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Wide rows help make the most of a small garden
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Planting vegetable garden crops in wide rows rather than single file means more garden space devoted to crops rather than open space between rows. And that can boost productivity and help you make the most of limited gardening space.

How wide is wide? From two parallel rows of snap beans a few inches apart to a bed 36 inches wide - or whatever width you can tend easily without a great deal of stretching, said Mary McLellan, Extension Master Gardener program coordinator at Michigan State University.

“In other words, it’s whatever works for you and the crops you are growing,” she said.

What crops can you grow in wide rows? Most common vegetable crops can be adapted to wide rows, McLellan said, except plants that naturally sprawl and take up a lot of space on their own, such as vining winter squash and pumpkins. Crops planted from seed and those planted as transplants can be grown in wide rows, she suggests. All that’s necessary is to maintain the recommended spacing between plants.

“This is easy with transplants,” she observed. “Within the wide row, you simply arrange plants so that each one is 16 inches, for example, from all its neighbors. One zigzag row or three staggered rows within the wide row may be the easiest way to achieve this.” When planting seeds, you can either broadcast the seed across the width of the row and lightly cover it with soil or sow it in rows within the wide row.

“An advantage of rows within the row is that seedlings are easy to tell from weeds,” McLellan said. “When seeds are broadcast within the row, weeds and crops come up all mixed together. Another advantage is that achieving the recommended spacing and cultivating or mulching for weed control are easier when crop plants are growing in rows.”

Because more garden space is taken up with crops and less space with walkways between rows, gardeners who try out wide rows often find their gardens’ production increasing. How wide the walkways between rows need to be depends largely on how you intend to control weeds. Spaces between rows need to be wider if you intend to use a tiller than if you plan on using mulches and a hoe to keep weeds in check.

Wide row plantings tend to make efficient use of fertilizer and irrigation water, McLellan noted. They may also make it easier to rotate related crops around the garden.

“If you group related crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kohlrabi, in adjacent blocks, you can simply move the blocks from year to year to prevent related crops from following one another in the same spot,” she explained.

You can practice successive cropping and intercropping in wide rows, also, she said.

“In an 8-foot row of salad crops, for instance, you could plant 2 feet of mixed lettuce, radishes and spinach every 10 days to 2 weeks for a continuous harvest until hot weather puts the salad garden out of production,” she said. “As each planting gives way to the next, you can replace the early ones with blocks of warm-weather crops such as snap beans or peppers and the later ones with broccoli and cabbage transplants for a fall harvest.”

If you’re in the habit of planting a few radish seeds to mark your carrot rows and break up the soil crust so the carrot tops can emerge or planting early salad crops between tomato, pepper or broccoli plants, you can do this in wide rows, too.

There’s no rule that a garden with wide rows can’t have flowers in it, she points out. Marigolds or zinnias or other annuals can follow early vegetables or be planted in alternating blocks with snap beans or peppers.

There’s also no rule that rows have to be straight and blocks have to be, well, blocky, she added. Curved rows and island plantings or drifts of various crops divided by curving walkways can be productive, too. Just make sure that your walkways are wide enough to provide access to people and garden equipment and that you can get to each section to tend and harvest your crops.

This farm news was published in the April 12, 2006 issue of Farm World.