Vegetable Garden Design Basics

Design Your Garden for Easy Tending and Good Plant Health

by Michelle Bruhn
PHOTO: Michelle Bruhn

Vegetable garden design basics help you take your garden from a dream to reality by taking a realistic look at what you love eating fresh, coupled with how much time you have. Some crops such as tomatoes and beans require regular attention and harvesting, while potatoes and winter squash are more hands-off and can “hold” in the garden for weeks.

Other vegetable garden design considerations include sun and your space. Most vegetables require eight to 10 hours of sunlight for best production and health. To determine where in your yard you get the best sun, try sun mapping by placing an object where your garden will be located and check on it every hour to see how much sun it’s getting. Quick Tip: Set your phone alarm for easy remembering. Also, remember to make access to water a priority. If water is far away, how will you get it to your garden?

CAUTION: Call before you dig: #811 or #1-800-252-1166 to avoid digging into buried utilities.

Start with the Soil

Soil is the foundation for a healthy garden, so it helps to know where you’re starting. Getting a soil test from your local extension service is a fast, easy and inexpensive (around $20) way to get your basic nutrient numbers. These tests will give you a base level for nitrogen (n) phosphorus(p) and potassium/potash (K) along with a pH level.

Design Considerations

Decide which style of garden you want early on as well. From quick and inexpensive in-ground gardens to raised beds, hügelkultur beds, container gardens, straw bale gardens or even incorporating vegetables into your existing landscape with edible gardens. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, such as controlling soil content and better drainage but it is more cost and effort to install with raised beds.

Consider which orientation suits you best. A north/south orientation will leave the shorter end at the north side for growing vertically without blocking the sun, while an east/west orientation will allow for easily adding a cold frame top for season extension.

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Keep your garden goals in mind, how much food do you want to grow and how much time can you give to the garden?

Vegetable Garden Design Basics

  • Limit beds to four feet wide.
  • Paths should be a minimum of two feet wide.
  • Create a space that you can easily fence and easily expand.

Step-by-Step Design Process

  • Sketch the shape and dimensions of the garden onto graph paper. It is easiest to convert one square foot to one square on a piece of paper or use a computer-aided drawing or planning application.
  • Add any hardscapes that won’t move, such as benches and stone pathways.
  • Diagram garden beds keeping to the orientation and widths recommended.
  • Make copies of your base plan so you can play with adding different plants and placements.
  • List the plants you most want to grow and refer to the plant spacing guides on seed packets.
  • Make space in your garden for the sun-loving plants in the sunniest spots and add from there.
  • Fill in spaces with companion flowers and consider succession planting options.

Know that your garden plan is for you, so make it as detailed or general as you want. There are no vegetable garden design police! You’ll likely revise your garden plan many times before you dig. Remember, if you’re creating a new garden bed from scratch, the soil will take time to settle. The soil life will take a while to gather and start working so you may need to fertilize early on.

Don’t be afraid to change your garden plan the following year if plant placement wasn’t right or as trees grow and available sunlight changes. Gardening is always first and foremost working with nature, so the only constant is change. Be ready to roll with those changes as they come.

If you’re looking for more information and tips in a video format, check out this Vegetable Garden Design Video by the author as well.

This article about vegetable garden design was written for Hobby Farms magazine online. Click here to subscribe. 

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