What Is Intensive Planting?
Intensive planting is a way of packing in the plants in your kitchen garden and planting with the intention of harvesting more often from a variety of different vegetables, fruits, leafy greens, and herbs. The aim is to get more production out of a small space and avoid having bare soil (which is never good).
I like to think of intensive planting as breaking the plant spacing rules you typically find on the backs of seed packets or on plant tags. I receive angry messages sometimes from gardeners who accuse me of breaking the rules when they see my garden—it's like they're going to get me in trouble with the plant spacing police or something.
But here's the thing: Those rules weren't created for kitchen gardens, which tend to be much smaller than vegetable gardens.
The spacing recommendations apply to crops you're growing in long, wide rows on either a farm or a large vegetable patch. If a tag says "space 3 to 4 feet apart (0.9 to 1.2 m) in 3-foot (0.9 m) rows,” it's talking to a farmer who will be growing 20 or more plants in a large area. It's just not realistic for most of us to plant this way.
Unlike in-ground row gardens and vegetable patches, kitchen gardens typically involve raised beds. It's these raised beds (and the nutrient-rich soil they're filled with) that allow kitchen gardeners to practice intensive planting. Also important are trellises for vertical plant support. The only reason we can pack in the plants is because the raised garden bed provides room for roots to dig down deep, the soil provides the nutrients they need to thrive, and the trellises encourage larger plants to grow up and stretch out.
That is to say, you should continue following the plant spacing rules if you’re planting and growing in the ground. (That'll make the plant spacing police happy!)
Just to clarify, “intensive planting” is not a term that I came up with. It had already been around for a long time before I ever picked up my first dibber. The way we go about intensive planting at Gardenary, however, is unique.
Intensive Planting vs Companion Planting in the Garden
The idea behind companion planting is to plant things that grow in the same season and work together in terms of their size and duration.
And that's exactly what intensive planting is. We’re filling a space with small, medium, and large plants that all prefer the same growing season, and they all work together in harmony. The flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects, the chives keep pests away from the kale and cabbage leaves, the peas fix nitrogen into the soil—each plant does something to create a healthier environment inside of your garden space.
Every single plant I add to my intensively planted raised beds during my warm growing season, for example, is essentially companion planting with tomatoes. I plant three tomato vines on each side of my arch trellis and then determine which smaller plants should go around those vines to help the tomatoes instead of competing for valuable resources.
Why I Started Breaking the Plant Spacing Rules
I've been a rule-follower all my life. I used to follow all the rules and advice on the plant tags as if they were the law. I was a very obedient beginner gardener, spacing my first tomato plants three feet apart in two zig-zagged rows, which meant I could only fit four plants in my little garden box. And that was all I had growing. It didn't take long for me to regret following the rules.
First of all, I got very little production out of my garden. I waited months to fill my harvest basket with the fruits of my labor, but all I got were a handful of tomatoes after losing most of my crop to the squirrels.
I also soon learned that the bare soil between each tomato plant was poor design. All that bare soil left exposed to the elements dried out quickly, which meant I was constantly watering, sometimes twice a day in the hot summer months. Lugging a heavy hose around my backyard when I had so many other things I needed to do was not how I had pictured my first foray into gardening.
That bare soil was also an open house for weeds. Nature, as you know, has a way of filling empty spaces, and weeds were soon popping up between my tomato plants, with plenty of access to sunlight, water, and other resources. After just a couple of weeks, there were plenty of plants growing in my garden, but most of them had not been planted by me and were not things I wanted to eat. Meanwhile, there were so many things I wanted to grow in the garden, but I only had this little space.
It finally occurred to me that since bare soil was hard to manage and smaller plants wanted to grow there anyway, I might as well plant smaller plants I actually wanted to grow in that space. These plants would protect the soil so I wouldn't have to water as often, prevent weeds from growing to fill the void, and most importantly, give me leaves I could harvest while I was waiting and waiting for my tomato plants to produce. That way, when squirrels stole all my fruits or something else happened to my tomatoes, I wasn't riddled with disappointment. I'd still have things to put in my harvest basket, even if those things weren't shiny red fruits.
I started packing in more plants after that... and it worked! Finally, some rules I can break without feeling guilty!
I still faced occasional gardening woes, but my success for each season was no longer determined by one single type of plant. My mornings were no longer filled with watering and weeding. I still grow tomatoes, but now they're surrounded by other things I can enjoy while I'm waiting for my tomatoes to grow.
Let's look a bit further at the five reasons why you should consider intensively planting your raised garden beds.
Reason #1 to Practice Intensive Planting
You'll Reduce the Amount of Bare Soil in Your Garden
Bare soil is a no-no in the garden because it dries out faster, it loses nutrients faster, and it leaves space for weeds. To combat these issues in raised beds, gardeners often turn to mulching, but I've found that mulch just gives garden pests a place to hide. Plus, it can actually burn your plants, all while costing you more and providing nothing that you can eat in return.
Intensive planting all but gets rid of the bare soil problem, which is one of its biggest advantages. I water my garden much less than people who space their plants far apart.
If a weed does grow in my raised beds, I take that as a sign that I need to plant something I want to grow there.
Reason #2 to Practice Intensive Planting
You'll Be Able to Fit a Wide Variety of Plants Even if You're Gardening in a Small Space
Picture just one type of plant in a raised bed all by itself (like my sad little tomatoes from the introduction). That’s actually a repeat of a major problem in our current farming industry: monocropping. Some gardeners are so focused on following the plant spacing rules that they fail to add diversity in the form of other plants to their space. Having just one type of plant means lots of open space and increases the likelihood of pests thoroughly attacking each and every one of those plants because there's literally nothing to interrupt them or stop them from moving from plant to plant.
Think about nature—picture a national park or some place where plants are growing in their natural habitat without much influence from people. Are you picturing plants widely spaced from one another with lots of soil in between? Have you seen that in nature ever?
I'm waiting. No, you haven't because it doesn't exist. Unless you're in the desert, but even in the desert, if you stumble upon a plant, it's going to be with other plants. It's very rare that you would see just one plant all by itself or even just one type of plant.
The goal with intensive planting is to add variety into every garden bed, just like what happens in nature. Each of my raised beds has plant diversity; just one half of a raised bed, for instance, might contain chives, flowers, radishes, cabbages, swiss chard, kale, and a tomato plant. All that in about nine square feet of growing space.
Reason #3 to Practice Intensive Planting
You'll Get More Production from Your Garden
The greater the variety of plants in a space, the higher the likelihood of having something that’s ready to harvest at any given time.
Think of a large plant like eggplant or melons, something that takes anywhere from 60 to 90 days from planting to produce for you. During that time, the plant needs to stay in the garden and be tended regularly while it’s growing and doing its thing. Those can be long and boring months for you if that’s all you’ve planted. Your harvest basket will be collecting dust, and you’ve got an entire raised bed that doesn’t produce for you for weeks.
But if you plant your bed with medium-size and small plants around that large plant, you can harvest from those other plants on a continuous basis while you’re waiting for the large plant to mature.
In one of my raised beds, for example, I can harvest chives, clip leaves from my lettuce and arugula plants, and pull some radishes every single day, all while I’m waiting on my Napa cabbage to form a full head over its 60-day lifespan in the garden.
This keeps the garden interesting. It's hard to feel motivated to go out to a garden when there's not a lot happening there. When I was just growing tomatoes, I didn't love going out to tend the garden because it was like, “Well, there they are again. They're still cherry tomato plants, still growing.” I never feel that way now because each day means something I can come and harvest from while I wait for longer and larger plants to produce.
Reason #4 to Practice Intensive Planting
You'll Increase the Overall Health of Your Garden
When you’re growing an intensively planted garden featuring a wide variety of plants, you’re creating an ecosystem inside of your garden bed. This goes back to the benefits of companion planting, where each plant does something to create a healthier environment inside of your garden space. Some plants will:
- deter pests
- act as a trap crop for other plants
- attract beneficial insects
- provide shade for smaller plants
- add substances to the soil
- pull nutrients from deep within the soil closer to the surface to benefit plants with more shallow roots
- suppress weeds
If you just have a couple plants growing in a space, the chances that they'll contribute one, let alone several, of these benefits to your garden is slim to none.
Reason #5 to Practice Intensive Planting
You'll Increase the Visual Appeal of Your Garden
I’m moving heavily into opinion territory, but I just think that an intensively planted bed is so much more attractive than a sparsely planted bed or space that holds only one thing.
The Gardenary method of intensive planting is a hybrid of the Square Foot Gardening method and row farming. I learned to garden while visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's kitchen garden in Charlottesville, where all of the plants are in these long, beautiful rows. Much of the beauty is in the repetitiveness of the plants’ forms, one right after the other.
The Square Foot Gardening method plants intensively within squares, which, to me, loses the visual appeal of a row garden, but it allows you to pack in more plants than you would in a row garden.
I started planting using a mix of the two when I was planning and tending my Rooted Garden clients’ gardens in Houston. I wanted their raised beds to look really full, but I also wanted them to be able to easily find what they were looking for.
The Gardenary way involves an intensively planted space (like the Square Foot Gardening method) filled with plants in rows so they can be easily found. These rows overlap with other rows so that you see a wide variety of textures and colors and movement in the garden. In a raised bed just 2.5 feet wide, you could have anywhere from three to five rows of different kinds of plants. This setup has a lovely overall effect.
In addition to increasing the variety of plants and production and improving garden health when intensive planting, you’ll create a space that’s stunning.
The Downsides of Intensive Planting
You might be sold on intensive planting already. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things that could be considered negatives to keep in mind. Pulling this type of gardening off can be a bit tricky, even if the results are well worth the efforts.
Downside #1: You'll have to tend your garden several times a week
An intensively planted bed requires regular attention from you, the gardener. I don’t see tending as a con—mostly because you're not having to weed a lot—but some people might.
If I only planted a row of Napa cabbages, my only tending tasks would be making sure there are no pests on the greens, watering, and returning to harvest after a couple of weeks. If, on the other hand, I planted a variety of plants in a small space, I’d need to check frequently to ensure each plant has enough space, is receiving enough sunlight to grow to its full potential, and feels cared for.
Think about it this way: If you were to plant a large vegetable patch, your tending and harvesting tasks would be clustered together, but you'd still perform a lot of labor. With an intensively planted kitchen garden, you're just spreading out when you perform the work.
Downside #2: You'll have to prune a lot
If you’re scared of pruning or if it’s your least favorite garden task, then intensive planting is not for you. Pruning is essential when you’re packing in so many plants. Failure to prune away the older leaves of a cabbage plant, for instance, could mean that they shade the swiss chard trying to grow from seed next to it.
You’ll need to regularly prune your large and medium plants to make room for the medium and small plants you want to grow around them.
Downside #3: You'll have to make some plant sacrifices
If plants are getting a little too crowded, you might have to remove some. Every season that I plant intensively in the garden, I eventually have to pull something out and lose it. Last season, the cabbages growing down the middle of two raised beds were crowding my lettuce plants, which were more important to me. I opted to take out the cabbages, and even though I cut them up and made sauerkraut, it felt like a loss because those cabbages never had a chance to fully mature.
So, here’s your warning: When you practice intensive planting, there may be some plants that you end up having to pull prematurely just to make room for the things that are more important to you.
Downside #4: You'll make plenty of gardening mistakes
Going this route, you'll need to be okay with the fact that not everything will work out the way you hoped. I recently planted some onion seeds nearby radish and spinach plants. Even though the onion seeds came up, they didn’t do well, and that’s because the radish and spinach leaves blocked all their sun. If I had pruned more carefully and supported the onions more, they could have thrived.
Intensive planting is like playing basketball. You might take twenty or thirty shots but only make ten of them. You’re growing a ton of plants with the knowledge that you might lose some of them. Even so, you brave those losses knowing that you’re still going to have way more production than if you’d followed the rules.
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Downside #5: You'll need to stay on the offense
Packing in the plants can sometimes lead to an increased likelihood of pests and disease. The moment I post a video or picture of raised beds planted the Gardenary way on social media, I receive comments like: “Don’t you get mildew?” and “Don’t you have slugs?” and “Aren’t there more pest issues because your plants are so close together?”
You can prevent a lot of the pest pressure and risk of disease by staying active in your garden space. Even so, you might end up with powdery mildew if too many leaves are touching each other and not getting good air flow. You might get more slugs because there’s too much leaf matter on the soil level. The more leaves you have in a space, the more opportunities there are for pests to hide. (Click here to learn more about how I stay on the offense in my organic kitchen garden.)
To me, the many benefits of intensive planting far outweigh the negatives. (Surprising to no one, right?) But you get to decide what’s best for you. It’s your garden. If you still want to give intensive planting a try, I encourage you to dig further into the Gardenary method with me!
Ready to Give Intensive Planting a Shot?
Learn the Steps to Intensively Plant Your Garden
If you're ready to ditch the old ways of following plant tag instructions to the letter, Gardenary is here for you! Fellow rule un-followers unite!
First things first though—I highly recommend that you watch our online video lessons in Kitchen Garden Academy or read Kitchen Garden Revival before you dig into intensive planting, if you haven't already. Both go over kitchen garden setup and will help you create just the right kind of growing space to pack those plants in but maintain overall garden health.
Kitchen Garden Academy is an online video course that teaches new(ish) gardeners how to design and create beautiful raised bed kitchen gardens and grow the most productive and organic plants, even in a limited space and with limited time to tend your plants.
Then, we have a brand-new online gardening course that walks you through the steps of intensive planting. You'll see how I add plants to my own raised bed kitchen garden even when I already have loads of plants, some of which have been growing in the space for several months already.
Inside the Intensive Planting Course, I'll teach you:
- how you too can break the plant spacing rules
- tips and tricks to make intensive planting work for you, wherever you’re growing
- how to use our trademarked Plate Planting Method that’ll transform the way you plan your garden season after season (think of it as your intensive gardening spacing chart)
Learn our Plate Planting Method to intensively plant your kitchen garden. It'll change the way you plan and plant your garden forever!
Practicing intensive planting can be a bit of a learning curve at first, yes. But kitchen gardens are meant to be about more than just having a few things to harvest and share inside the kitchen regularly. They're also a place to have fun while you grow your skills and experience how seeds become food. Plus, you get to try growing more things in one season, meaning you'll learn way more than you would have if you'd just grown one or two things.
Once you begin practicing intensive planting, you’ll look at raised beds and see all of the possibilities instead of the limitations. You’ll treat every day in the garden as an interesting experiment. And you'll always have something you can harvest and enjoy from your garden space while you’re waiting on larger plants to produce.
No more “I would love to do that, but I don’t have enough space.” The intensive planting method allows us to grow so much variety and enjoy so much production in every square foot.
I love how there's always something interesting happening in my garden. It keeps me wanting to step outside every day and see what's growing, and I can't wait to help you create a space that fills you with the same excitement and joy!
Thanks for bringing back kitchen gardens with me!