Apr 16, 2011

Reader Question: Which Gardening Method?

A reader who is trying for better self sufficiency but doesn't have much gardening experience recently asked my opinion on which gardening method to use. As I told her, I could write a whole article about that topic. So I am!

There are really only a handful of methods for planting edibles. You may use only one method, or (like me) a variety of them depending upon which location in your yard you’re utilizing. Below I've listed each method, along with their pros (benefits) and cons.

When most people think vegetable gardens, they envision long rows of corn, peas,
and tomatoes. There are many benefits to this style of gardening:

* Weeding may be simplified because unwanted plants are easier to reach than with some other methods. In addition, pathways between rows can be tilled to remove weeds, or thick mulches (like wood chips or straw) can be used on pathways to minimize the need to weed. You can also weed standing up, with a hoe.
* Row gardens are often cheaper, since you don’t need to build raised beds or special soil.
* Row gardens may require less watering. If plants are given plenty of room, their roots will go deeper into the soil for water.
* Row gardens may be healthier, if plants are properly spaced. Plants don’t have to compete for water and nutrients.
* Row planting gives plants plenty of air circulation, which can reduce the rate of diseases.

Cons with row gardening include:
* Row gardens take up quite a bit of space.
* Unless drip irrigation is used, row gardens use water less efficiently, wetting areas that aren’t actually planted.
* Unless you put a barrier around a row garden, it may be difficult for young children to resist running around in the garden, possibly trampling seedlings.
* If your soil is poor for gardening, it will take work and time to amend it so it produces well. Better soil can be purchased and brought in, but that’s an additional expense.

Wide Rows or Berms
Wide row planting is very much like traditional row planting, except that instead of planting in narrow strips, each row is a berm measuring about 1 to 4 feet wide. (Photo Credit: Colorado State University Extension.) Some benefits of this method include:
* All the benefits of traditional row planting, but with higher yields for the allotted space.
* Berms may discourage children from trampling plants, as it’s easier for them to see exactly which areas are off limits.
* The soil is warmer than if flat garden soil is used, which can extend your growing season.
* The soil won’t be stepped on during maintenance, so it doesn’t get compacted, requiring tilling.
* The soil is raised, meaning there may be less bending over while gardening.
* Because plants shade each other, there may be less weeding.
* The soil should drain better than in traditional row planting.

Cons include:
* Soil may erode enough gardeners must hoe it back into place on the berm. (However, it takes extreme amounts of rain for this to happen.)
* Unless drip irrigation is used, row gardens use water less efficiently, wetting areas that aren’t actually planted.
* If your soil is poor for gardening, it will take work and time to amend it so it produces well. Better soil can be purchased and brought in, but again, that’s an additional expense.

Raised Beds

A very popular modern method of gardening is raised beds. There are many benefits to this method, including:
* It’s easier to keep young children and pets out of the garden.
* Current garden soil can be poor. Raised beds are filled with soil that’s brought in – which means the soil is excellent for growing as long as it's well chosen.
* Depending upon the height of the raised bed, there’s no need to bend when gardening. Raised bed gardens are ideal for people in wheelchairs or who have difficulty bending.
* Weeding is easier, assuming the soil that’s used to fill the raised bed is free of weed seeds. The first year, no weeding may be required. Afterward, weeding will not get out of control unless it’s ignored.
* Raised beds tend to be warmer, which may lengthen the growing season of your plants.
* Since nobody will walk on the soil, it doesn’t get compacted or require tilling.
* The soil in raised beds should drain well.

Cons include:
* Raised beds are costly. There’s wood to be purchased – and even if you have wood scraps that are suitable, you must purchase quality garden soil to fill the beds with.

* Because the soil drains better it may become more dry than some other methods, requiring more frequent watering.

Square Foot
This method is a type of raised bed gardening characterized by shallow boxes and plants growing quite close together; each plant is given only one square foot to grow. (Photo Credit: Southwestern Community College.) The benefits to this method include:
* The possibility of higher yields in a smaller space, depending upon what you plant.
* Because plants are grown close together, there will be fewer weeds to pull.
* Because there’s no need to walk in the garden bed, the soil doesn’t get compacted and require tilling.

Cons include:
* When plants grow close together, they compete for water and nutrients. That means to stay healthy, plants must be watered and fertilized more frequently.

* Square Foot gardening is truly not appropriate for some edibles, including tomatoes and corn, which both need more room for their roots.
* Planting vegetables close together reduces air flow, which could lead to more diseased plants.
* The soil mixture that’s recommended for this method can be costly.
* Square Foot gardening is not suitable for fruit bushes or trees.
* Because Square Foot gardens are generally close to the ground, there is more bending down to tend to them and it’s harder to keep kids and pets out of the garden.


Growing vegetables and fruits in containers is nothing new and has many benefits, including:
* Young children and pets will find it difficult to trample plants in most containers.
* If the garden soil is poor, it doesn’t matter. Containers are filled with new potting soil.
* All vegetables can be grown in containers, and so can berry bushes, patio-, and dwarf fruit trees.
* Plants in containers can be moved. This is especially useful if you have tender plants that will need more warmth or shelter in the cold winter months. Remember, however, that large pots may require lots of muscle and a dolly to move.

Cons include:
* It can be expensive to purchase containers and fill them with potting soil.
* Plants grown in containers typically need more watering and fertilizing.

Edible Landscaping

With edible landscaping, edible plants are interspersed among ornamental plants. With the best edible landscaping, onlookers won't - at least at first - recognize that the landscaping includes many edibles. (For great examples of what edible landscaping can look like, check out author Rosalind Creasy's website.) Benefits to this method include:

* Greater beauty, in the eye of many.

* Edibles are less obvious, which is a bonus if the garden is in the front yard and edibles might be stolen.

Cons include:

* Yeilds will probably be lower.

* Garden soil must be in great shape.

There is no one correct planting method; which you choose depends upon how much you want to spend, how good (or bad) your soil is, and your personal preferences. I use a combination of most of these methods. My main vegetable bed is planted in berms or wide rows. I also use containers throughout our yard. I also do some edible landscaping.

What about you? If you've been gardening for a while, tell us which methods you prefer - and why!


Do you have questions about gardening or other topics covered at Proverbs 31 Woman? Feel free to email me !


  1. I like the wide row method, but I can't do that here. I'll be putting together some raised 4x4 beds, but buying the good soil is costly.

  2. It's forced containers for me this year. I only have an apartment balcony!

    But, I'm hoping to have a real garden in the next year or so. I'd probably go for either the berms or the raised beds.

    When I was growing up, we had a huge garden, but it didn't always get used. Some years, we'd plant a bunch of stuff--corn, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peppers, watermelon. But other years it was just tomatoes. The boundaries were many railroad ties--about 6 or 8 square. So, quite large, but mostly manageable. My parents put soil in it from the dry pond bed behind our house, so it was (mostly) fertile, and after the first few years, got some horse manure to add to it.