Intensive high-density planting

Sometimes called square inch, or square foot gardening, intensive planting schemes can help you to grow more in a small space, and use every space in your garden as effectively as possible.

To make this system work you need to:

  • plant in 30x30cm blocks (1 square foot)
  • use permaculture stacking principles
  • ensure crop rotation and careful succession planning
  • companion planting

Intensive planting techniques

Square foot gardening

Mel Bartholomew coined the term “square foot gardening” to describe the practice of dividing the growing area into small square foot sections. Each square foot is planted with a different species.

  • optimum number of plants per square depending on an individual plant’s size.
  • densely planted crops form a living mulch, and also prevent weeds from establishing/germinating.
  • companion planting for natural insect repellent methods become more efficient in a close space.
  • the large variety of crops in a small space can prevent plant diseases from spreading easily

Square inch gardening

“Square inch gardening” is a term the folks over at Urban homestead use to describe their method of growing many plants packed closely together

  • spacing plants closer together acts like a “living mulch”
  • bigger vegetables are under-planted with a carpet of greens
  • fast growing leafy greens are inter-planted with slow maturing root vegetables and alliums.

Companion planting guilds

With intensive planting, you need to be aware that inter-planting certain plants can be beneficial:

  • to support the growth and health of plants
  • or inhibit the growth of other plants
  • for pest control
  • assist in pollination
  • providing habitat or food for beneficial creatures
  • maximizing use of space
  • and to otherwise increase crop productivity

The flip side of this is that there are certain plants that should not be planted with or near other plants. These plants can have a negative effect on each other, and stunt the growth and be detrimental to the health of some plants.

Designing planting guilds that combine companion planting, stacking, crop rotation and succession planting can be useful.

More on Guild block planting »

Multiple hole plantings

Back yard orchardists use systems to restricting the size of the fruit trees, and increase yields.

  • multiple varieties means that you can have trees which are pollinators for each other, ensuring better pollination and consequently, better yields
  • plant a wide variety of fruit trees, so you can eat all different types of fruit from your home garden, rather than just one or two
  • smaller trees will produce enough to provide for a family’s needs without wastage
  • plant different varieties in the same space, and early, mid and late season bearing tree
  • smaller trees make harvesting, spraying, pruning and netting easier
  • close-planting offers the additional advantage of restricting a tree’s vigor. A tree won’t grow as large when there are competing trees close by.
  • better cross-pollination of pears, apples, plums and cherries, which means more consistent production.
  • if trees are kept small, it is possible to plant a greater number of trees in a given space, affording the opportunity for more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.
  • mild stress will force the tree to prioritise fruit production over growth
Points to consider
  • put two, three or four trees in one hole, as well as espalier trees or grow them as a hedgerow
  • make sure they use similar rootstocks to ensure that they are equally vigorous and do not grow at each others expense
  • you will need to keep your tree to a manageable size is by pruning.
  • avoid excessive use of nitrogen fertiliser and excessive irrigation
  • do not allow any variety to dominate and shade out the others.
  • Summer pruning controls tree size (winter pruning to manage tree shape)
  • Try three or four compatible varieties together in one hole for extended harvest.
  • You do not want to plant standard and semi-dwarf rootstocks together in the same hole!  Choose one or the other.
  • You want all trees in a multiple planting to have similar requirements for irrigation, fertilizer and maintenance.
  • You want all trees in a multiple planting to grow at a similar rate so one does not dominate the planting and shade out its neighbors.  You prune as often as needed to accomplish this.
  • Plant your trees (two or three) about 150mm apart, in one hole. Exactly the same way you would plant a single tree.
  • Prune multiple-hole plantings as a single tree


Every element in your garden (plants, animals, mineral, etc) has multiple functions.

  • Beneficial and companion planting
  • Crop rotation made easy
  • Succession planting
  • Topology (up, down, sprawling) and effective use of vertical space, many layers of plants stacked on top of each other. There are the low ground covers and creepers, then the herbs and grasses, then shrubs and smaller trees, and at the top the tall giants. Vines and climbers are rambling over everything as well. And they all occupy the same space on the ground.

Succession planting and crop rotation

When you grow intensely in a limited space, you need to think about succession planting and crop rotation to maximise your yields and ensure that every space of your garden is productive as often as possible.

Staggering your planting

Plant at specific intervals so that you don’t get a glut of zucchinis, carrots, or any one crop. Plant a few plants of each type every 2-3 weeks. For example,  have 4 annual hugels dedicated to vegetables. I plant each hugel with roughly the same vegetables, but only enough for one month’s consumption. Each month I rebuild a hugel, and replant. This makes planting easy, as well as ensuring that I have a season’s worth of food.

Some plants will tend to mature at the same time regardless of when you plant them. Here in our cold climate, broad beans, eggplants, capsicums, and most overwintered brassicas fruit in roughly a three week period.

Pull and plant

This type of succession planting ensures that you don’t have gaps in your garden after you’ve harvested. Plant fast-maturing “second wave” vegetables when you pull other vegetables out (beans, lettuce, baby carrots, broad beans, spinach, coriander, dill, etc). This means that not only will you get late season crops, but that your garden beds will continue to be “active” and alive throughout the whole season, and the soil quality will be maintained as soil microbes will continue to work after the main season has finished.

What you plant will be specific to the season, and how late in the season it is.

Further reading


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