Cluster or Hill Planting

Fall 2016
Clusters of corn, with beans interplanted
Onions grow in clusters of three or four with up to 10 inches between.

By Will Bonsall
Photos by the author

I once watched a fellow go to great pains to build a mound of at least 5 gallons in volume, which he neatly flattened on top before inserting several squash seeds and carefully patting it all down. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was planting in hills, just like the Native Americans did. I did not comment (he was having too much fun going to all that trouble), but I couldn’t see the point of his exaggerated care, and I was certain that Native Americans never went to such extremes to plant their squash, much less their corn and beans; their methods were simply not that labor-intensive, especially since they had very large quantities to plant of those staples.

The planting method that my old neighbor Orlando Small used was probably similar to that of Native peoples. For many if not all of his crops, he never made a furrow but dropped seeds on the surface and cuffed or hoed (depending on the seed size) the soil over them, creating a slight ridge for each row – simple, quick and efficient.

Before acquiring steel tools, Native peoples used implements of chipped stone, bone, antler or shell. The clam shell hoe would have effectively cultivated the soft, silty soil of the river floodplains but wouldn’t have lasted long on the stony uplands. Whether they dibbled seeds in with a pointed stick or used a hoe to cover them, they ultimately had to deal with weeds, and the simplest way to accomplish that was by hoeing soil up around the young plants, burying the small weeds. This would raise a slight mound while lowering the ground around it, thus creating the “hill” effect.

In addition to smothering weeds, this encouraged corn plants to make more prop roots, which helped prevent lodging, or tipping over. It also buried part of the squash stem, causing it to root along the buried stem and giving it some resistance to the squash borer.

That’s how I grow those crops, with some variations. For example, I don’t plant corn, beans and squash together; rather I sow the corn in hills (clusters, really), three plants per hill, three feet between hills, with the bean hills alternating between the corn hills. By the way, a big advantage of hill, or cluster, planting is that it simplifies hoeing among the hills of corn. However I usually hoe the soil into ridges rather than hills, and this arrangement gets the beans out of the shade of the corn for a longer time. I also prefer to cultivate the row lengthwise with a wheel hoe. This is much quicker than using a hoe yet avoids rototilling whenever possible. So I use the hoe to shape the ridge, retaining the advantages of the clustered spacing. Incidentally, I often plant soybeans instead of dry beans.

This double cultivation – first with the wheel hoe in the paths, then hoeing up within the hills themselves – gives exceptional weed control, but I’m not satisfied to leave it at that. After hilling, I oversow the whole piece with white clover, then repeat with a light pass of the wheel hoe in the paths to bury the clover shallowly. The clover fares poorly in the shade of the crops but takes root and establishes itself. When the crop is removed, it makes a late-season explosion of growth to feed next year’s crop.

I start corn plants in plastic cell-trays, thinned to three plants per cell. This provides a jump on the season (especially appreciated with sweet corn) and avoids the uncertainty of poor germination. Furthermore in recent years crows have become an increasing nuisance, and this foils them.

As for squash (or pumpkins), I leave them out of the corn-and-beans combination, although I still sow them in hills. I grow squash in a way that adds to, rather than expends, fertility. In very early spring, I sow the entire area to a green manure crop of oats (often with field peas) long before planting squash, which requires frost-free weather. Later I chop in the young oats every 4 to 6 feet where the squash hills will go. Again I avoid loss to animal pests (particularly voles) by starting plants in 4-inch peat pots. (Cells are too small.) When the squash is about to run – around July 4 – I flatten the oats by holding a 4- x 4-foot sheet of plywood on edge, then flopping it down on the oats and stomping on it. I flip it repeatedly down the row, tromping on it each time. Then I mulch the flattened oats with a layer of leaves to exclude sunlight so that the oats can’t straighten up, and I add a light layer of old hay to keep the leaves from blowing. This combination of living and dead mulches leaves the ground between squash hills perfectly weed-free while adding a massive amount of soil-building material, much of it grown on the same piece alongside the young crop. (This is described in more detail in my article “Oilseed Pumpkins” in the winter 2012-2013 issue of The MOF&G.)

Cucumbers are transplanted three per hill.

In addition to those benefits, squash surrounded by this green manure is completely free of striped cucumber beetles; I have no idea why.

I have found that cucumbers and melons, preferably started early in 4-inch peat pots, are also compatible with hill, or cluster, planting. Cukes and melons need a similar, wide spacing, so sowing them three to a hill, 3 feet between hills, makes their cultivation easier. I could use the oat green manure method for these also, but I often transplant cukes and melons between rows of earlier-planted, cold-tolerant crops, such as lettuce, spinach, onions, scallions or radishes. These are usually half grown when the cukes and melons go in, and since they’re a couple of feet away from the cukes and melons, they’re ready to harvest by the time the vine crops reach out past them. They’re usually mulched with shredded leaves before the vines go in.

Most small-seeded Old World crops are not well suited for cluster planting because they mind the crowding, and the open space between clusters would be out of reach for their compact roots. Thus they require a more uniform dispersal. I’m not insisting that carrots, beets, lettuce or turnips could not be done that way, but I would expect disappointment. Not so, however, with onions and leeks, which I plant in cell trays and thin to three or four plants per cell. I set the clusters out at no more than 10 inches each way since they do not have the wide-ranging root systems of the other crops, but this still makes cultivation and mulching a lot easier and seems to cause them no crowding anxiety.

A big advantage to cell-trays is that when I plant in regular trays or flats, the transplanting disturbs the intergrown roots and sets the transplants back considerably. Planting in cells avoids that, yet planting one plant per cell would tie up more space and trays than I can spare.

Whether and how well cluster planting works depends largely on the root zone of the plant and on its above-ground habit. Species such as squash, whose roots reach far beyond the crown, can get out of each other’s way to a great extent, while plants with compact, shallow roots, such as lettuce or cabbage, compete for nutrients and water below ground and for light and air above.

About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed-saving enterprise. He is the author of “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening” (Chelsea Green, 2015). You can contact Will at [email protected].

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