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10-BY-5-FOOT GARDEN: You can grow 101 vegetable plants

10-BY-5-FOOT GARDEN: You can grow 101 vegetable plants in this size plot if you divide it into 50 square-foot boxes and set the number of plants in each as shown. Credit: Newsday composite illustration / Ed Amantia

If you long to grow your own vegetables but don't think you have enough space, think again. With a little forethought, a humble 5-by-10-foot patch can hold more than 100 plants.

Instead of bushy varieties that take up a lot of real estate by growing outward, focus on plants that can be trained to grow vertically on trellises, like squash, cucumbers, indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans. Tepee-type supports work best to contain plants neatly.

If you're using starter plants purchased at your local nursery, check the plant tag for the recommended space requirements for each plant and go with the minimum in the range. (If you're growing plants from seed, you'll find the spacing information on the seed pack.) If the recommendation is to space plants 12-18 inches apart, go with 12 inches. Just don't push the limits beyond that, because overcrowding plants will make them susceptible to mold and fungal diseases, and make weeding and harvesting difficult.

Think about interplanting fast-growing plants that mature quickly, say lettuces and radishes, between rows of slower growing plants like eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. You'll be able to harvest the early crops and remove plants before the slower growers need their space.

Succession planting is important, too. Choose varieties with different maturity rates. For instance, there are early-, mid- and late-season tomato, cabbage, corn, peas, pepper and eggplant varieties, among others. Plant one of each to provide a longer harvest. And plant lettuce, beans, radishes and onions at 2-week intervals so that when one is harvested, another is on its way to maturing.

Dividing up a bed into one-square-foot sections can help organize and maximize space in a small plot. For a typical 5-by-10-foot bed, that translates into 50 squares, each of which can accommodate at least one plant - and as many as 16, depending on the crop. In the example above, inspired by the "Square Foot Gardening" method created by one-time Old Field resident Mel Bartholomew, I've plotted square-foot sections for each variety. A square foot can fit, for example, 8 trellised pole beans, or 9 radishes, or 9 onions, or 4 chives, or 4 Swiss chards, or 2 thyme plants, or one tomato, cucumber, pepper, oregano, zucchini, lettuce, basil or parsley plant. All told, that would be 101 plants. And that's being conservative because not only are 10 squares sacrificed to a walkway in the center of the plot, but one could conceivably pack multiple lettuces, parsleys and basils into a single square to which I've assigned only one.

In this scenario, the walkway is nice, but not mandatory because every plant is within a 2-foot accessibility range. But if your garden requires you to reach over more than two rows, it's necessary to allow for one.

Walkways don't have to be fancy. They can be constructed of anything from paving stones to cardboard. Or you might apply a thick layer of mulch in the strip. A path allows access for watering, weeding and harvesting without trampling plants or compressing the soil with your feet. In my example, every plant can be easily reached.

As you can see, even if your garden is limited in size, it needn't limit your gardening.

Square-foot gardening

 Former engineer Mel Bartholomew, inventor of the "Square Foot Gardening" method and author of the million-selling book of the same name, promotes planting in raised boxes placed on top of existing soil instead of digging into it. The technique involves filling the box, typically 4 feet by 4 feet in size and just 6 inches deep, with a combination of peat moss, vermiculite and compost, and dividing it into 12-inch squares, each dedicated to a different crop. Bartholomew contends that if cared for properly, plants grown in this manner don't need any fertilizer. And the elevated height of plants makes them easier to reach and cuts down on bending and stooping.

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