Vegetable Garden: Planning and Layout
By: Julie Day
Growing vegetables can be a great way to save money, improve your diet, get exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. And the best part about vegetable gardening is that you can do as much or as little as you want – from one happy tomato plant to a row of squash that will have you sneaking baskets onto neighbors’ porches in the dead of night.
Location, Location, Location
The first and most important step to planting a vegetable garden is choosing a location that will allow the plants to flourish. Fruiting plants must have adequate light, water, and nutrients in order to produce fruits and vegetables. Here are a few tips to help you plan and prepare the perfect site for your vegetable garden.
Choose a sunny, well-drained area for your vegetable garden.
Most vegetables need about 8 hours of sunlight a day. That usually requires an open, relatively flat area that is not shaded by buildings or trees. Since summer vegetables require heat as well as sunlight, south-facing slopes work well. Sunny patios and balconies can make great locations for raised beds or containers.
A young broccoli plant soaking up the sunshine.
As a general rule, your vegetable garden requires about 1″ of water a week (containers may need a drink every day or two), so unless your area has plenty of rainfall, you’ll need a convenient water supply nearby. Consider installing drip irrigation or soaker hoses to target water to the roots and reduce waste. The time spent on installation will pay off when all you have to do is turn on a faucet!
Drip irrigation is an efficient way to water a vegetable garden.
To grow vegetables, your garden must have rich, well-drained soil. Good garden soil crumbles easily in your hand, is rich and dark with organic material, and free of rocks, weeds, grass, and tree roots. While some yards have great soil on their own, most gardeners give the soil a boost by adding organic amendments—such as compost, rotted manure, humus, or packaged soil conditioners—to the existing soil.
Good soil is the foundation of a thriving vegetable garden.
Start by turning the soil in your garden at least a foot deep. Break up any clumps and remove all grass, plants, weeds, roots, and rocks. As you dig or till, incorporate organic amendments into the soil to keep it loose and easy to work. The more organic material you can add, the less digging your garden will need in the future.
In fact, “no-till” gardening—where gardeners heap organic mulches (such as hay, straw, and grass clippings) around plants—is growing in popularity. This method creates an on-site composting system that reduces weeds and provides constant soil improvement.
Planting in rows is a common practice for large vegetable gardens.
Now that you’ve chosen the perfect location, it’s time to plan your garden layout. There are several options including:
- Rows: We’re all familiar with the nice, orderly rows in traditional vegetable gardens. Rows provide easy walking paths and access to the plants, along with channels for water from irrigation. If possible, orient rows so they run north and south to provide even lighting from the sun. Keep in mind that foot traffic between rows will compact the soil and some of the space will be wasted.
Raised beds are easy to work.
- Beds: Grouping plants in defined beds is a great way to incorporate a vegetable garden into a traditional yard. The compact design allows more plants in a smaller space and helps target compost and mulch where needed. Raised beds allow maximum control over soil composition and make the plants easier to reach. They can even be built high enough to provide easy access when sitting or in a wheelchair. If you opt for beds, make sure they are narrow enough
to reach all the plants from the outside.
- Potager: A traditional potager or kitchen garden combines vegetables, herbs, and flowers into an attractive, ornamental design that is both useful and beautiful. Even if you don’t have room for an elaborate layout, you can incorporate these principles by simply tucking veggies and herbs into your flower gardens, focusing on both aesthetics and productivity.
Peppers do well in containers.
- Containers: Many vegetables—including tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peppers, and lettuce—do great in containers. While containers give you complete control over the soil makeup, they dry out much faster and need watering almost every day in the heat of summer. The good news is that it takes only a few minutes to target the water right to the pots. Containers are ideal for patios and balconies as well as providing easy mobility during cold weather or storms.
Tips for planning your layout:
- Draw out your garden design on paper, and decide what, where, and when to plant your vegetables. Your local agricultural extension office should provide a planting guide specific to your region, so that you can choose the best varieties and correct planting times for your climate.
- If your garden is on a slope, orient the rows or beds perpendicular to it to reduce erosion and water runoff. If the slope is steep, consider terracing.
- Make sure your plants don’t shade each other by planting taller or staked vegetables (such as corn, beans, and peas) on the north end of the garden, medium-sized plants (like cabbage, tomatoes, and squash) in the middle, and shorter crops (including carrots, lettuce, and beets) at the south end. Reverse the order in the Southern Hemisphere, since the sun tracks to the north.
- Containers and raised beds tend to warm up sooner in the spring and stay warmer in the fall, so they’re a great way to stretch out the growing season.
Improve or raise poorly-drained soil to keep water from pooling.
If possible, avoid planting your garden in:
- Low-lying areas where water and cold air settles.
- Windy spots (plant a windbreak to provide protection).
- Areas near buildings or trees that may block sunlight.
- Steep slopes (unless you are building raised beds or terraces).
- Sites with possible soil contamination (such as lead-based paint or other chemicals).