooler climate.