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The how and why of spacing

Gardening is easier and quicker when spacings are correct for each plant. There are no right or wrong spacings, but good ones make a difference. They play a big part in how plants grow, how much and how easily you harvest, and for how long a time.

  • Good spacing is at the balance point of allowing enough room for successful growth and harvest without wasting growing space.

Here is a table of conversions for the spacing measurements used in this and the following two lessons – I do not give inch equivalents for each measurement as it would simply result in too many numbers.

Spacing depends on what you want to harvest

The spacings I recommend are a mid-point between the maximum number of plants and growing them to a decent size.

It partly depends on what you want to harvest, so I recommend trying a few different spacings and seeing how they work for you.

For example, chard, kale, pak choi and spinach plants can grow you small, medium or large leaves. This depends on spacing (22 cm for salads, wider for cooking leaves) as well as other variables, such as:

  • The time of year – leaves are larger in summer and smaller through winter. Space more closely when transplanting in early autumn for harvests in the winter months.
  • Your picking method – this can result in smaller leaves when you pick plants ‘harder’, meaning you harvest small leaves more regularly.

The photos below use kale as an example.

November – mixed kales at 30 cm for small leaves to use in salads, after they had given larger leaves in summer and autumn
November kale Cavolo Nero – two rows in a 1.2 m / 4 ft bed at 45 cm spacing, for leaves to cook
A spacing of 60 cm for perennial kale Taunton Deane, which can live to six years and more

Spacing methods

The majority of spacings I recommend are for vegetables set equidistantly in all directions. This is the most efficient use of space, with equal amounts of light, moisture and food for all plants.

There are two exceptions to equidistant spacing: when you sow and grow in rows, and when you grow small numbers of different vegetables in the same bed.

1.Carrots and parsnips are easiest to grow in rows, by dropping seeds into drills drawn in the surface. This allows an open space between each row, which is easier to keep weed-free than if you broadcast seeds.

Carrot spacing can be difficult because of the length of time it takes for the tiny seeds to germinate and grow to any size. This can result in a row of closely spaced small seedlings looking much better than a row with only a few seedlings. However the latter is often a winner, because closely spaced carrots may result in more leaf and less root, plus they mature later.

Space carrot rows 17–20 cm apart for smaller, early carrots, and 30 cm apart for larger carrots. Space within a row can be 0.5–1 cm. Parsnips can have 30 cm between rows, with 2–5 cm between each parsnip.

  • Another example of growing in rows is with peas and beans for pods. They are easy to support with straight lines of sticks, net and string; it’s also easier to pick the pods from the open space on either side.
6th June, showing spacing of different vegetables in rows across beds; from left to right: potatoes, peas, cabbage, carrots, onions, shallots, lettuce, beetroot plus cucumber, and spinach (shown as new transplants on p.195)
The same beds 20 weeks later – all are second plantings with just four cabbage per 1.5m (after potatoes), while endive are at 19 cm spacing; the celery have been harvested – they were between the multisown beetroot and leeks

2. When growing different vegetables together in a bed, I also recommend that you sow and plant in rows, for easy access from both sides and into the middle. However, this makes spacing less obvious.

To calculate the spacing between two rows of different vegetables, halve the combined total of the two different measurements. For example, if you are spacing kale at 45 cm and French beans at 30 cm, and planting them in rows next to each other, allow approximately 37 cm between each row. I say approximately because the measurements never need to be as precise as, say, for fitting a window frame! There is flexibility here. You can try a few different spacings and see which results you like the most.

Spacing with multisown modules

This can take some practice. Multisown modules need wider spacing than single-sown plants, but the number of seedlings per module often varies – there may be one to five, when you had aimed for four. If this happens, you can either remove any weak seedlings from modules with more than your desired number, or group two together if they have fewer, say one or two seedlings instead of four.

Avoid overcrowding

Some transplants look a long way apart when you first set them out – cucurbits, for example (see Lesson 11) – but it’s important to respect those distances. My spacings are as close as possible without compromising harvests.

  • Root vegetables grown too close make a wonderful display of leaves but fewer harvests of decent size.
  • Cabbages grown too close will grow heads of no density but are good if you want only leaves, which are called ‘spring greens’.
  • Lettuce sown thickly makes a rapid harvest of small leaves to cut, followed by  diminishing second and third harvests with many yellow leaves.

Drawing lines to help you space

Straight lines are the biggest help for spacing evenly. I suggest drawing lines in the surface compost, using a long dibber or the edge of a rake. You could also use strings, but that takes more time. The following example is for 30 cm spacing, on a bed that is 1.2 m / 4 ft wide.

Using a long dibber to mark lines for planting works nicely when the surface is a little dry, so that the lines are dark
Five dibbed lines along a bed 1 m / 3.3 ft wide, for holes at 22 cm to plant salads
Three lines for six rows of dibbed holes at 25 cm, for peas to pick pea shoots

Start by drawing five shallow lines:

  • Draw the two edge lines first, about 7 cm inside the bed edge. I do this by eye, or you could use a string – by eye is quicker but needs practice. When beds have no sides, the line between the bed and path is notional and is your call.
  • Now draw the middle line, using the dibber or a measuring tape to check that it runs equidistantly between each edge line.
  • Then draw the final two lines between the edge lines and the middle line (though with practice, just the two edge lines and a middle one can guide the eye to achieve even spacing).

Now dib holes 30 cm apart along one of the edge lines, then again along the second line at staggered intervals to make an effect of triangles – this will give an equal distance between all plants.

Five rows along a bed 1.2 m / 4 ft wide, with spacings of 30 cm, gives equal 30 cm spacing in all directions, including diagonals
Six rows along a bed 1.2 m / 4 ft wide, with spacings of 30 cm, gives 25 cm spacing on each diagonal

Holes in the third line along the bed’s middle will be parallel to the first line. Then move to the bed’s other side and make holes in the remaining two lines in the same way. You should now see a pattern as in the diagram, above left, of five rows along the bed, as well as two rows of diagonals in each direction – all nicely symmetrical.

  • For closer spacings of 22 to 25 cm, draw six lines along a 1.2 m / 4 ft bed for more or less equidistant planting, as in the diagram, above right; I write more or less because it’s not to the nearest mm, but accurate enough.
  • If the bed is narrower, say 1 m / 3.3 ft, five lines would result in closer spacing (see the middle photo above). Or, for a 30 cm spacing, you could draw four lines rather than five.

Spacings in relation to garden layout and paths

Spacings need to allow for the contribution of paths, which serve as space between all plants, and between large plants in particular. This is illustrated in the photos of squash and beans, below.

28th May 2018 – beans in two rows, with 30 cm between plants, and Kuri winter squash at 100 cm on each bed and 140 cm to the plant on neighbouring bed
13th June 2019 – this is where I practise no rotation, with the same plantings as last year at the same spacings, and a path spacing of 35–40 cm
2nd September 2019 from the other end, before a harvest of the Kuri squash and showing how all the vegetables are using their space, including the beans on the right

Path space is an important factor – it is not wasted space, and understanding why can help you to space effectively. Paths give light, moisture and food, as well as giving access.

  • Leaves can use the extra light from bed edges as they grow into pathways. The light shining down on paths is used more at the end of the growing period, when plants are larger.
  • Plants send roots outwards from beds into the paths on each side, for food and moisture. This is why I recommend feeding path soil with mulches of half- (or more) decomposed wood, even of compost. Path soil is living soil, with structure and air.

Spacing in relation to organic versus chemical methods

Using synthetic feeds to boost plant growth can reduce the space needed for plants that crop for a long time, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. However, my understanding is that this reduces nutritional content, unless your feed contains, say, seaweed, with all of its minerals.

  • My spacings are for organic growing, where plants grow a little more slowly and roots need to grow a little further in order to team up with microbes and find food for growth. The results are top flavour and often less pest damage, when combined with a no dig approach.

Full use of small spaces

The Small Garden at Homeacres demonstrates both layout and spacings. There are three beds of 1.5 x 4 m / 5 x 13 ft, and the plot’s total width is 6.2 m / 20 ft, including the paths on either side. Path width is a narrow 0.43 m / 1.4 ft, with no wooden sides. It saves space to have no bed-edge materials.

Each bed is divided approximately into four blocks of different vegetables. This allows me to grow a worthwhile amount of each vegetable, with their own best spacings.

Here are a few examples of what could be grown in blocks of 1 x 1.5 m / 3 x 5 ft:

  • Approximately 20 lettuce at 22 cm – these would grow enough leaves for  many meals, over ten weeks or so of repeat harvests.
  • Eight plants of dwarf French beans at 30 cm.
  • Five or six tomato plants at 45 cm.
  • Two rows of peas, with six plants in each row supported with sticks and string, for pods in early summer.

Planting in blocks is easier for access and harvests, plus is prettier than planting in long lines. It’s like ‘square foot gardening’ except that each block is about16 square feet (1.5 square metres).

  • Square foot gardening is fine for all vegetables except those needing more than a square foot! Brussels sprouts and courgettes, for example.
The Small Garden in September 2019, with 12 blocks ofvegetables; the bed near the shed has tomatoes and peppers at 45 cm, carrots in 30 cm rows and swedes, bottom, at 35 cm

I have created a Spacing Guide that shows my recommended spacing distances for most vegetables, for both quick and smaller harvests and larger plants/longer cropping, plus related tips.  It can be viewed or downloaded as a PDF: Vegetable Spacing Guide

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems