The Space Between

Books and people who advocate close spacing of plants do so for various reasons.  Closely spaced plants require less land for the same amount of food.  Closely spaced plants are, in theory, easier to water and, in theory, require less water than their more distantly spaced brethren.  Closely spaced plants  also require minimal weeding both because there is less land involved and because less of the that land is fully exposed to sunlight.  Implicit in all this is the idea that closely spaced gardens take less time.  But these reasons are only true if certain assumptions are made and the belief that gardens that are more spread out require more time deserves at least some skepticism.

An intensively planted garden only saves water compared to a normally irrigated garden.  A dry or humid garden, one that relies entirely or primarily on rainfall or water in the soil, takes less  water, not more  and it can take a fair amount of time to water well enough to break through the dense canopy of leaves that is typical of the intensively planted garden.  Spacing your plants closer together certainly does leave less land in need of weeding but the weeding is harder, more time consuming,and in many (if not most cases) must be done by pulling or with hand tools–which means stoop labor.

The close spacing of plants also makes harvesting a real chore as I am discovering on a daily basis.  I’ve started picking the southern peas but they’ve filled in the space between the rows and it takes forever to pick my way through each row.  Ditto for the cucurbits which are so intertwined that finding a foothold is every bit as hard as finding a wayward squash.  The melons are not yet ripe but I’ve planted so many, that I cannot keep track of what is where and which has been checked and I know in my heart that one day soon, I will find dozens of overripe, rotting melons.

More space, more weeding, more, more, more.  I am planting 6 pairs of cucurbits; 6 on the flat and 6 in mounds.  These plants  are or will be spaced more than 6 feet apart and are centered in a space more than 15 feet wide. They are in the recently harrowed ground where the potatoes were.  What potatoes managed to grow have been harrowed into the soil as well as the plants and the weeds.  I don’t know what this means as far as soil fertility.


Getting to Plants

Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When it Counts, writes that he pities those individuals who plant seeds but don’t get reliable germination which means that he pities me.  Even though I try to get things right, I often find that my seeds are slow to germinate or don’t germinate at all.  I planted my last few Tatume seeds a few weeks ago and nothing came up.  I had soaked these seeds and thought maybe they had died.  I finally replanted with seeds that I purchased from Baker Creek Seeds.  I planted three hills (and these were actual hills) while at the same time I sprouted 6 seeds in a yogurt container.  I watered the hills every other day and despite that,  the seeds in one hill never germinated.  I only want one plant per hill so I just repositioned one of the seedlings from the two hills whose seeds did germinate but I expected better.  Then two days ago, I noticed a seedling growing that must have come from one of the  abandoned hills.  I had harrowed pretty close to that spot so maybe the seed ended up at a better depth.  It’s far enough from the other seedlings that I decided to leave it.

The two hills that I planted with sprouted seeds have come up.  Only four of the six seeds sprouted well but I planted three in each hill including one non-sprouted seed per hill.  Today, one hill has three seedlings and the other has still has only two and it took several days for the poorly sprouted seed to emerge.

So on the 26th of July, day 1, I planted three hills with two seeds each (group A) and I started sprouting 6 more seeds (group B)with the expectation of planting three more hills.   I’ve  watered group A every other day and noticed that most group B seeds sprouted by day 3 but waited to plant them on day 5.  I decided to plant three seeds per hill because of the two unsprouted seeds.  Group B has also been watered every other day, except today. On day 6 two hills in group A had both seeds germinate and both hills in group B had one seed.  I repositioned one seedling in Group A without any difficulty.  Today is day 10 and two hills in group A have one seedling each; one hill has two.  The two seeds in one of the single seedling hills never came up.  One hill in group B has three seedlings (the unsprouted seedling finally emerged today) while the other one has two seedlings.  Each of the seedlings in both groups (except the most recently emerged seedling) have one true leaf.  The seedlings in group A are bigger and better looking than the seedlings in group B, although the repositioned seedling is a tiny bit smaller.  Five of the six seeds in group B have emerged while only four have done so in group A.

It’s hard to come to any real conclusions.  Group A looks  better than B but But group B had better emergence.  I am going to do some seeding experiments later in the month.  One thing is clear, moving a seedling with two cotyledons is far less traumatic to the plant than repositioning a larger seedling.  The last okra seedling is still lagging behind the other plants and took days of babying.  The Tatume seedling I moved the other day, during my morning work,  took a moment to move and has been doing fine since.  I have not given it extra water or shaded it or done anything else for it that I have not done for the other seedlings.  And while it’s not as hot as it was when I repositioned the okra, it was still in the low nineties.

In the Garden

Despite the many problems I’ve had so far, this has been my most sucessful garden ever.  If I had it all to do over again I would really try to keep the weeds from getting out of hand and I would space everything farther apart.  With one exception, those plants that are closer together are more difficult to weed, more prone to insect damage, more difficult to harvest, more prone to distress from lack of water, and just less fun to deal with.  The one exception being a Costata Romanesca plant from the second planting that just bellied-up and died today after having produce 1 1/2 squash.  Costata Romanesca will definitely NOT be on my list for next year.  It didn’t taste remarkable and it didn’t thrive.  I pulled up two C.R. plants last week to make space and haven’t missed them.

My hot weather transplant survived but it was definitely set back by the experience.

Repostioned Okra Plant; smaller than the rest

It had to be watered and shaded for several days and while it made it, it’s significantly smaller than the rest of the okra plants.

I’m still having issues with germination.  I planted three hills of Tatume squash the other day and started sprouting 6 more seeds at the same time.  I watered the outside hills on the third day and planted the sprouts on the 5th day which was really too long:


Sprouted Tatume Squash Seeds: Four Days Old

I split the sprouted seeds into two hills since one seed in each trio seemed not to have sprouted.  When I planted them in the hills, I put markers over those seeds so I would know how they performed. The fifth day just started to see emergence in two of the outside the outside hills.  By the next day, both seeds had fully germinated in those two the direct seeded hills and each sprouted seed hill had one seedling emerged.  Today, day 6, both direct seeded hills had two nice seedlings ;  still one each per sprout seeded hill (just the cotyledons) .  The third direct seeded hill had nothing so I moved one seedling into the empty hill.  That’s not a great result.  I suppose I should have planted three seeds per hill but I knew I wanted to thin down to one plant and it just seemed wasteful.  I’m still watering the hills although yesterday we finally got a decent amount of rain.

I am getting almost no squash now.  The original Tatume(s?) still have green leaves, although not in the center, and I did get two squashes today and two yesterday but it’s nowhere near the amount I first got.  It may just be the life cycle of the plant or the heat or the bugs or some combination of the above.  The best I can say about the corn is that most of it seems to be surviving.

I thought I gave up on the potatoes but in the back of my mind, I still had some idea of harvesting something.  It’s hard to tear out a plant or harrow down the weeds above the potatoes but that’s what I did last week.  I am going to plant more squash where the potatoes were/are but mostly I harrowed because I accepted that I would never get those potatoes, I desperately needed to do something with the weeds  and I want to make sure the potatoes  decomposed before we let the pigs back in this fall.


Here is a video I made of the Hoss Wheel Hoe (a remake of the old Planet Jr Wheel Hoes) in action.  I will add a more detailed review later.


Sweat Management

So yesterday, I went over “my bag”.  Among the many items in my bag were some flannel cloth rags (made from old flannel sheets) and strips of cotton batting.

Batting Strips & Flannel Cloths

These are my primary tools for “Sweat Management” or perhaps “heat management” is a better phrase.  Once the morning clouds burn off, the temperatures start to climb.  The heat comes quickly, like a heavy, damp blanket thrown over everything and simply exposing yourself to it becomes something to think about.  I would say working in the heat becomes impossible except for the fact that I have seen people do it.

I have also seen people wear long pants and shirts and claim to feel cooler but I’ve never tried it.  My gardening uniform is shorts, a tank top, a very light short sleeve shirt, crocs and a visor.  my eyes are sensitive to sunlight but sunglasses slip off my sweaty nose and I have way too much hair for a hat so I wear a visor that ties in the back.  This is where the cotton strips come into place.  I lay a strip of batting on my forehead and tie the visor over it.  I have several because they become soaked in sweat pretty quickly.  But they also dry quickly so I can rotate three and keep the visor itself from getting too wet.  I leave the wet ones exposed to the air so they can dry.  Which is also what I do with the flannel cloths.  Cotton batting is not terribly expensive but it’s meant for quilting you have to buy a fair amount of it as well as go to a fabric store to find it.  A double thickness of flannel works nearly as well and dries faster.

Having even two cloths means you can use one while the other dries.  The flannel is thin and dries quickly but it will not dry if it is in constant use.  And while a damp cloth will work, somewhat, it is unpleasant as are damp clothes.  I always change into different clothes when I go into the house,  I hang the ones I was wearing so they can dry.  This may be off-putting to some people, but clothes that have only been worn for a couple of hours, don’t necessarily need to washed.  If I have to work outside again, I put on the same clothes I wore in the morning which are now dry and comfortable.

It is easier to tolerate the heat if you are outside before it really hits.  I find this is true unless the temperature gets above 90F or the heat index hits the high nineties.  In any case, I try to do the hardest work first.  I will often start with the peasant hoe, move to the Hoss Wheel Hoe and end up with the small Rogue hoe or by picking veggies.  I take frequent breaks and basically limit myself to however long I can work before I finish the water in my bottle and the quart jar I use to refill it.

Getting to the Garden

It’s not like I have to travel miles and miles but before I go out the garden, nearly every time, I make sure I have my bag that it contains everything that is supposed to be in it (cat not included).

Garden Bag & Contents

Inside the bag go:  A stainless steel double walled water bottle, a pair of Atlas Fit gloves, three or four small rectangles of cotton batting, my sharpening file, three or four rags (usually made from flannel sheets), bug spray, a battery operated timer/clock, a partial roll of toilet paper, my visor, a pair of reading glasses and a small wrench that fits the Hoss Wheel Hoe.  I also usually bring my MP3 player.   The bag itself, is an insulated cold bag from the commissary:

My Garden Bag


with a box and two milk cartons inside to hold things neatly and to prevent sharp objects from penetrating the bag.  I place the water bottle (full of ice water)  in the empty milk carton and a quart jar of water in the box.  originally  I had the idea that the insulation would help keep the jar and water bottle cool.  This has not been true.  I think the heat gets in through the zipper and then the insulation traps it inside.  I continue to use the bag because the squarish shape and the flat bottom are convenient but I generally keep the water bottle under the shade of some plants and do not keep the lid zipped shut.

My garden is less than 200 feet away from my house and until reading Carol Deppe’s book, The Resilient Gardner, it really never occurred to me to organize myself before going out to garden.  Of course, her garden is more than a mile away from her house but it’s surprisingly inconvenient to keep coming back for this, that, and the other.  So, over the course of the last few months my bag has evolved from a small box with no handles to the bag above.  I basically started with just the water bottle and the glasses and have added to it as I’ve gained experience.

I added the toilet paper roll first. I have allergies and the toilet paper roll is the best way to bring tissue out there.  I always get a partially used roll so that it doesn’t take up too much room.  The timer/clock is my most recent addition.  Especially when I am home alone, I really need to know what time it is and sometimes to keep track of how much time I spend outside (I need to check on cat periodically if no one else is in the house).  I prefer not to bring my cell phone because it’s just so easy for things to get wet or drop on the ground. I don’t mind risking a $12.00 timer.Sometimes I’d like to have more water but running out of water is a sure sign that it’s time to come inside; there’s no point in exhausting myself.


In the Garden

As mentioned in the last post, the heat has been terrible and cucurbits are really suffering.  The bug population has exploded.  Tomatoes are finally ripening but are now getting eaten by bugs.  As usual the cherry tomatoes are doing the best.  Most of the cucumbers are bitter and have to be fed to the pigs who do not seem to mind the bitter taste.  The green beans are just getting to the picking stage.  I’ve had to remove three stalks of corn that had corn smut.  I try to be open to new ideas and tastes and I understand that corn smut is a delicacy in many places but, “yuck!”  There will be no corn smut served here.  As usual, the pigs don’t seem to mind it all all and ate everything, cob included.

Smut Infected Maize Stalk


I put in some more maize, planting it in the style of Buffalo Bird Woman, I’ve also hilled up some squash as per her book.  I decided to soak the seeds before planting  and at the same time, I soaked some Tatume seeds.  I planted the Tatume and most of the maize after two days.  The remainder of the maize seed, I removed from the water and allowed to start sprouting.  I planted the sprouts the next day.  So far, I have had much better germination with with soaked seed than the spouted seed and the soaked Tatume seeds were a complete bust.  Two days ago, I planted more Tatume.  I planted in them hills that look a little like volcanoes and these I will water every other day.  I don’t currently have a good watering can and while I wait to get one on ebay, I use a bucket and an empty Goldbond’s powder bottle and it works surprisingly well.  In keeping with my new germination plan, I am watering my squash seeds every other day.


My Jury Rigged Watering Can



My Jury Rigged Watering Can in Action


At the same time I  decided to sprout some Tatume seeds (rather than soak them) and see how they compare to ones I just planted.  I took some dried grass

I soaked it and crammed it into a yogurt container.

Sprouting Tatume Seeds


added seeds and rinsed the whole thing.  I rinse  the mass two or three times a day.  Then I carefully drain most of the water out  and put the lid back on.  The seeds are suspended in the bird’s nest and I feel that the water in the bottom makes fore a nice, moist environment.  I am thinking about poking some air holes or raising the lid slightly.  I am just now starting to see sprouts.  I will probably plant them tomorrow or the next day.  This time I will follow Buffalo Bird Woman’s technique more exactly,  planting the sprouts on the side of the mound.  This is to make it easier for the sprout to break through the soil since the sides do not become as compacted as the top does.  Like the other seeds, I will water every other day until I get seedlings.