Gardening: Go the distance when planting this year

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

Spacing plants – be they trees, shrubs, flowers, or vegetables and herbs – can make the difference between growing success and failure, so proper placement when planting does make a difference.

When planted too close together, plants compete with each other for moisture, nutrients and sun. In the case of vegetables and flowers that impacts on how well they produce and the quality of the fruit and bloom. Thick canopies of foliage also reduce air circulation, resulting in excessive moisture on leaves and encouraging disease such as powdery mildew.

Large-leafed plants such as zucchini and cabbage tend to shade out lower-growing neighbors as they expand later in the season. The good news is that if you’re planting a small vegetable garden, most seed companies include special varieties of smaller plants for use in containers and square foot gardens. Most plant tags and seed packets include the spacing requirements, so just follow the directions.

For some, eyeballing spacing when digging may work, but for most of us it’s probably wiser to use a measuring tool, especially when planting trees and shrubs. One of the biggest mistake homeowners and even landscapers make is planting too close to houses, driveways, walkways and porches. It’s always a good idea to leave enough room to be able to walk behind a shrub so you can easily do required maintenance to windows and walls.

Rather than carry a ruler for little jobs, I use my fingers, hands and other body parts to do the job. The space from the tip of my middle finger to the first joint measures an inch and from the tip of my middle finger to my knuckle measures 4 inches. The length from my thumb to my pointer finger is 6 inches when spread open.

Anyone who has ever done much sewing knows that the distance from the tip of your nose when looking straight ahead to the tip of your middle finger when your arm is out stretched at your side is about 3 feet. The length of my foot when wearing my garden shoes is 11 inches.

One of my favorite new tools is the Radius lightweight yet heavy-duty Pro Lopper that’s perfect for pruning shrub roses. It will cut branches up to 11/4 inches in diameter and that’s the distance from the tip of my thumb to the first joint. Cut too large of a branch with this or any other cutting implement and you risk doing permanent damage to the tool and tree or shrub.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at