Southern Mom Loves: How to Interplant to Get the Most out of a Small Vegetable Garden

How to Interplant to Get the Most out of a Small Vegetable Garden

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Planting your own vegetable garden is a great way to cut down on your grocery bill, grow varieties that aren't available in your local stores, and avoid harmful pesticides without shelling out more for an organic label. It can also be therapeutic, helping you unplug and slow down during your day. You may think that you need a big space for a garden, but you don't. You can take what you have and use the Interplanting method to get the most out of a small vegetable garden space.

Interplanting is a method by which you plant your vegetables closer together based on their height, width, and need for sunlight. Instead of planting in the traditional method (neat rows), you can plant shade-tolerant plants between taller, bushier, sun-loving plants. This requires more planning than a traditional garden and some 3D thinking, but the payoff is a larger yield of produce from a smaller area.

Getting started

You'll need some basic data to get started. First, measure out your garden area and plot it out on graph paper. A good rule is 4 square blocks = 1 square foot of garden space. That way you'll have an easy way of measuring down to 6" spaces.

Make sure to mark the direction your garden faces. If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, you'll want a South-facing garden. (If you were in the Southern Hemisphere, you would want a North-facing garden.)

Next, make a list of the vegetables you love to eat and check to see if they can be grown in your area. You can do this by finding your area's Hardiness Zone. Here is a Wikipedia article listing the zones for major US cities. It also lists areas for Europe, Australia, and Canada.

Once you have a list of the vegetables you'd like to grow and that will flourish in your area, buy your seeds. Keep in mind that lettuces, leafy greens, and broccoli/cauliflower need an early, cool-weather start. Here is an article (For Dummies) on growing leafy greens.

I recommend Heirloom seeds as the best investment

Heirloom seeds have been handed down for centuries and can be saved and grown again and again. Once you grow Heirloom plants, you can harvest the seeds from them to save for the next year's planting. That next generation will come out just like the last.

You can save hybrid seeds (the type usually sold in garden centers), but you can't be sure what you'll get the next time you plant. Hybrids have been cross-bred for the most desirable traits (uniform appearance, higher yields, etc.) and the resulting saved seed may revert to one or other of the parent-types, leaving you with a vegetable variety that you may not be happy with.

Add to that Heirloom varieties are tastier. (If you like tomatoes, try a Cherokee Purple or a Brandywine!) They can also be more nutritious in some cases. The one-time investment in Heirloom seeds can last for the rest of your gardening life. You'll never have to buy seeds again!

Chart your vegetable information
example chart

Now that you've picked out your vegetables, look at the back of the seed packet for size and sun information. If you don't have your seeds yet, you can do a Google search to find this information. Make a list of the mature height, width, and sun preference (partial shade/sun, full sun) for each vegetable. You will also want to chart the center-point of each plant's mature width. (Example: 18" mature width = 9" center point.) You'll need the center point for your planting graph.

Another thing you'll need on your chart is a planting schedule. You start certain plants at certain times. You'll need to keep this in mind while placing your plants. Your seed packets should have info on when to plant. If not, do a Google search of "planting schedule" and you'll find a chart for your area.
This is important because if you plant lettuce in April and plan to shade it with squash that you won't plant until May, you will have a problem. A good way to avoid this is to plan your garden in waves. Look at what you'll plant first and place those at the back of the garden. Plant the next wave in the center, and the latest plantings in front.

My garden as an example

My garden area (chart above) is 13' x 12'. I needed beds that I could reach the middle of, so I split the area into two 5' x 13' beds with a 2' walkway between them.

I knew I wanted a ton of tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash so I gave those veggies the lion's share of my garden. I then placed broccoli, cucumbers, okra, peas, and beans. Lastly, I interplanted spinach, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, garlic, and 3 onion varieties. In my garden chart above, the visual representation on the right helped me to plan and visualize the whole garden. The graph on the left showing the center points of the plant widths gave me accuracy on where to sow seeds/transplants.

You can chart your garden easily with only paper and pencil (a geometry compass is handy) using your measurements.
Another way to do this is to cut out paper circles using the scale you've used to draw out your garden. If you know you want 9 tomato plants, cut nine circles in the plant's mature diameter (roughly to scale.) Do the same for the rest of the plants you'd like to place.

You can also use a graphics program, which makes the task much easier than cutting out paper to scale.

(If you want to use a computer program, do a Google search for "free gardening planner program." You should find some basic free programs along with some paid programs that offer a free trial. I can't recommend any because I haven't used them, but you can give them a go!)

I would recommend using paper and pencil with measurements or a computer program, but some may do better with the visual nature of the cut-out paper.

Chart your garden

Now that you know all the important info, it's time to start placing your plants on your paper garden.

You'll want to start charting your garden with the largest, sun-loving vegetables. Using pencil will allow you to change the spacing as you go along. Place these plants in rows by variety (e.g. rows of tomatoes, rows of peppers, rows of squash), spacing them far enough away from each other to make sure they get full sun. You want to give these plants the room and the amount of sun they need to flourish.

Then fill in with the partial-shade plants. You can use beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onions, peas, radishes, turnips, and leafy greens to fill in the gaps of your garden. These plants can usually grow in around 4-6 hours of sunlight a day.

Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater

I know it sounds complicated, but it will be worth the initial effort. To help you out, here is a handy cheat-sheet of interplantings that will do well together:
  • Bean (bush) - celery
  • Bean (bush or pole) - lettuce, spinach, radish
  • Cabbage - pepper, tomato
  • Cole crops - celery, lettuce, spinach
  • Corn - lettuce, cabbage, potato
  • Cucumber (bush) - Okra
  • Cucumber (trellised) - celery, lettuce, spinach
  • Eggplant - celery
  • Lettuce - carrot, onion, radish
  • Okra - cucumber
  • Onion - carrot, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, eggplant, pepper
  • Pea (trellised) - lettuce, spinach, cabbage
  • Sunflower - cucumber
  • Sweet potato - pumpkin
  • Tomato (staked) - lettuce, carrot, cabbage, spinach

This Interplanting how-to is just a beginner's method. Once you've mastered pairing plants by light and shade you can also implement other methods for pairing plants by root growth patterns, successions and relays, and soil nutrient use. I recommend the book (affiliate link) Getting the Most from Your Garden. I have a copy of my mom's from 1980 and it's full of fantastic intensive gardening methods.

I hope this method helps you bring in a record yield from your small garden space. Ready, set, start your interplanted garden!


What are your favorite things to plant? Do you currently have a vegetable garden? Have you ever tried interplanting? I love to read your comments!

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