Simple Gardening Systems
By Larry G. Campbell, WVU Extension Service Harrison County agriculture agent
Many potential gardeners hesitate to grow a vegetable garden because they feel that the weeding and hoeing required to maintain a traditional garden is too much work. In addition, they may have various problems in their home landscape, such as poor soils, limited space, and accessibility issues. Wildlife damage in the garden may also cause potential gardeners to hesitate to develop a home garden.
The beginning gardener should be encouraged to know that there are several simple garden systems that are good alternatives to the traditional single row garden system. These garden systems will help gardeners to overcome various challenges to successful gardening. These systems include wide row, raised bed, and square foot gardening.
Wide row gardening is an intensive system of vegetable production that uses less space to produce at least double the harvest of a traditional single row system. Instead a single row of vegetables, the wide row system creates a 16- to 18-inch-wide row in which seeds or plants are intensively planted.
Seeds planted in a wide row system can simply be evenly scattered over the surface of the row. A standard garden rake can be used to pull soil from both sides of the row up and over the bed. The soil is then tamped in over the seed, using the rake.
Transplants in the wide row system are planted 10 to 12 inches apart in a basic 3-2-3 or 2-1-2 pattern. Cabbage, cauliflower, and iceberg lettuce do best in a 3-2-3 pattern. Peppers, broccoli, and eggplant do well in a 2-1-2 pattern (see below).
Spacing for plants in a wide row system
Crops that do well direct-seeded in a wide row are snap beans, beets, leaf lettuce, radishes, carrots, onions, spinach, kale, parsnips, turnips, chard, and kohlrabi. Transplanted vegetables best for a wide row system include cabbage, peppers, cauliflower, and celery.
They are many good reasons to wide row garden:
- 2 to 3 times the harvest of traditional systems due to intensive planting.
- More soil is used than in traditional single row method.
- Easier to plant crops from seed.
- Fewer weeds due to intensive planting.
- Helps soil stay cool and moist in the heat of the summer because a denser leaf canopy keeps sun from drying the soil.
- Earlier and longer harvest. This is due to the natural competitiveness of plants, which results in some plants producing sooner than others in the row. As a result, the strongest plants can be harvested first, which in turn makes room for weaker plants to begin production.
Raised BedThis method takes wide row gardening another step further. It is an intensive gardening system that uses elevated, wide beds 8 to 10 inches deep. Raised beds are typically constructed of wood. Prefabricated beds made of plastic are also available. Other materials such as stone and cement blocks may be used, too. However, gardeners should avoid using lumber or other materials that have been treated or painted with potentially toxic chemicals that may leach into the soil over time. Free-standing beds can also be made by simply raking up the soil from the surrounding garden area into a raised bed.
Raised beds can be made in any length but should not be more than 4 feet wide. This allows the gardener to be able to easily reach into the middle of the bed from either side. They can also be constructed at a height that allows a person to garden without straining the back, which often results from the excessive bending required by a traditional garden system. This quality makes raised beds ideally suited to gardeners who may be physically challenged. It is recommended that beds be built at 27 inches high to accommodate wheelchair users.
Where it is feasible, existing garden soil may be used to fill raised beds. However, one advantage of raised beds is that they can be placed on sites with poor soils. In this case, the gardener can use a combination of various components such as top soil, compost, and peat moss to fill the beds.
The advantages of using raised beds are:
- Reduced soil compaction
- Better drainage due to the raised height that allows timelier planting
- Areas with poor drainage and heavy clay soils can be turned into productive gardens
- Earlier and later planting is possible since more soil is exposed to the sun because of the three-dimensional features of the beds
- Increased depth of the bed promotes longer, straighter root crops
- Easier to plant, weed, and maintain
Square Foot GardeningSquare foot gardening is a simplified gardening system that incorporates elements of wide row and raised bed gardening within a basic 4’ x 4’ x 6” raised bed unit. Each bed is divided into square foot sections, which are intensively planted throughout the season to produce the same amount of harvest as a traditional family garden in just 20% of the space.
The basic 4’ x 4’ x 6” unit is typically constructed of wood and placed over landscape fabric or paper weed barrier. Soil to fill the bed is composed of a mix of 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. The compost adds the necessary nutrients for the system, the peat moss provides the appropriate moisture retention for the bed, and the vermiculite helps to create the right amount of tilth for the soil mix. These ingredients can be purchased at local garden centers.
Another key component of the square foot garden is the use of a grid system to divide the bed into square foot planting sections. Simple materials such as twine or lattice strips may be used to lay out the grid over the bed for planting purposes.
At planting, various crops can be planted in each section at one, four, nine, or 16 plants per square foot, depending upon the size of the plant. Extra-large plants should be planted at one per square foot, large plants at four per square, medium plants at nine per square, and small plants at 16 per square. Example per square foot:
- 1 broccoli or pepper
- 4 lettuce (head) or potatoes
- 9 bush beans or large beets
- 16 carrots or onions
- Trellis vine crops and large plants at edge of bed, taking care not to shade the other plants in the bed
Typically, one 4’ x 4’ unit will provide the average adult enough daily salad vegetables for a summer. Two units will provide an adult’s daily supper veggies, and three units will provide sufficient production for the average adult’s canning and preserving needs for a season.
Square foot gardening incorporates many of the advantages of wide row and raised bed gardening with the advantage of requiring even less space. In addition, simple removable fence panels can be added to each side of the square foot unit to exclude wildlife.
Use of these simple systems can make gardening possible and attractive to many potential gardeners. They can be used in almost any landscape and will help to provide the gardener with a wide array of fresh vegetables.