May 26, 2022

High-intensity gardening

Here’s how to grow and harvest more food in less space with the high-intensity gardening method…

While traditional gardening methods are still valid today, as our population grows, we need to be thinking about how to grow more food in less space. Even most home gardeners find themselves with limited usable garden space, so it is important to consider alternatives that can provide more food without using large amounts of land. Innovative ideas such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and square foot gardening have taken off in recent years, but one simple and effective way to grow more food in your home garden is by using high-intensity gardening methods. This approach can actually multiply your yield by 5-10 times, while using just a fraction of the space.

High-intensity planting is just what it sounds like: planting plants closer together than normal, to produce more food in the same amount of space. Although the technique is simple, it does require a slight shift in thinking. Rather than thinking about growing in traditional garden spacing, where, for example, you give each lettuce plant plenty of space so that it can make a nice, big head, instead, you’ll be crowding your plants together so they basically form a dense mat of vegetation.

There are more benefits to this method than simply increasing production, however. High-intensity plantings also help to shade the soil, reducing weeds and keeping the soil cool, which conserves moisture and keeps plants like lettuce from bolting so quickly.

In high-intensity gardening, we are allowing the plants to grow, but we are cramming them together to help them grow up rather than out. This will result in more lettuce per square foot than if they were grown in a traditional manner.

When you plant your plants so densely, it’s actually going to force them to naturally thin themselves. The strongest ones will survive, but as long as you have a nice, nutrient-rich soil, most of your plants should still survive and grow just fine.

Here are a few tips for success with high-intensity gardening:

1. Start with Good Soil

It stands to reason that healthy plants require healthy soil. However, when you’re planting them so close together, it is especially important to make sure your soil is nutrient-rich and well-draining. This will allow your plants to grow without competing for nutrients. Make sure to add plenty of compost or worm castings to your garden bed before doing your high-density planting.

2. Only Use It With the Right Crops

Keep in mind that intensive planting does not work for every crop. For example, plants like tomatoes and peppers that need a lot of airflow to stay healthy and ripen a good crop of fruit will not do well if you plant them too close together.

However, any type of greens like lettuce, kale, collard, etc., or even zucchini and cucumbers may be planted in denser plantings without any ill effects.

You can also use this method for spinach, radishes, beets, onions, green onions, etc. Obviously, for things like beets, you will want to thin them as they grow so they can develop a nice bulb, but you can use the thinned greens in salads or stir-fries and you’re still getting more food from the same amount of space.

3. Keep Each Crop Variety Separate

If you plant a specific variety in each row, your plants should grow at the same rate, which will keep them from competing and crowding each other out. If you mix varieties and some grow faster than others, the faster-growing types may shade and crowd out the slower ones.

4. Direct-Seed High-Intensity Plantings

This is a very important key to high-intensity gardening. You should always direct-seed your high-intensity plantings directly in the garden. It is virtually impossible to implement a high-intensity planting from starts. You simply cannot get the plants close enough together to truly benefit from the intensive method. This is another reason why it’s important to choose the correct types of crops. Direct seeding works best for quick-growing crops that can be directly planted in the garden and don’t need to be started indoors to give them a head start.

Planting from seed is essential for this method, and it works extremely well for lettuce.

5. Harvest the Right Way

You should also be aware that for leafy crops like lettuce, you may need to harvest a high-intensity planting a bit differently than you normally would. Instead of waiting for your lettuce to get big and form heads, you will instead cut the leaves off in cut-and-come-again style. This way, you will be able to harvest your greens for a much longer period of time, as you aren’t cutting off the whole plant. The center leaves will continue to re-grow again and again, leading to a much larger harvest over the life of the plant. This harvesting method works especially well for most leafy salad greens grown in the high-intensity gardening method, including lettuce, endive, arugula, spinach, mizuna, and others.

For root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and onions, you will thin out some of the plants gradually as they start to get big enough to use. Beet tops are a delicious alternative to Swiss chard, so if you need to thin out your beets once the greens get sizeable but bulbs haven’t formed yet, you can eat the greens from your thinnings. Onions can be thinned to use as green onions, and you can also pull carrots and parsnips as soon as they get to a usable size, leaving space for the smaller ones to size up later.

By using the high-intensity gardening method, you can actually save space, grow more plants, and enjoy a much longer harvest than when using traditional garden spacing.

I’m excited to try this method in our garden this year, and I will let you know how it goes for us!

In the meantime, here is a helpful video from MIGardener answering some common questions about using this technique with lettuce, from planting to harvest:

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About the author 

Rose S.

An avid gardener since childhood, I love sharing my passion for gardening with others! I have gardened in a number of different climates and settings, from large fenced garden plots, to tiny patio and container gardens, and I firmly believe that everyone can learn to grow at least some of their own food - no matter where you live. Growing your own food can help you take control of your own health and food supply, and there has never been a better time to get started!

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