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Minimum Plant Spacing Guidelines

Minimum Plant Spacing Guidelines

You have limited space so you cram it all in, right?

We all want to maximize our growing space, growing as much food as possible in a given year, and for many of us, space is at such a premium and our veggie and flower list so long that we may (okay, often) push the limits of our physical growing space. This is overplanting, folks. I am here to share with you my experience with plant spacing and my infographic I created to help remind me of spacing needs. 

At our homestead, we are quite fortunate in that our current home garden is as about as big as we can handle, and by that I mean it’s bigger than ever. We fenced off an 1/8 acre when we moved here in 2016. We garden it intensely, complete with 16 fruit trees (most of them espaliered); a large strawberry patch; 50 row feet of various raspberry varieties; 9 high bush blueberries; 40 asparagus plants; a patio for momentary pauses between the weeding, sowing, and reaping, plus roughly 2,000 square feet of hand-dug raised beds for vegetable production. Indeed, it is our dream garden, actualized. 

Even with ample space to grow a wide variety of food for ourselves and our friends, plant spacing is something I study meticulously every year, even every time I bring a flat of veggies into the garden to transplant. I bring out my gardening books, reference my seed source website for variety specific recommendations, and remind myself how much space each plant needs. I calibrate my eye with a tape measure. 

We always grow our tomatoes on a vertical trellis, trimming the suckers off and keeping only one leader. The interplanted sweet alyssum and nasturtium will attract pollinators and beneficial insects, the lettuce will be harvested before the tomatoes and peppers get really big, and the onions can just hang out in front not requiring much space or attention until they are ready to harvest in late summer. 

Last year, which was our first year growing in this awesome new space, we followed Coleman’s spacing guidelines for brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts (30” on center) and it left us with a lot of underutilized space. We could have produced 50% more cabbage on that same land. Needless to say, I took note and we are doing things differently this year.

 Instead of giving the brassicas their own space, this season they are sharing square footage with beets (pictured here in the foreground), head lettuce, and arugula. This way, all our spring beets and lettuce plantings are sharing space which frees up other beds for ... more food! 

Instead of giving the brassicas their own space, this season they are sharing square footage with beets (pictured here in the foreground), head lettuce, and arugula. This way, all our spring beets and lettuce plantings are sharing space which frees up other beds for ... more food! 

This year we are going for a more densely planted brassica bed by following Johnny’s Seeds spacing guidelines (all our cabbage seeds are sourced from them) and by planting some smaller varieties than can be densely planted.  We are also living on the edge as I transplanted some (moderately-fast maturing) beets between our brassica rows, and interplanted head lettuce and some arugula in that same bed. Already, just in this first week in May, it is looking great. 

Why Proper Spacing Is So Important 

The trick to plant spacing is to give each plant enough light, water, nutrients, and air flow to promote optimal growth, strength to ward off disease, and to mature to its ideal size. If you don’t give your plants the space (and thus light, air flow, and nutrients) it needs, the result will be a smaller plant that is overall struggling to meet its needs, ultimately resulting in poor flowering and suboptimal production. 

All any gardener wants is the best and strongest plants possible. That means give them the space and thus nutrition, light, and water requirements they need to thrive. If you start from seed and end up like most with more starts than you have space for, instead of overplanting and squeezing them all into your beds, plant out your best and strongest starts and offer the extras to friends or neighbors. We do this every year. I have a stash of extras waiting to be donated to friends and a local nonprofit garden. Why rob your best plants of nutrients by overcrowding? Instead, plant the right amount, where yields will be greater per plant. 

 Here is a real-life photograph of our brassica bed where we implemented the 5-broccoli interplanted with 8 head lettuce. I spaced the broccoli between 24-30" apart, which may prove to be father apart than necessary but is a bit closer than we've done in years past. Notice some broccoli are doing better than others, and will result in a longer harvest period as the smaller plants won't mature as fast. The lettuce were tiny when I transplanted them a few weeks ago, and already are catching up to the broccoli. Faster growing interplanted crops will always mature well before the anchor crop reaches maturity. This is a great way to maximize space.

Here is a real-life photograph of our brassica bed where we implemented the 5-broccoli interplanted with 8 head lettuce. I spaced the broccoli between 24-30" apart, which may prove to be father apart than necessary but is a bit closer than we've done in years past. Notice some broccoli are doing better than others, and will result in a longer harvest period as the smaller plants won't mature as fast. The lettuce were tiny when I transplanted them a few weeks ago, and already are catching up to the broccoli. Faster growing interplanted crops will always mature well before the anchor crop reaches maturity. This is a great way to maximize space.

Some starts seem so small such as a cabbage, tomato, or zucchini and you think you can put them close together. Oh, do resist the urge! These plants want to take up a good bit of square footage as they mature. Instead of spacing them close together, interplant those gaps with lettuce, radishes, beets, or the like and then your desire for utilizing the space will be achieved in the short term before the larger, longer maturing crop reaches its full size. 

A well-designed bed includes spring and summer crops, planted from as early as possible into summer. Here I chose to anchor the bed with a center planting of broccoli, with pole beans and a summer squash flagging it. In spring, the snow, snap or shelling peas will grow up and be just about done when the zucchini is getting big and ready to produce. The carrots are planted as early as mid-May and as late as end of June. The kale resides under the shade of the green bean trellis, with the beets and radishes being harvested in late Spring. 

In an effort to maximize space between broccoli, this year I spaced them at 24” apart in the shape of an X and between them, I interplanted 8 head lettuce. The lettuce are growing faster than the broccoli and filling in, and will definitely be harvested well before the broccoli start to head. Contrast that with last year’s planting of 2 plants, 30” apart in both directions — I’ve increased broccoli production be 25% in (20%) less space — and added a few weeks worth of lettuce in there for good measure. I think this spacing is tight enough for our family’s needs and my comfort zone with interplanting. 

Interplant, Don’t Overplant

I’ve said this before, and I am sure I will repeat this again after today. Plant spacing works for a reason. We all would agree that the last thing you want is for your plant starts to be so overcrowded they don’t mature into the beauties you dreamed they would. Plant spacing at the minimum distance that I recommend will yield happy plants, given you have provided great soil, adequate fertilization (compost and/or slow release fertilizers), and you irrigate appropriately. 

Get comfortable with the idea of giving each plant its unencumbered growing space. Envision a garden where at maturity, only the farthest reaching tips of each plant just barely touch their neighbor. If they end up being closer than that, with the exception of crops like carrots, lettuce, beets, and radishes, you may want to take note of your spacing and give them all a little more space next year. The end goal for plant spacing in my mind’s eye is for each plant tip to just touch their neighbor at maturity, when the broccoli is heading and the peppers are ripening, for example their outermost leaves will flirt with their neighbor but not be hugging one another tightly. 

Download a copy of my Minimum Spacing Guidelines here: Minimum Spacing Guidelines.

There is no such thing as being spaced too far apart, except in the case of something like corn where good pollination require a minimum square footage planted and spacing matters so pollen can migrate from plant to plant for full ears to develop. Open grown plants will compete less for light, soil nutrients, and available water. So, when you review my suggestions, use them as a minimum guideline if at all possible.

If you have the room, space your tomatoes 3 feet apart on center, not just 30"; if you have the space for kale, I'd push them out to 18" on center instead of 12". What will mature will be larger, more robust, disease-resistant plants. Give them more resources and they will give back in plentitude. So, if space allows, allot the adequate square footage to each crop; your vegetables will reward you with bountiful crops.  

I recommend using my Plant Spacing Guideline as a starting point, and to cross-reference it with your seed source recommendations; some varieties may be able to be planted closer, and some may require more space than I propose here. But in general, these are my minimum spacing guidelines; I space some vegetables wider whenever possible. I chose these distances based not on our abundant garden space, but more for the average gardener with just a few raised beds in a more urban environment. 

Our brassica-beet plant spacing is a huge experiment for me, stretching my comfort zone, and may result in what I consider overcrowding, which will mean smaller beets and smaller cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli. Time will tell, however, and there’s always a lesson that reveals itself in the end, one you could not foresee. I love that about my garden beds. 

 

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