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Tomato Spacing in My Small Kitchen Garden

By the time I planted tomatoes weeks earlier than usual, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower (to the right in the photograph) had a good start in my small kitchen garden and we were already harvesting lettuce (at the top-left in the photo).

I set tomato seedlings in my small kitchen garden starting in mid May this year… fully two weeks earlier than central Pennsylvania’s “last frost date.” Given the lack of winter, some uncomfortably hot weather, and more than 14 consecutive frost-free days leading up to mid-May I felt pretty safe putting in summer vegetables so early.

Tomatoes in Small Planting Beds

I’m frustrated by the lack of gardening space in my yard. The house came with a modest raised garden bed that I doubled in size one season. I also took over the kids’ sandbox for gardening when they stopped using it, and I’ve more than doubled the area it covers. Finally, I maintain several planters on my deck and on the kids’ otherwise unused play set.

I’ve prepped a double row for my tomato seedlings. Holes are one foot apart (from the center of one to the center of the next), and the gap between the rows is a foot wide. After digging the holes and before setting in the seedlings, I filled each hole halfway with compost, sprinkled in crushed egg shells and Epsom salt, and tossed it together with soil.

If you click the photo to zoom in, you can make out egg shells in the holes and also spot freshly-planted and watered tomato seedlings to the right of the prepared holes.

With all that, my vegetables don’t fit. To plant with the spacing recommended by seed retailers, gardening books, and the USDA, I’d need more than double the planting beds I already have. So, I “plant intensively.”

The vast, inverted, underground tree that is a tomato plant’s root system will spread through the soil evading impenetrable objects. What difference can it make if some of those objects happen to be roots from other tomato plants? Sure, the roots will compete for water and nutrients, so key to success with intensive planting is to provide adequate amounts of both.

How Close to Space Tomato Plants?

For the past several seasons, I’ve left just twelve inches from one tomato plant to the next within rows, and I’ve created rows in pairs twelve inches apart. From one pair of rows to another I leave a 30 inch wide gap which is just shy of comfortable for working among the plants once they reach the tops of the trellises (about seven feet).

  • Growing tomato plants so close together simplifies maintenance.
  • I can reach past plants near a walking corridor to tend plants in the “back rows” (less moving about).
  • I use far less mulch per plant.
  • Water and fertilizer for any one plant benefits several.
  • It’s short work to apply antifungal powder or solution.
  • The walls of plants provide shade that reduces the occurrence of green shoulders on ripening fruit.
  • Trellising requires far fewer materials.

The downside of spacing tomato plants so closely is that diseases and insects can pass among them easily. Wider spacing can buy you time to protect unaffected plants if you discover problems with any plants.

The photos tell the story of this spring’s planting effort. There are six rows, each of which holds 12, 13, or 14 plants for a total of 76. Varieties include Black Krim, Beefsteak, Nebraska Wedding, White Queen, Nyagous, Valencia, Noonglow, Manyel, Cream Sausage, Jonatta Banana, and the unidentified paste variety I’ve grown for many seasons.

I’ve written several posts about growing tomatoes over the years. Here’s a list of articles and links to them:

 

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