Living The Frugal Life
Since I'm quite in the spring planting mode, this post is about a type of planting aid that's easy to make for yourself if you have a few simple tools and access to some scrap wood. Though I know you southern hemisphere folks are not planting much right now, perhaps this could be a simple winter project for you, to help things go more smoothly in about six months' time.
A planting template is just a guide that helps you plant seeds, bulbs, or seedlings at regular intervals quickly and easily. Novice gardeners, and sometimes even overly optimistic experienced gardeners often overcrowd a row or bed. Planting templates can be made for a wide variety of spacings, so that you can select the appropriate one for the plant you're working on. The larger templates also help a lot when you want to start scaling up your production, allowing you to plant larger areas more quickly.
The first planting template I ever made was for planting garlic bulbs. The guide I read said to plant the bulbs 8 inches (20 cm) apart. I knew that I'd be planting dozens of bulbs at a time, so I wanted the template to be large. I used a piece of particle board that we'd pulled out of a dumpster on a construction site. It took me about half an hour of experimentation to figure out where all the holes should go. This was the most time consuming part of the project. If I'd had a drafting compass it would have gone much faster, as I could have just set the opening of the compass to the spacing I wanted and quickly marked off the holes where the arcs intersected. Instead I fiddled around and got the job done more or less by trial and error.
The most efficient use of space in a garden bed is usually a triangular arrangement, with the plants spaced in a 2-1-2 arrangement, or some multiple of that. In the picture below you can what it looks like in a bed of growing garlic. Remember to leave a good sized margin around the edge so that the template doesn't fall apart. Ideally, the length of your template allows for one hole at one end, and two holes at the other. (It may be a little hard to see this in the picture here, but it's there.) That arrangement will let you simply flip the template end over end and continue onward with the 2-1-2 pattern.
The diameter of the holes in a rectangular template depends either on the size of your fingers, or what you intend to plant. You can use either a spade bit or a hole-cutting bit with an electric drill to create large holes that will allow you to push the seed down into the soil. Smaller holes will allow you to just drop the seed on the soil if you want to tamp or lightly rake the ground afterward. Just choose a normal drill bit of the size you prefer if you don't need to fit a large seed or your fingers through the holes.
When I made my template for planting garlic, I thought the holes would be large enough to push a dibble through the hole and plant the bulbs with the template still lying on the ground. I found out that heirloom garlic bulbs can be very large indeed. So I adapted by using the template just to mark the spacing quickly by dusting the bed with flour through the holes. That meant I could mark out the spacing for hundreds of bulbs of garlic in just a few minutes, then go back over the prepared beds with a clear visual indication of where the bulbs needed to go. My smaller 6" planting template has holes just large enough for me to poke one finger through to help get the seed into the earth.
A second sort of planting template is shaped like an equilateral triangle, with the corners slightly trimmed. In this case the corners themselves give you the spacing. This works well for plants that you need to leave plenty of room between (cabbage, kale, chard), and also for plants that you want to space as closely as possible so that they crowd out competing weeds (lettuces and other greens). It will also work very well in irregularly shaped beds where you just need to squeeze plants in as best you can. The length of each side of the triangle is more or less equal to the spacing of the plants. To use the template, you plant a seed or seedling at each corner of the template and then flip the template to a new area, keeping two corners on the ground to use as a pivot. Then you plant one more seed on the corner that's in a new location. Good spacings for this style of template range from 2" to 18" (5 to 46 cm).
Guidelines for seed or seedling spacing are usually included on seed packets or on nursery tags.
If you're just dipping your toe into gardening, this probably isn't a tool you absolutely need. But I have found that as I scale up the amount of food we are trying to produce for ourselves, some tools really do make certain gardening tasks go more quickly and more easily. I like these templates because I can make them myself with tools we already have, and from materials that would otherwise just end up in the landfill. Planting templates don't need to look pretty. Scrap wood is pretty easy to come by. If you still have any construction going on around you, have a look in the dumpster (skip) on a Sunday morning. Chances are you'll find a few pieces of either plywood or particle board that will suit. If you're too skittish for dumpster diving, there's always Craigslist.
Happy tinkering, and happy planting!