How to plant gardens?

Farmland crops can be divided into two main groups, permanent versus row crops. They each have specific characteristics and a well-diversified agricultural operation should incorporate both of them. The qualities and advantages of both permanent and row crops are explained below.

Row Crops

The first and most common type of crops are row crops. As their name suggests, these crops are planted in long rows in an extensive field. Row crops include products such as wheat, sugarcane, corn, cotton, and soybeans. The particularity of row crops is that they are planted and cultivated on a seasonal or yearly basis. Therefore, such crops yield products and profit relatively quickly and predictably. Furthermore, row crops are normally planted and collected with a machine or a tractor. Thus, they do not require the employment of a large amount of workers to maintain the farm operation. Another advantage of row crops is that their agricultural yields can normally be employed for multiple purposes. For example, a row crop such as maize or corn can be utilized as animal feed, human food, or ethanol biofuel.

Permanent Crops

As their name suggests, permanent crops are more labour intensive and require longer amounts of time to yield fruit than row crops do. Permanent crops include fruits and nuts such as wine grapes, pistachios, apples, avocados, and citrus, amongst others. Even though some permanent crops are indeed seasonal, it can take years for some of these trees to mature and bear fruit. Furthermore, the initial investment in the trees or vines is considerable and they are not normally taken down at the end of each harvest. Therefore, permanent crops represent much more of a long-term commitment on the part of the farmers who cannot simply switch crops every year. Similarly, permanent crops are betting on the fact that consumers’ tastes will not vary from one year to the next. Finally, even though some mechanical harvesting is possible with permanent crops, these tend to be more labour intensive farm operations.

The produce of permanent crops looks set to benefit from strong demand trends during the coming years, particularly the nut group – almonds, coconut, pecans, and walnuts – thanks to health-conscious consumers and exports to a growing middle class in emerging markets. According to the NCREIF Farmland Index, permanent crops’ annualized yield has hovered around 15% over the last decade, without considering land value appreciation. This stands in contrast with the 5% annual growth of row crops, without considering land value appreciation. When choosing whether to plant permanent or row crops, farmers and agricultural investors would be wise to strike a balance. Row crops are safer in the short-term because they yield seasonal results and can be revised or displaced from one year to the next. On the other hand, permanent crops produce higher long-term yields and do not deplete soils as quickly. However, permanent crops require a larger up-front investment, a larger labour force during harvest season, and more patience. Similarly, factors such as investment on depreciating assets – including the plants, the irrigation system, and the machinery – should all be taken into consideration. Long-term investors and farmland owners would be wise to diversify their permanent versus row crops mix.

(Read more on Organic versus Genetically Modified Crops)

Row Crops by Hand

Once the ground is worked, and you’ve left it long enough to become friable and mellow, it’s time to do some leveling and clod or rock removal. The metal “dirt” rake works well for this task, although some folks pull a couple of steel fence posts or other pieces of scrap across the patch to smooth things out. If you are going to plant your crop in ridges so that you can use gravity to help with flood irrigation, now is the time to mark the rows and hoe or use a middle-buster type attachment on the wheel hoe to cut troughs while forming ridges.

If your soil is quite mellow, light and soft, you can accomplish much the same effect with a piece of 2-by-10 or other lumber of a similar dimension pointed at the front like the prow of a ship, adding sides to it, and some weight inside and pulling it through the garden. Likewise, there are attachments for some rear-tine rotary tillers called hiller-furrowers that will also do the trick. If you plan to simply plant the ground without furrowing so much the easier.

Sowing Your Seed

Early sowing tools included the same sharpened sticks, antler tines, and even flaked rocks that were used to work the ground, much like we use a modern dibble to open holes in the soil to a particular depth, into which we drop a seed — or several seeds. For some crops, those sticks or antler tines were used to open up shallow furrows into which seed was dropped more hastily and heavily to yield thick stands. Both methods work well for planting corn.

If you want corn in nice straight rows, use a stick or hoe to open a straight furrow (use a string as a guide), and drop seed into the furrow at regular. Once the seed is placed you can use a hoe, your feet or drag a length of 2-by-4 or other lumber down the rows to cover the seed and walk along the rows or roll the field in some way to press the soil into contact with the seed. If you want corn planted in hills set on a grid or in rows, mark the rows with the drill or stakes and string, hoe up hills and use a dibble to poke holes for planting the seed. Use your hands or the hoe to cover them and to press the soil firmly into contact with the seed.

Another fun method for placing corn seed in rows or hills is using the old-fashioned stab planter. The stab planter is more complicated than the homemade drill or planting stick or dibble, but it’s quite a bit simpler than walk-behind units in that it consists of an opener/seed delivery tube and some kind of seed-metering capability (sometimes as simple as the operator dropping the individual seeds into the tube). Closing and pressing are generally taken care of by the operator’s foot. Simple as it sounds, much of corn country was planted with such devices shortly after the sod was broken. Generations ago, the Oscar H. Will seed company planted acres of corn in North Dakota using a team of men armed with seed-metering stab planters.

The stab-style planter will save some wear and tear on your knees and back, save seed, and reduce the need for thinning. Antique semi-automatic units can be found at farm sales, junk shops or rustic antique stores. These devices usually consist of a hinged tube made out of wood and metal with a seed box on one side and a perforated slider that takes two to three seeds from the box and drops them down the tube and into the ground. You basically grab the two handles, pull them apart, stab the planter into worked ground, push the handles together, and pull it out of the ground. A light brush and step with your foot seals the deal.

New versions of this planter include the Stand ’N Plant standard seeder, which can be used to plant individual seeds and small plants like onions. You meter the seed or onion plants by hand, but you just need to walk down the row to get them into the ground. The Stand ‘N Plant seeder also is capable of planting in plastic-covered beds with infinite variation in row and seed spacing.


If you prefer a bit more mechanization and wish to plant in rows, then you may want to upgrade to a walk-behind garden seeder. In today’s terms, a garden seed planter is a precision machine that places individual seeds at a specific spacing along a row. As the planter moves along the row, it opens the soil to a specific depth, places the seed, covers the seed and provides some means for pressing the soil into contact with the seed. Walk-behind planters generally have a wheel in front that drives a seed-metering mechanism that delivers a single seed at precise spacing, an often-hollow wedge-like structure called the shoe opens the soil and helps convey the seed to the soil, a closing device pulls the soil back over the seed — chains, discs, etc. — and a press wheel at the rear that ensures good seed-soil contact, which is needed for efficient germination.

Working with hand planters can be joyous or frustrating, depending on your soil type, soil conditions, garden size and your physical condition. Lighter-duty planters tend to work better in lighter soils or heavy soils under ideal conditions (perfect moisture content, completely mellow, friable crumb, etc.). If soil gums up on the planter’s parts or is so tight that the openers can’t do their job, then it might be best to put off planting to another day and instead work on conditioning the soil.

Earthway’s 1001-B Precision Garden Seeder (about $125, well-equipped) is a good starter planter available new (This garden seed planter has been on the market (in various iterations) for decades. The Earthway is made with lightweight aluminum and plastic components that prove durable under most homestead circumstances. Some folks reinforce the handle structure when rivets loosen up over the years, but overall the planter is simple to adjust, simple to use, and can be had with seed-metering plates that work for just about anything you would direct-sow in rows in the garden — including corn seed of various sizes. If you want to change the spacing, you can simply tape over some of the holes on the plates. These days, you also can order blank plates from the company to create your own custom sizes/spacing. I’ve planted acres over the years with the Earthway; you might choose this planter for gardens or corn patches up to about a quarter-acre in size.

For gardeners with more ground to plant, the Cole Planet Jr. push seeder (about $600, well-equipped) is another good one. This plate-type planter is constructed of steel, cast iron and wood (the seed box is plastic) and is based on a venerable old unit-planter design that is sufficiently stout to mount on a tractor’s toolbar for multi-row medium-scale planting. This planter isn’t ideal for the smallest gardens — you really need to load its hopper with more than a packet of seed for best results, but if you have an eighth of an acre of corn to plant along with mangels, beans, and many other crops, this tool has the heft to get it all done today and come back for more tomorrow. And then you can hand it down to your gardening grandchildren. I’ve used the Cole Planet Jr. extensively to sow corn, fodder beets, and a number of other crops. The machine’s handles are adjustable to suit different-sized people, and its weight offers great momentum once you get it rolling. As you would expect with a professional-grade tool, this planter tracks well, and its row marker doesn’t skip.

The Hoss Tool Company, owned and operated by a pair of passionate gardeners, makes a small-scale garden planter as part of a truly versatile hand-gardening system that includes a wheel hoe with several different plow and cultivator attachments. The planter attachment connects to the wheel hoe using the same mounting holes as the cultivator tines and includes a rear press wheel that also drives the seed-metering plate.

The unit comes with a number of predrilled seed plates. Blank plates are also available for those with custom seed-size and spacing needs. This beautifully crafted unit is a perfect planter option for folks who already own a Hoss wheel hoe, or who intend to add that tool to their shed in the future.

If new isn’t in your budget, look for one of the nearly thousands of models of antique walk-behind planters that still turn up at farm sales and antique stores around the country. The key to working with these tools is that their seed-metering plates or drums or brushes are intact or easily fabricated. Look for names like Cole, Planet Jr., Atlas and a host of others.

Broadcast planting of corn isn’t generally recommended because it is difficult to get the seed deep enough or to keep the patch relatively weed free until the corn canopies. But by all means broadcast your corn seed if that is the only means available — keep in mind that you will save seed and be able to weed more easily if you choose to plant in furrows. I’ve had good luck sowing sorghum, corn’s relative, using the broadcasting method. But even then, drilling or planting with a seeder is more efficient and still plenty of exercise.


Most row crops will require cultivation at least twice between the time that you plant the seed and when the growing crop canopies. Once the crop canopies, the plants will tower above weed seedlings and the shaded darkness beneath the canopy will inhibit further germination and, more importantly, robust weed growth. If you have plenty of mulch, you can cultivate once when the crop is well established — say 20 inches tall in corn — and then lay a heavy straw or hay mulch between the rows. If you go this route, it will be useful to lay the straw and then walk on it to pack the layer into a dense blanket that will allow moisture to percolate down to the soil but will cause weed seedlings to perish while trying to penetrate.

In any case, cultivating row crops by hand can seem daunting, unless you have a few hand tools to help. Pulling weeds is of course the most rudimentary form of cultivating — except when your purpose is to loosen the soil or hill root crops. In those cases, you’ll always need to employ some form of mechanical advantage. Our most primitive ancestors once again relied on the planting stick, bone or stone hoe, and antler-tine cultivators to get this work accomplished in a reasonably efficient manner. Fast forward to the first half of the 20th century and it wasn’t at all uncommon for folks to hoe acre-sized corn or other row crop patches using a steel hoe attached to a long wooden handle. Indeed, gangs of laborers wielding hand hoes cultivated and weeded large acreages of row crops such as cotton and beans in lieu of horse- or tractor-drawn equipment.

I still use hand hoes of various sorts to weed and scratch the top layers of soil — but mostly between plants within the row — while I use the wheel hoe with either knives or spring-tooth tines to keep the space between the rows loose and clear of weeds.

Effective cultivating leaves weeds uprooted and the soil surface loose so that it can dry and create a mulch of sorts that will reduce weed germination near the surface. Although I’ve used a number of antique wheel hoes — found at various farm sales and junk shops — if you go that route, you definitely want to be sure that the wheel and carriage are functional and that you have at least one set of knives or serviceable tines specific to the individual brand and model. If you are a good with metal fabrication, then it goes without saying that you should not hesitate to try and create the attachments you need if you find a wheel hoe sans accessories.

Using a wheel hoe is as easy as grabbing the two handles and pushing the unit between the rows. You’ll find your own rhythm but it invariably consists of a push forward, partial pull backward, step forward, push again and so on. Operating the wheel hoe in non-compacted ground is pure joy because it gets your heart rate moving, it’s quiet and vibration- and fume-free, and is much easier on the soil overall than the rotary tiller.

You can also fit some wheel hoes with reversible moldboard plow blades, which will not only turn soil but also act as hiller/furrowers — really handy for some crops and/or irrigation methods.

I generally use the hogs to work corn ground, dress it up with a wheel hoe wielding tines, plant with the Cole Planet Jr. seeder, cultivate twice with the same wheel hoe setup, and then let what happens happen. Using this method, I wind up with less than 12 person hours in the crop until harvest rolls around. Strange as it may seem, some of our ancestors harvested acres of field corn completely by hand by snapping the dried ears from the stalk, ripping the husk from the ear and tossing the ear into a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon. So important a skill was this style of corn picking that hand picking contests still occur all over North America today. If your corn patch is a couple of acres or less, there’s no reason not to hand pick, unless your people shocked their corn instead.

There are lots of different ways to shock corn. In some cases the stalks are cut by hand with a corn knife; in others, a specially designed corn knife is strapped to the outside of one’s boot. You grab the stalk, give it a kick, and move on to the next stalk. In both instances the stalk cutter continues until they have a nice bundle of stalks — perhaps an armful — which they then bind together about a third of the way down from the top.

Some folks use twine to bind the bundles; others use a flexible piece of corn stalk. Once several bundles are made, they are stacked against one another in a hollow tent-like structure and usually bound at the same height where the individual bundles were tied.

A well-made shock is a great way to store corn for later use, when a corncrib for picked and husked corn isn’t available. Many folks still remember fondly (or not-so-fondly) the wintertime chore of breaking shocks, removing the ears to feed the livestock, and using the leaves and stalks for bedding or roughage. For folks that pick their harvest, winter is the time to turn animals into the harvested patch to glean precious grain, to consume or break down the stover, and prepare the soil for planting again in the spring.

If the corn or other grain in question was grown for human consumption, the exercise associated with using the bounty is far from over. In the case of corn, at some point you’ll want to remove the kernels from the cobs and there’s no better way to accomplish that on a smallish scale than with a hand-crank corn sheller. These devices range in size from the diminutive box-mounted models that you crank with one hand while feeding it with the other, to the larger, hopper-fed models that you crank with both hands — these models generally have a large shelling wheel that acts as a flywheel, which allows you to crank it up and reload the hopper without the shelling coming to a halt. Believe it or not, but some of these hand-powered shellers can deliver many bushels of shelled corn per hour — a bushel of shelled corn is about 56 pounds of kernels, depending on the moisture content.

Most of us aren’t keen on eating flour, flint or field corns whole, but we sure do like our cornmeal. Once you’ve burned the calories to shell the corn, you’ll burn a ton more grinding it into a coarse polenta meal and even more if you grind it into a corn flour. I enjoy growing all of our meal corn using tasty old flint and flour cultivars, such as ‘Painted Mountain,’ ‘Mandan Clay Red,’ ‘Mandan Society,’ and ‘Glass Gems.’ It takes us about 40 minutes of hard cranking to mill roughly 8 pounds using a beautifully crafted Montana-made GrainMaker mill. Grainmaker mills can also be powered with electric motors and they even have everything you need to use your bicycle to power your grain mill.

Oscar H. Will III is the Editor in Chief of Heirloom Gardener.

Crop Arrangement In Gardens: What Is The Best Way To Orient Garden Rows

Proper vegetable garden orientation will assure that your plants are positioned the best way to achieve optimal growth and performance. Crop arrangement in gardens is not a new practice and is one that deserves some attention if you are looking for maximum yield from your plants. The direction that vegetables are planted is most important in areas where maximum sunlight is desired and not so influential in areas where the summers are exceptionally hot.

How Should Garden Rows be Oriented?

Generally speaking, in the north, tall plants such as beans, peas and corn do best on the

north side of the garden. Medium size crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, squash, pumpkins and broccoli in the center of the garden. Short-growing plants such as lettuce, radishes, beets, and onions will do best in the southernmost part of the garden.

Most experts believe that the best way to orient garden rows in the Northern hemisphere is north to south. This gives the most sun exposure and allows for ample air circulation. When crops are planted east to west, the rows tend to shade each other.

If you are planting on a steep slope, however, it’s best to keep rows perpendicular to the slope so that your plants and soil do not end up at the bottom of your hill.

When Shade is Necessary for Crop Arrangement in Gardens

In many places where the summers get acutely hot, some shade is necessary, and the direction of vegetable garden rows is not extremely relevant. A shade cloth is often used in some of the warmer regions of the country to keep the hot summer sun from destroying crops.

Show Notes: BHG007 – Designing Your Garden for Better Yields

Well last week, we talked about the importance of making notes of your garden through the season so you can repeat the successes and avoid the failures. And one of the things I mentioned was making note of the garden layout for all your plants to thrive. And that’s what I want to talk more about today; How to design your vegetable garden so that all your plants have the best chance of success. So yes, where you place your plants in the garden has a lot to do with their overall health and productivity.

We already know that vegetable plants love sun, and the more we can give them, the better. But how we lay out our garden at planting time can have a big impact on how much sun our plants are getting throughout the season as they grow. Even though we may be starting with a blank palette, we need to keep in mind the mature height and width of each type of plant we put in our garden, and place them so they aren’t shading out the smaller ones.

So with that in mind, here’s a question for you; to get the maximum amount of sunlight on our plants, is it better to have our garden beds run north to south or east to west? Well, actually that was a trick question, because in the southern hemisphere, it really doesn’t matter that much. The sun passes so directly overhead during the summer growing months that no matter which way you place your beds, your plants will still get about the same amount of light.

But here’s what does matter. Where you place your plants within those beds. You never want the tallest plants shading out the shortest ones. So how do you avoid this? Plant your tallest varieties along the north or west side of your garden. Now earlier, I said the sun passes directly overhead, but really it tracks across the sky with a slightly southern exposure. So as the sun’s rays bath our garden plants through the day, the angle is slightly from the south. So with that in mind, by placing the tallest plants at the north side of our garden, and the shorter plants in front, all our plants will get the maximum amount of sun.

Here’s an example to help illustrate the point. Assume I have one garden bed and I’m growing pole beans, eggplant and cucumbers along the ground. Since the pole beans are the tallest, they go on the north side of the bed. The medium sized eggplants will go in the middle or just south of the pole beans, and finally, the cucumbers that I decided to grow along the ground would be my southern most plants in the bed.

Now for a twist, what if I wanted to grow those cucumbers on a trellis? Well then, I’d put them in the middle, since they’ll grow taller than the eggplants but not as tall as the pole beans. And when you start getting two plants of similar height growing near each other, be mindful of ensuring that however you place your plants, they all have the best chance of getting the most sunlight possible.

OK, that was an example of north to south. Now let’s look at east to west. I bet you can figure this one out from what we just learned. Again, I’ll start with a question: This time you want to grow a big plot of corn within your garden, along with some other crops. But no matter what else you’re growing, are you going to put your corn on the east or west side of your garden? The west side of course! As the sun rises and moves across the sky, we know it rises from the east. So by having the tallest plants on the west side of the garden, everything planted to the east, gets to soak up all that sun before those late day rays have any chance of casting shade on them.

It’s as simple as that! Plant your tallest plants along the north or west side of your garden and everybody wins. OK, here’s one more teaser just to see if you were paying attention: Which location gives all your plants the best opportunity to get every drop of the sun’s rays for the entire day? Placing your tallest plants on the North or the West side of your garden? If you said the north, you’re right! Going back to what I said earlier, the slightly southern exposure as the sun tracks across the sky will bathe all your plants in the most light possible when the tallest plants are at the northern most place in your garden. So put the right plants in the right place and you should be well on your way to gardening like a pro with your Burpee Home Gardens Plants.

Now next week, we’ll talk about another consideration when considering where and what to plant. For those space-challenged gardeners out there, fear not! I’ll have some great ideas for you to get the most out of your garden too, no matter how small it is. And even if space isn’t an issue, gardening in containers offers an entire new dimension to what and where you can grow edibles. In fact, no matter where your garden grows, we’ll be right there with you, every step of the way to help you have a great season. This is just one of 26 podcasts created to get you off to a successful start and provide helpful, weekly tips throughout the entire growing season. And to be sure you don’t miss a single, you can subscribe to this podcast series for free in iTunes. And for more ideas and inspiration any time, be sure to check out

We’ll be right back here next week for another Burpee Home Gardens Tip of the Week.

Now go get dirty!

Joe Lamp’l

Vegetable Garden row/Bed orientation: E-W or N-S?

Replies so far have noted several factors to consider. As always it begins with your local situation. In my situation–semi-arid, high elevation–I’m not so concerned about maximizing sunlight. Light is intense here and there are few cloudy days. Moisture is at a premium though, so I orient my beds across contours to slow the flow of water down the slope. Elliot Coleman also indicates that a slope of a few degrees to the south will capture more solar rays and raise temp.s a couple of degrees. My observations seem to confirm that and since I’m looking to extend my 100 day growing season significantly, I try to build beds so that the top surface has a southward slope. Fortunately the larger scale slope allows me to orient beds generally E-W to easily allow for a southward sloping bed tops. In my annual market garden I do grow taller stuff on the N half of E-W oriented beds and shorter stuff on the S half. I don’t mind the taller stuff shading the paths between my beds at mid-day. In fact I like to take it a step further and mulch my paths with lots of wood chips to maximise the absorption of water and minimize evaporation.
In my winter beds–under a hoophouse or low tunnel–I grow greens randomly, broadcasting a mix of seed. The plants seem to naturally grow in clumps. The air temperature at ground level within those clumps is higher than in the more barren areas (it’s all mulched fairly heavily) in between them. Even in this relatively moderate winter, we’ve had single digit lows regularly. These greens wouldn’t have survived the temperatures without several layers of agribon–enough to reduce the block 50-80% of the sunlight according to the manufacturer’s ratings–and one of plastic. Early on I removed the agribon regularly on sunny days in order to maximise the sunlight. More recently I’ve found that the plants did just as well being covered all the time. I’ve concluded that their growth is going to be slow regardless and that temperature is more of a limiting factor than sunlight.
I have some further reservations about orienting plantings/bed in order to maximise sunlight, at least outside of areas where sunlight, rather than moisture or warmth is at a premium. The amount of solar radiation striking the earth over the course of a day follows a bell curve, with the maximum intensity in the middle of the day and the proportion of energy building up and tailing off sharply. If I was more concerned about maximizing sunlight, I’d want to find out more about how much plants depend on the intense mid-day sun versus perhaps how little they can get from the relatively weak morning and evening sun. Perhaps it only makes sense to maximise for mid-day sun as working to get more early and late day sun can’t really net you much more solar radiation? Another dimension to my reservations is that forests and grasslands everywhere seem to get enough sunlight without worrying about bed orientation. And for all its faults, conventional ag–both pre and post industrialization–seems to have enough sunlight to grow crops without growing in raised beds oriented in any particular direction.

Although the soil out in the garden is still frozen solid, we can still plant our garden — on paper that is.

There are several advantages to planning your garden on paper or on an app, before setting it out in the ground. The most obvious is you can get a good idea of how much planting material you need such as transplants, seeds or bulbs. And it is handy for calculating how many pounds of soil amendments you may need to add to the soil.

I was once one of those gardeners who never planned ahead very much. When it came to planting, I just picked out my favorite seeds and planted until it either looked like enough or I ran out of material to plant. I also didn’t pay much attention to which way the garden was facing. Most of the time I had plenty of square footage to use and I could afford some inefficiency. That, however, is not the way to get the most out of a space.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about which direction garden rows should run.

Sometimes there’s no choice because of the shape of the garden. A long, narrow garden spot may mean the rows have to follow the long axis of the plot. In the past, I’ve had gardens that had an irregular shape so the rows ran in more than one direction because that was the most efficient use of that particular space.

What if you have a square or nearly square garden with one of the sides facing south, should the rows run north and south or east and west?

Imagine the position of the sun in the sky during the growing season. It appears to us to travel across the sky from east to west. As it moves through the sky, the angle of the rays of sunlight changes in relation to the stationary garden plants.

In an east to west configuration, much more sunlight will strike the south side of the plants than on any other side. In other words, the south side will receive more solar energy while the north side is shaded most of the day.

Rows planted north to south will receive sunlight more evenly. In the morning, the east side of the row receives sunlight. The plant is bathed in sunlight all day as the sun moves until late afternoon when the west side gets sunlight. So the plant receives sunlight on three sides instead of just one.

The cross-hatched area represents plant rows. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight.Note how plants in the east to west rows receive full sun only on the south side. Plants in the north to south rows get more balanced sunlight over the course of a day.

Not all gardens are situated facing a cardinal direction in an open area. Take for example a southeastern facing garden that is shaded from the afternoon sun. It should have its rows running northeast and southwest to receive the fullest amount of sunlight. Since the garden would get no direct sunlight in the afternoon, it would be a good idea to try to capture as much of that solar energy as possible.

We have a couple of months before our main outdoors planting happens. So now is a great time to sketch out a diagram of of your garden that, in addition to the size and shape, includes direction, and potential sunlight.

Which Direction to Orientate Vegetable Rows

My daughter and I just tilled a new garden and are very much new to this. The garden is 34×34 and is in the open with all sun exposure. My question is which direction is best for rows if there is one?

Many gardeners prefer to plant their rows in a north to south direction. This planting orientation maximizes the light reaching all the plants in the garden by minimizing shade cast by one row of plants onto the next. With a full sun location it is probably not that critical. You can use shade cast by taller plants to your advantage. I often plant cool season crops like lettuce and radishes next to or in between the taller vegetables. The shade cast by the taller plants helps keep the soil cooler, extends the season and reduces bitterness of these cool weather vegetables. And if you find you have extra produce from your large garden you can share it with hungry in the community. Join the efforts of gardeners around the world as a we plant a row and share the harvest with the hungry in our community. E-mail [email protected] or call 877.492.2727 for information on how to donate your extra produce. It’s easy, fun and a good cause.

Ask some friends about planning a vegetable patch, and you’d better sit back and take notes. Gardeners are passionate about the technique they use, loudly proclaiming theirs is the best around. Save water! Save labor! Get huge harvests! You’ve opened a Pandora’s box of advice.

Between raised beds, square-foot, or good old-fashioned rows, finding a garden that fits you seems like a superhuman task. Which one to choose? To help you decide, we talked to experts about the methods they love.

Nature’s method

“We like to call this the hammock method, because we lay in a hammock and watch the garden,” says Sandy Cruz, a permaculture teacher gardening at 9,400 feet in Ward ( “By observing nature, the idea is to set up a system that takes on a life of its own.”

Study your yard for a year, noting sunlight, shade, wind and animals. Then put your garden in full sun and start building soil through sheet composting. “The hallmark of modern gardening is the rototiller, but digging causes weeds so we avoid that.”

Instead, layer material like nature does to make perfect soil in a two-step process. First mow the area, leaving the clippings, then loosen and water the soil. Sprinkle it with vegetable scraps and manure, then lay cardboard boxes or newspaper to block weeds, overlapping edges by 1 to 2 feet.

Next, moisten the area and layer materials, wetting each thoroughly: 4 to 6 inches of straw, manure (proportions vary; see website), 6 to 8 inches of leaves, a sprinkle of rock dust (don’t inhale particles), and 2 inches of finished compost.

You can add lawn clippings, hair, kitchen scraps, or other degradable ingredients.

Repeat layers until the pile is 2 feet tall; top with compost, and you’re ready to plant by popping seeds into the sheet compost, then watering gently.

For seedlings, make a small pocket in the compost, add water, line with 2 to 3 inches of finished compost and plant, tucking compost around the roots. Think beyond the ground by planting vines for vertical crops and add perennials such as asparagus or rhubarb for permanent food.

A structured approach

“Everyone wants a system they can do and be successful at,” says Mel Bartholomew, inventor of Square Foot Gardening (, “one to fit their lifestyle, location, time, everything. When I started gardening I learned row planting, but was disenchanted with it — too many weeds, too much space, too much work.”

The retired engineer and efficiency expert — “a deadly combination,” he says — came up with his simple, gridded system that uses only 20 percent of the space of a traditional garden, 10 percent of the water and 5 percent of the seeds.

Labor savings is a bonus. “Don’t till the ground. Instead, build a box, put it on a sunny spot near the house, lay down a weed barrier cloth, and fill it 6 inches deep with a mix of peat moss, compost and vermiculite,” he says. “Then put a grid of 12-inch squares on the top, made out of anything you like. Plant one square with each crop, a square of lettuce here or radishes there. Water it and you’re finished.”

As you harvest your squares, refresh the soil with a trowel of compost, then plant again for continual harvest.

Easy but intense:

“We call this the no-strain method — once you till your beds, you never till again,” says Larry Stebbins, director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (, a nonprofit that educates gardeners. “We plant edge to edge in raised beds, using all space. The plants grow faster, they’re healthier — you can easily get over a pound of produce per foot from this garden.”

Make raised beds or wide-row mounds, 4 feet wide, and till in 3 to 4 inches of compost as deep as your tiller goes. Plant intensively during spring, summer and fall, spacing your plants close together. As soon as you harvest them, put another in its place. “When we pull up an onion we grab a handful of compost, scratch it into the empty spot, then plant six carrots.”

Intersperse herbs throughout the beds to confuse insects with smell, and make sure your plants make good neighbors. “Basil grows well with tomatoes, but you don’t want squash too close to carrots or they’ll shade them.”

Put tall plants, like corn, on the north end and shorter plants on the south. Give plants a cup of compost tea every two weeks to feed both plants and soil.

Every garden is as unique to the gardener as a fingerprint, so choose the system that fits your style. “The proof of the pudding is what’s happening in your garden over the years,” says Stebbins, and if it works, enjoy it.

Waffle garden

Try a waffle garden, an ancient technique used by the Zuni in the desert Southwest to make maximum use of scarce water. Featured in author Rob Proctor’s garden on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day tour in September 2009, waffle gardens channel water to plant roots through a simple design of sunken squares walled by low rims of soil.

Till your soil, then mark off a grid of squares, 3 feet wide per side. Then scoop out the center of the squares to build the rims 6 to 8 inches tall. Though the depressions were mulched with gravel to hold water from driving rainstorms, you can use straw or grass clippings to keep your waffle moist. Hand water your squares if the weather is dry or lay your grid with drip irrigation.

Once your plants — sown in the center of the squares — are growing, leaves and the soil sides shade the roots from harsh summer sun.

The choice of what to plant in each section is up to you; squares can hold a single crop or combinations of plants for companion support. Try a traditional sowing of three corn seeds, planted in the center of the square, and surround them with three vining bean seeds. As the beans grow, they’ll climb the corn stalks. The third of the “three sisters” — squash — was given a waffle of its own, planted with two seeds per square.

A moveable feast

“This is perfect for people who don’t have good soil or sun in a garden area,” says Kata Schmidt, a Colorado Master Gardener in Colorado City. “It’s flexible. You can put the bales on a cement driveway if you need to, so your garden gets sun.”

Straw or hay works for this method, says Schmidt, but hay contains nutrients that make plants perform two to three times better than in straw. Hay costs a little more, but “you get way more than a few dollars’ worth of produce out of that bale.”

To get your bale ready for planting, soak it thoroughly with water, then sprinkle nitrogen fertilizer over the top to begin softening the material. Keep it wet for 10 to 14 days, and when it feels squishy it’s ready for planting.

Gently make pockets in the top of the bale to make room for one or two seedlings. Add compost around the roots and bale top, lay a soaker hose across the bale, then mulch with hay.

When plants are little, water them 5 to 10 minutes daily, but in early July, reduce that to every two or three days for 10 minutes. Check the bales before you water; “they take less water once the hay decomposes and the roots develop,” says Schmidt. Fertilize once in mid-summer with a vegetable fertilizer of your choice.

Read Carol O’Meara on her blog

Three illustrated techniques are described (clockwise from the top)

Sunken gardens

Zuni in the American Southwest are credited with developing the water-thrifty waffle method.

Dig in. Create planting depressions to direct water (from the hose or rains) where it belongs: the roots.

Mulch madness. Conserve even more water by mulching the depression with straw or grass clippings. The Zuni used gravel to keep the soil from washing away during heavy rain.

Drips. Hand water, or create your waffle grid using a drip-irrigation system.

Hay today, compost in the fall

Bales can be placed in the sunniest spot in your yard to grow summer veggies, and then pulled apart and used to mulch other parts of your garden in the fall.

Fertilize first. “Starting” your bale with nitrogen fertilizer gets the beneficial composting going — fast.

Plants need dirt. You’ll need some finished compost or garden soil to get your seedlings growing.

Easy on the water. Pay attention! By midsummer, your plants may need less water than you think they do.

Get off the ground

Raised beds — you choose the shape and the materials — are the foundation for both the square-foot and easy-but-intense methods.

Lay down a weed barrier first. This helps keep unwanted plants from migrating into your soil mix.

Fresh soil and compost rule. This helps you control fertility and cut down on imported weeds.

Maximize sun. Site tall plants on the north and east edges of containers so they don’t shade the others.

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