Vegetable Garden Design Basics (2024)

Let’s get your garden dreams onto paper so you can make harvesting from your garden a reality this summer! A little planning can go a long way.

First – let’s get clear on what YOUR garden goals are. Setting an intention up front (and knowing it will change with/in the seasons) can be a welcome guidepost later in the planning process. Try to not to compare your gardens or goals to anyone else’s.

Also, I’ll suggest you start small and manageable and plan to add on as you get comfortable with growing more and more. I really want gardening to be a joyful experience for you- not a slogging chore hanging over your head.

Did you know I have a FREE Garden Design Class video on my YouTube Channel? We go over all the basics covered here plus even more details so check it out if you’re looking for more information.

Let’s Dig In!

Before We Dig In

Let’s plan making our vegetable gardens places of beauty for us and the rest of nature that we want to invite in!

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The more you start using your front and back yard, the more you’ll want to make the most of every square foot.

Mapping it out on paper will help you see your space in new ways. Keep in mind water, easy access, electrical and zoning requirements for sheds, chicken coops etc.

There are as many ways to design and implement a garden as there are gardeners. And, if there’s a friend or neighbor’s garden that you admire, ask them if you can use their plans in your space; imitation is the highest form of flattery…

Focus on growing what you and your family like to eat, and what will grow well in the space you have. Know Your Growing Zone! Follow THIS LINK to find your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone.

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Call Before You Dig

#811 is the national number to call to request that all buried utilities be marked before you start digging. Plan to give them a few days lead time to mark buried electrical, cable and water lines.

Layout Basics

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Garden beds function best when built to the 3-4-foot wide range.

Main pathways are best kept at 2 feet wide. Some smaller gardens can get away with 18” pathways, but if you need to get a wheelbarrow into a space, you’ll need a minimum of 2 feet.

Just a reminder that beds do not have to be straight. Depending on materials, the shapes are limited only by your imagination and the space itself.

Basic Planning Steps

  • Draw the garden perimeter.
  • Draw in hardscapes. These non-plant items include fences, paths, and fixed items, now you’ve got a ‘Base Plan’. STOP and make copies at this point so you can play with design.
  • Draw rough outline of garden bed shapes and sizes.
  • Make a list of all the plants you want to grow in your garden (grow what you eat).
  • Draw plants into beds (remembering orientation, spacing, trellising, harvesting accessibility).
  • Add in companion planting options.
  • Add in succession planting options.
  • Revise, revise, revise.
  • Save your plans from year to year and make notes and use for planning crop rotation.
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When starting your plant layout keep in mind the suns’ orientation. Plant taller plants on the north end of the bed so you don’t block sun from other shorter plants (unless you want to create shade for lettuces etc.). If you plan on making any of your raised beds into cold frames, know that an east west orientation (with the window slanted towards the south) is recommended.

Design Your Layout Sketch

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Next is sketching the shape of your garden. Get outside and measure existing spaces or walk the area and measure it out. Draw the perimeter of the space to scale on graph paper. Most garden beds will work well drawn to a scale of 1 foot to 1 square on regular graph paper. Next, add existing hardscapes that won’t be moving. Then, stop and make copies of this ‘base plan’ so you can markup many drafts without having to repeat this step again!

Now’s the time to refer to the list of ‘want to grow’ plants you’ve been gathering. If your list of what you want to grow is longer than what you have space for, narrow the list down by considering what your original garden goals were. Keep in mind what your family likes to eat most, what you could buy from a local farmer instead, and what is most cost effective to grow. This is the tough part- rarely is their room for all the things we want to grow. Now is the time to compromise.

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Plant Spacing

How you space your plants is going to depend a little on the kind of gardener you are… Do you like things orderly, or does a little chaos feed your soul? Of course, read the seed packets and consider their recommendations. Many of those packets focus on ‘row’ gardening, although some are starting to include square foot spacing as well.

Most gardeners (us included!) struggle with remembering just how big plants really get by the end of the growing season. Giving plants ample space will help them flourish and make your late season gardening jobs more enjoyable too.

Spacing plants too close can decrease air flow and light, both of which can lead to weakened plants. Weak plants are more susceptible to disease and pest pressure. I tend to crowd my plants a little but am aware that I need to pay extra attention to them. Also of note, the more crowded the plants, the trickier the harvest.

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For me, spacing ends up looking like this in a 4 foot wide beds:

  • 24 carrots
  • 12 onions or garlic
  • 8-10 beets
  • 4-5 pak choi, celery, head or leaf lettuce
  • 3 broccoli, cabbage, cucumber, kale, peppers or potatoes
  • 2- Tomatoes
  • 1 zucchini, summer or winter squash

Row spacing will vary based on plants, and you can really play with space when it comes to plants you’ll trellis like pole beans, cucumbers and squash! More information on Playing with Space by Growing Vertically in my online class, coming soon. I also tend to interplant a lot which can alter plant spacing.

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Place Your Plants

Taking into consideration the elements we talked about before: orientation, vertical planting, and plant spacing, start placing plants into your ‘Base Plan’. Know you’ll likely move things around quite a few times as you work this out.

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This is the step where some garden alchemy happens – you’re using your imagination along with your experience. This process gets easier to see each time you do it. Think about your garden through the seasons, imagine pollinators, harvesting, and how the sun changes.Envisioning your garden in fall can help you get the most out of your space without it becoming overwhelming!

*Confession: It is still hard for me to remember how big broccoli plants really get as I’m transplanting tiny seedlings into the garden!

Getting a plan on paper will help you visualize the garden better but remember there’s nothing like seeing a garden grow throughout the seasons. Living the experience is really what it’s all about- and nature is the best teacher.

Try keeping a record of what you grew in which garden spaces. I tend to lean on my Instagram account and story archives for this, along with a spreadsheet of seed starting dates and a few notes on how plants performed. This practice helps you fine tune your garden skills year over year. It also helps you practice crop rotation in the future.

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Plan space for companion flowers to help with pest defense too. Flowers add beauty, pollinators, habitat and joy to any vegetable garden.

Consider succession planting options for growing multiple crops in the same garden beds throughout the season.

Consider the rest of the ecosystem when garden planning, see your garden as part of nature and work with it instead of against it.

All that dreaming you’ve done up to this point will pay off in the long run with happier plants and heartier harvests.

I hope this helps you Dig In and plan your best garden yet!


Vegetable Garden Design Basics (2024)
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