There are two normal schools of thought for planting a garden planting in traditional rows and planting in “staggered” rows. A third option, often called plant-dictated or random placement, is becoming more popular. Here are the pros and cons of each approach and advice on which method is best for your needs. You can even incorporate all the gardening techniques into one garden, depending on the space and the vegetables.
Row Garden Planting
Traditional row gardening is a direct descendant of pre-industrial agriculture. Back in the horse and plow or human-operated plow days, rows gave clear lines separating the crops from the machinery. They allowed for straight furrows to channel water and left the center soil (row) loose for the plants to grow in. When tractors and other farm machinery were introduced, they usually kept with this traditional style of growing, perpetuating it to the present.
For home gardeners, no matter the scale, traditional rows offer a clean, aesthetic appeal that also allows for easy access. Also, the creation of raised beds by “heaping” soil into rows, orignially separated by the V of a plow, create a channel for water and for use as footpaths between rows.
In areas where sunlight is as a premium and with plants that grow to varied heights, this method allows for more light penetration between rows, allowing for a more varied planting schedule with less planning for height and shade creation needed.
Traditional rows, however, usually mean more weeds and less crops per yard, making them less economical on a work versus return scale.
Staggered Row Garden Planting
A staggered row takes the traditional plow row and “staggers” it, making it somewhat wider, but allowing nearly double the plants per yard. Rows are planted in a W formation (zig-zag). For non-machine gardening (hand work), this method is usually the preferred option.
Although the idea seems relatively new, it’s actually been around for centuries. Traditionally in Japan, rice patties were planted in this way so as to maximize yield while retaining an aesthetic appeal for the field. It also made harvest easier as the scythe moved through the rows.
Today, gardeners find that staggered rows not only offers better yield per yard, but also less work in terms of the application of mulch and fertilizer/amendments and in weed removal (fewer weeds is the norm here).
A down side to staggered rows is the requirement that the gardener carefully plan for projected plant heights, sunlight needs, and the fact that most motorized garden tools will be harder to use in staggered formats.
Plant-dictated, Random Placement Garden Planting
Popular today in raised beds, container gardening, and “disorganized” square foot gardening, this method literally has the gardener planting plants wherever he or she would like and in whatever formation is preferred. Many gardeners with limited space enjoy creating outdoor spaces for aesthetic appeal as well as food production.
This means arranging plants not just for yield potential, but for appearances. Gardeners have found that rather than just flowers, trees and shrubs, they can include lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, and other crop producers in their aesthetic garden to vary the appeal and usefulness of the space.
Obvious downsides are lowered production and often less ease of access for some plants. Here are some other options in this article on Small Vegetable Garden Layout Ideas.
Want to learn more about planting garden vegetables in rows and staggered rows?
Don’t miss these helpful resources:
Garden for Food Primer, from Washington State University: Chelan County Extension
Specialized Garden Techniques: Wide-row planting, square-foot gardening, and raised beds from University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension