It is not too early to start planning your vegetable garden for the coming season. I already have suggested some seed choices, and this column will address the form and shaping of the garden.
The traditional way to plant vegetables has been in a single row, and that is what most gardeners are used to. I want to suggest another way that is more effective for me, and that is using blocks or wide rows.
Where single-row planting starts with a furrow and seeds sown in a line, block planting calls for broadcasting the seeds over a delineated area - putting them closer together than recommended on the seed packet. This means some thinning will be necessary for small seed plants such as carrots, beets and most of the greens, but this also happens in single rows.
Larger seeds such as peas, beans, cucumber, squash and corn can be set into the ground precisely where you want them to grow.
You need to make your planting sites small enough to be accessible from all sides for planting, weeding and cultivating.
Precise measurements will differ depending on individual techniques used by the gardener, and those who like to kneel or squat and get their hands in the dirt, as I do, will require a smaller bed than those who are accustomed to using a rake, hoe and weeder (and thus have a longer reach). Just be sure the whole plot is accessible. You do not want to compact your carefully prepared soil by standing on it.
The blocks can be divided by narrow paths, which can vary from trodden earth to mulched or stoned paths. Mine are made of paving stones 12 inches square, with larger pavers at the intersections, and this works well for me. If you should do this, put the pavers as close together as possible because weeds love to pop up in crevices.
With this arrangement, more square footage is available for the plants and less is wasted between the rows. Watering is easier with compact areas to be covered.
Once the plants have grown a few inches tall, they will protect one another from all sides, shading the ground and holding moisture. Some weeds will be discouraged by the shade and find less space in which to flourish, although there will still be enough to need regular attention.
Crops such as spinach, which bolt quickly in full sun, will appreciate the more shaded space, and peas, which need quite a bit of support, will depend on one another - and require fewer stakes.
Corn needs to be planted in a block for effective fertilization, and the effects of strong wind in summer storms should be less destructive as the stalks support one another.
Companion planting is easy in this kind of arrangement. Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips and beets can be sown together, and at harvest time you will have ready-to-pick vegetable soup. When you pull one vegetable, you are aerating the soil and making more room for other plants' roots as they grow.
And a final possibility is to create a primitive raised bed from any area. Just pile additional soil, compost or other additive on one block to help with drainage and to have all the other advantages of raised beds without the expense and trouble involved in creating framework.
I have tomato, pepper and cucumber seeds planted in peat pots, residing in the warm spot on top of the refrigerator, and some flats are ready to go to the basement under the lights. I'll have more on seed planting next week.