A Brief Background On Row Gardening:
Row gardening, or planting in rows, is a heavily used concept within agriculture. Farmers use the technique extensively because it is ideal for mechanization and automation of the farm. For the average gardener, most don’t need the performance of row gardening. For us, there are other benefits, particularly when you’re growing things in Alaska.
There is certainly nothing wrong with planting whatever you want wherever you want. In fact, many might find this a little more attractive than a garden planted in long rows. I have to admit, there are some beautiful gardens that are based off a more semi-random planting concept. The only real drawbacks to the technique is perhaps a lack of overall organization, but no one is keeping track!
The main benefit of row gardening is that it allows for more manageable plant spacing. Instead of having to always think three dimensionally of what a plant will do at full size, you can just follow seed packet spacing guides and move down the row. It’s very easy to figure out the required spacing when you have a nice square or rectangle. They also look really nice when you spend some time getting them right.
Each row can certainly feature different plants, so it’s not like you have to plant an ENTIRE row of kale or whatever. That’s not the idea here. We’re not farmers looking to run a harvester down each row. How you use each row will be determined by what you like to eat, what you want to plant and how much of these things you want.
Raised Row Gardening Techniques:
When we started researching gardening here in interior Alaska, one of the common themes that came up was raising your soil. There’s really two things at play with this recommendation for sub arctic gardening. First, it’s easier for the sun to warm up a raised section of the soil. Giving a vertical edge to the garden bed permits the sun’s rays to hit it directly and will warm it up more quickly. Instead of working to heat the entire earth beneath, the sun only has to heat up a smaller section of soil. The other thing at work is getting a bit of extra height away from permafrost. If you’re almost anywhere in Fairbanks, you have permafrost somewhere beneath and getting as far away from sub-terrain ice is a great idea for your plants!
You are likely all ready familiar with the raised bed concept. This is typically a rectangular, wood enclosed garden bed that is 6-24 inches tall. They look really nice and give a great touch to your garden. This obviously meets the need, but it’s also expensive to build these both in wood and additional soil. For us, gardening in a public space, we didn’t want to commit the financial resources to building these. Fortunately, there’s another way that is just as effective!
There is a gardening concept called raised row gardening. It borrows from commercial farmers, but the common gardener has many more design choices available.. The idea is to mound your soil up into a row, roughly 6-18 inches taller than your walking paths on either side. The rows can be narrow, around 12 inches. Or they can be wide, usually up to three or four feet. Much beyond four feet wide sort of defeats the purpose. It’s also more difficult to tend to garden areas that are more than two feet from a walkway.
Building A Raised Row Garden:
It’s a good idea to plan out the space that you have and build around that. You may find that a mix of different row sizes will optimize your space most efficiently. A good plan to follow is to minimize your walking paths as much as possible. Accessing your plants is essential, but it also wastes your overall garden space where plants won’t grow. Try to play around with different sized rows. 12 inch, 24 inch, 36 inch and 48 inch are good dimensions to work with.
Building a raised row is really easy, but it does take some hard work. Using a tiller will work the best, but it could also be done with a shovel. Essentially, you want to dig out your pathways and place the soil on your garden row. In general, you want to go down around 6-18 inches or so. You’re really just moving dirt around and rarely does building the raised row need supplemental soil. We have found it helpful to mark out our design with wooden stakes and garden string. This helps you gain more accuracy and have relatively straight garden rows.
Once you have moved the bulk of the soil, put efforts into leveling the bed, if needed. This will make sure water drains into your plant’s roots as opposed to down the row. Also, breaking up large clumps of dirt will be helpful to give your plants a decent bed to grow in. Once the beds are established, you can use any composting techniques you may want to use.
For best results in Alaska, it’s a good idea to build the rows in an east-west direction. What this will do is allow the southern exposure to warm up one side of the raised row. Using other directions will still have benefits, but if you can, stick to east-west as opposed to north-south. There is no need to break out the compass and figure this out exactly. Just generally aim your rows towards Canada and Russia.
Just remember, you’re not necessarily trying to create rows that are taller than the surrounding land. You’re really trying to expose another face of the soil such that the sun can warm it more efficiently. In the sub arctic you will benefit more from taller rows. The reason we’re using this technique is all about getting warmth to your plant’s roots during the day. The more vertical soil exposure you have, the more the sun can do its work.
Notes On Raised Row Gardening Efficiency:
When we looked at the overall efficiency of a given space using this technique, it was clear that a wider row was a bit more efficient than a narrow row. You realistically need 18-24 inches of walking space between rows to service your garden. A narrow row can fit one single row of pretty much any plant you’d grow in a garden. (Radishes, carrots and other root veggies will allow more.) A wide row, however, can often fit two or more total rows of plants. You can also use offset planting techniques to ensure proper spacing of the plants, which allows even more optimal use of space.
To explain what I’m discussing more visually, here are two identical 12 foot by 12 foot spaces. One has a 12 inch narrow raised row and the other a 36 inch wide row. Both feature 24 inch paths between the rows and use plants that require 24 inch spacing between each planting.
As you can see, the wide row plan allows for 25% more yield over the narrow rows. And all you have to do is move dirt differently.
Also, the difference between wide and narrow row efficiency becomes even higher if your plants need less spacing. For example, if you were planting lettuce with 12 inch spacing, you could fit three rows of lettuce on each 36 inch raised row. This same space could yield 96 heads of lettuce. The 12 inch rows, though, would be limited to 48 heads of lettuce. In this case, the wide rows offer a 50% increase in yield over the narrow rows.
The bottom line is wide rows almost always allow for more gardening space overall.
Exceptions To The Raised Row Technique:
There are likely a few exceptions to the raised row gardening technique you might want to consider.
Some plants need a trellis to grow properly as they need to grow vertically. Things like runner beans, cucumbers and peas will need a vertical growing space. If you’re using the east-west row recommendation found above, keep in mind that you may be inadvertently creating shade if you intend to plant multiple rows within each row. We’ve found it best to have one or more narrow rows for these plants and leave a path on either side for maintenance.
Also, you may run into some plants (particularly squash) that recommend a “mounded hill of soil” for best results. The narrow row technique is great for this because it all ready is a mounded hill. If using wide rows, though, you can still simply add a bit more soil in a mounded hill for these plants. We’ve actually found in most cases that this isn’t technically necessary, but often do it anyway.
There might be further exceptions, but for the most part, we’ve found raised row gardening techniques to be extremely successful here in Alaska. We are fortunate to have observed many gardening techniques in our community garden. We can confidently say that this method works well here in the Interior of Alaska. It will also work anywhere, but especially so in areas that feature cold climates.
Keep your plants green and roots warm! Happy gardening!