Spacing instructions -How far apart should plants really be?

Plainfield, NJ

How come every photo I see of a lovely garden, the plants are close together - yet planting directions invariably tell you to space plants a minimum of 12" apart, and sometimes much farther apart than that?
I don't want to crowd my plants so they'll struggle for nutrients, so I follow the spacing instructions. As a result my garden has way more dirt than flowers. How do people end up with these lush, dense gardens??

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