I use the intensive method of spacing transplants within a bed. This means that—rather than lining the plants up in a row, with a large space between the rows—I plant the entire surface of the bed, with the seedlings set equidistant from one another in a hexagonal pattern. Thus, once the plants grow to full size their leaves touch and they cover the entire surface of the bed. This arrangement lessens weed competition and makes the absolute best use of the space available. It can also be quite beautiful.
The way we set the location of the plants is simple. Our beds are thirty inches across at the top, and our plan is based on this measurement. But the principle is the same for any size or shape bed—it is one of the beauties of equidistant spacing that you can use it to fill any space, not just a rectangular one. Taking the first two plants and starting at the end of the bed to be planted, we put one in from each corner. Since it borders the edge and won’t be completely surrounded by other plants, we space it half the distance from the end and side of the bed that it needs to be from the other plants, which puts it at a 45º angle in from the corner. We then set a third plant in the center of the bed, equidistant from and in line with the first two. From that point all the figuring is done, and we set the remaining plants by eye. The next two go equidistant from the three in the first row and from each other; the next three are set equidistant from each other and the first pair, and then another pair goes in, then three more, another pair, and so on, until all the plants are gone or the bed is filed.
We use different spacing according to the mature size of the plants. But all the patterns share the same principle: alternating odd and even rows running across the width of the bed. To visualize how this works, take a handful of pennies and set them on the table. Put three across, then two nestled in between but next to the first. Take three more and nestle those next to the first pair, then nestle another pair next to the second set of three and so on until you run our of pennies (see below).
Those of twos and threes are the rows of, say, lettuce, but the process is the same whether you are planting onions in alternating rows of 4:3:4, or cauliflowers on a 2:1:2 pattern. Each plant gets an ideal amount of space, with little wasted, and cultivation is much more efficient than by any other method that we’ve tried that offers similar yields per square foot. With plants that get the wide spacing of 2:1:2, a smaller or quicker growing interplant can be set on both sides. With the cauliflowers above, for example, we can set small herb plants all along the row, which will make the planting even more efficient, as well as beautiful.
I should add that we don’t use any measuring or digging tools in this process. I don’t lug anything along the row; it’s just the planter (me) and the plants. If the lettuces, say, want to be eight inches apart, well that’s the distance from the tip of my thumb to the tip of my little finger when my hand is outstretched. Eighteen inches is from the tip of my longest finger to my elbow; my foot, luckily, is a foot long. Your body may be a different size, but it isn’t going to change suddenly, and once you know how far across your fingers and hands are, and how long your feet and arms are, you can leave the ruler back in the shed and save a lot of time and trouble. I don’t use a dibble to make the transplant holes either. The soil in our beds—as in any well tended, highly fertile organic soil—is soft enough that my hands works just as well. For small seedlings a poke with the finger is enough. For larger plants, a quick scoop with the hand is all it takes.