There is one trick to gardening that most gardeners know but don’t practice: proper plant spacing. It seems cruel and wasteful to toss out those unnecessary seedlings, and we can’t help but fall victim to the fallacy that planting more will give us more produce.
If you are on the fence about proper plant spacing, here are 5 reasons to convince you that following spacing requirements is the single best thing you can do for your garden.
1. Nutrient Intake
Plants require nutrients. These nutrients, as we all know, come from the sun, soil and whatever amendments and fertilizers that we add to the soil throughout the season.
One way to visualize what happens when plants have to compete for these nutrients is to picture a group of pigs at a feed trough. Imagine that the feed trough has a set amount of food in it. If three pigs come up, they can eat all of the food that they want. If 50 pigs arrive, that food is not going to make it as far, and there will be a lot of hungry, skinny pigs.
The same thing occurs with plants, both above and below ground. Plants that have to compete with their neighbors for soil nutrients and sunlight are not going to be as healthy as those that have all of the nutrients that they need. Plus, their roots will have to compete not only for nutrients and water, but also for space.
Too few plants can also be a problem. Plants like corn and apple trees that require a certain number of neighbors to pollinate really do need those neighbors, so make sure that you don't end up with too few plants. Shade from properly spaced plants can crowd out weeds as they grow and keep the soil moist (without crowding each other), creating a beneficial environment that only works properly if your plants are the right space apart.
2. Disease Management
Put 20 children in a classroom with one sick kid, and quite a few are bound to end up with the same sickness. Plants are pretty much the same.
Spacing your plants appropriately reduces the risk of disease in two ways: contagion and improved immune system. It is easy for disease to spread from one plant to another if the plants are growing on top of one another, so plants growing too closely together are not as healthy as plants with enough space.
Overcrowding also reduces air circulation, which helps prevent disease. This makes your plants much more likely to get sick.
Weed management is vital to promote healthy plants. Planting too close together makes it harder to weed, which ultimately results in more weeds.
I like to plant with my stirrup hoe in mind. If my stirrup hoe can fit between my plants easily (or for smaller crops, a smaller hand hoe), I know that the odds of those garden beds remaining weed free are exponentially higher.
4. Ease of Harvest
Harvesting is so much easier when your plants are spaced appropriately. You can access your plant from all sides without worrying about sabotaging its neighbor, and you will be able to more accurately assess your yields.
Row spacing is important too. If it is hard for you to walk between your rows, thanks to an overambitious garden plan, harvesting is going to be difficult, as is weeding, and weeds impede harvesting. See where I'm going with this?
5. Increased Yield
If none of those reasons why plant spacing is important makes sense to you, consider this: plants spaced appropriately produce bigger yields. You will actually get more produce with fewer plants, saving you time, effort, and money.
In my community garden, I transplanted a few lettuces out of a bed of closely seeded lettuces that nobody had thinned. The transplanted lettuces grew into lovely heads, while the unthinned bed remained exactly the same height until I tilled it in a few weeks later. Not only was the lettuce tiny, but also it was also bitter.
So, why is plant spacing important? Appropriate spacing gives you tastier, healthier produce in larger quantities. What’s not to love about that?