It is worth spending some time thinking about the layout of the vegetable garden. A little forethought and planning about what you need in the vegetable garden and where you should put it, can reduce the amount of work required to keep it productive and make it a nicer place to be.
Your vegetable garden is a part of your living space and you will spend quite a lot of time there (as well as time looking at it), so it makes sense to expend a little effort on making it into an attractive and special place. You want it to be somewhere you will enjoy relaxing and contemplating as well as working.
Though most people think of the vegetable garden as a utilitarian area of the garden, this doesn’t mean it can’t be an attractive one too. You can get as imaginative and adventurous as you want; the only limit on what you can do is your imagination. Depending upon your taste you might plant a simple old fashioned row garden, a cottage garden, a small micro farm of identical intensive beds, or a potager with a geometric pattern of beds. The more adventurous gardens often require more work to keep them looking good, but reward you with a uniquely ornamental landscape, as well as food.
The size of your garden will be limited by how much land you have available, how much work you are prepared to do and how much food you want to grow. Many beginning gardeners yearn for a bigger garden, but productivity is as much about how it is worked, as it is about the size of the garden.
The size of your garden will often determine what gardening methods you use. If you only have a small area then you will probably want to use the most intensive growing methods. This enables you to easily double the yield per square foot of conventional gardens. If you have plenty of land, you may prefer to grow a large row garden, as this requires less work and inputs.
If you have never had a vegetable garden before, it’s a good idea to start with no more than two hundred square feet of intensive beds. This can be securely fenced, watered, fertilized and weeded and is easy to maintain. The smaller the garden, the better you can take care of it and the higher the yield per square foot. A small area tends to get used more efficiently and there is less empty space to grow weeds and waste fertilizer and water on.
As your skill and confidence builds you can expand accordingly. The average American vegetable garden is 500 – 600 square feet, which is still fairly small. A large vegetable garden for 4 people might be 5000 square feet (which is still only an area roughly 70 feet square).
If you wish to grow enough food to actually feed your family, you will have to expand your horizons and plant on a bigger scale. A couple of pounds of field corn or 20 pounds of potatoes just won’t cut it. Even with highly intensive methods, it takes a considerable amount of space to be self-sufficient in vegetables. For a family of four you might need 100 tomato plants, 400 lettuce, 400 onions, 20 squash, 300 potato, 1000 carrot, 1000 beans, 100 garlic and more. Obviously the exact size of this garden is affected by many variables: what you like to eat, the number of mouths to feed, the fertility of the soil, your skill and your ambition.
There is another reason to make the garden larger and that is so you can devote some space annually to growing soil improving crops. If you make it a third bigger than you need for crops, you can take a third of the beds out of production annually and plant them to green manures. This is an easy way to make a big contribution to soil fertility.
It is important that your garden doesn’t get so big that it becomes a chore; you don’t want to become a slave to it. If your garden is too big it will often end up being half empty, it gets messy and overgrown with weeds and becomes a constant and depressing reminder of what you haven’t done.
One of your first priorities when creating the vegetable garden is to ensure that your plants survive long enough to mature. This begins by making sure they aren’t eaten immediately. Depending upon where it is located the main threats to your garden might be cutworms, slugs, deer, gophers, birds or dishonest humans. Whatever the problem, you need to devise some effective means of controlling it (or keeping it out). If you don’t then gardening can become a series of frustrating and disappointing incidents.
In many (probably most) areas you will need a fence to keep out dogs, children, deer, raccoons, groundhogs, rabbits or any other potential predators. Of course if you don’t have any of these problems, then you don’t need to protect against them (one rule of economical gardening is to only do what is necessary).
After years of depredations from deer, rabbits, raccoons, quail, squirrels, gophers and birds, I finally realized that in extreme situations, you may as well design the garden area for protection right from the start. Erect a full 7 ft tall bird / raccoon / deer proof perimeter fence (and if necessary a gopher proof floor) and you will no longer have to worry about these pests beating you to you carefully tended crops. This can make the garden a lot more productive, lower maintenance and less frustrating.
In extreme cases you might also have to add a roof of netting to keep out birds and squirrels.
The type of fence you select will usually depend upon your budget, with the cheapest being plastic deer fencing or some kind of chicken wire fence. As a bonus these don’t block out much sunlight and can be used as support for vining plants. Wood fences look good, but can cast shade and are much more expensive (as well as a waste of wood). Whatever you choose it must be continuous and impenetrable, or it’s worthless Incidentally when I say impenetrable this means very small openings. I once saw a rabbit squeeze through an opening that was about 1 1/2” in diameter, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
A fence can be more than merely a barrier; it can also give privacy, be ornamental, provide support for crops and act as a windbreak. In cold climates fruit trees were once trained against south facing stone walls, as these hold the suns heat and provide a warm microclimate.
A nice wide functional gate is also necessary, so it’s easy to get through the fence and in to the garden (so many garden gates seem to be held together with string – mine included).
If you have enough room you could have a hedge of fruit trees and shrubs, rather than a fence. If this is to the south it must be low, so it doesn’t cast shade. On the north side it can be as tall as you want.
Growing beds or rows
Vegetable gardens in this country used to consist of long rows of crops separated by areas of bare soil. These imitated the fields of commercial growers, who needed the wide areas between rows for machine cultivation (they were often created by people who were farmers). In recent years wide raised beds have gained broad acceptance as a more efficient and productive way to use limited garden space (smaller gardens as a results of higher land prices may have had something to do with this change).
The choice of whether to grow in beds or rows is best decided by the circumstances and what you wish to achieve, rather than by any philosophical ideal.
If you have limited space, lots of time and a desire to maximise productivity, then intensively cultivated beds are the best option. Row gardens require less work, water and other inputs than intensive beds and work better if the soil isn’t very fertile. However they do require more space. If you have plenty of room, poor soil and don’t want to have to water very much, then the old fashioned row garden may be the way to go
The fact that I have a lot more to say about growing in beds, isn’t an indication of my personal preference (though I am more familiar with growing in this way). It is more a reflection of the fact that growing beds require more attention and care. See Bed Preparation for more on the pro’s and con’s of these beds.
Bed / row orientation
Gardeners have long argued about it, but it probably doesn’t make much difference whether your rows / beds are aligned north / south or east / west. However you do have to ensure that small plants aren’t shaded excessively by taller ones. This is most easily accomplished by aligning the beds / rows north/south, as then you don’t have to worry about tall crops shading those to the north of them.
In very cold areas you may want to designate a couple of the warmest, sunniest and most sheltered beds for early and late crops. These should ideally be located on a south facing slope to maximize solar gain. Failing this you can orient the beds on an east/west axis and tilt them slightly to the south. Also make sure they are not in a frost pocket.
In very windy areas it’s usually best to situate the beds at right angles to the wind, so each bed protects the ones downwind. For maximum wind protection you might also stagger the paths (to prevent the wind travelling down the paths unhindered).
The width of a bed is usually decided by how far you can comfortably reach to the center. This usually works out to a bed somewhere between 3 and 5 feet wide. Wider beds give you more growing area, while narrower ones are more convenient to work with. They are easier to dig from each side and step over, so there is less chance you will stand on them (you can also straddle them with a wide garden cart.) However they require more paths, which means less growing area, which may be an issue in very small gardens.
It is convenient to standardize the width of a bed, as it facilitates planning and record keeping and you can use standard size cold frames and row covers. French market gardeners made their beds to conform to their standard size cold frames.
Bed length is less critical than the width and is usually dictated by the size and shape of the site. Don’t make the beds too long though, or it becomes a nuisance to walk all the way around them (this is particularly important if the paths are narrow). One way to decide on a length for the bed, is to make the length multiplied by the width into a nice round number (e.g. 4 ft x 25 ft = 100 sq ft, or 5 ft x 40 ft = 200 sq ft). This simplifies your garden mathematics (yield per square foot, how much amendments to add, etc).
To maximize the growing area you may want to keep the paths fairly narrow (in small gardens they can be as narrow as 12 – 14˝). If you make the paths narrow don’t make the beds too long, as you can’t easily get a wheelbarrow down very narrow paths. You don’t want to have to carry spadefuls of compost half way down a 100 foot bed. Generally it’s a good idea to bisect your garden with a nice wide path, so the furthest distance you would have to carry that spade would be 25 feet.
If you have lots of space you can make your paths wider (18 – 24˝), to facilitate getting a wheelbarrow between them. The disadvantage of wide paths is that you have more unproductive area to take care of.
The majority of people fill their gardens with rows of straight beds without thinking about any other option. Straight beds make sense if you just want to grow as much food as possible in a small area. They are easier to enclose with wood, easier to set up for watering and easier to protect with gopher wire and bird netting. Their uniform length and width also makes it easier to calculate the square footage of your crops.
If you are of a more artistic inclination you might consider the possibility of using more interesting shaped beds. These greatly affect the appearance of the garden and are worth a little thought. Curved beds can create an interesting pattern and give the garden a more informal and attractive appearance. Circular keyhole beds are favored by permaculture gardeners. They say there is more growing area and less path and they are easily irrigated with a single sprinkler. I’m not totally convinced by these arguments, but I do like the way they look.
Paths and access
When laying out your garden beds, give a thought to the paths and how you will transport things. Amendments such as manure and compost are heavy and you want to be able to move them around as easily as possible (downhill is a lot easier than up hill). If you are importing bulk manure you may want a driveway and gate so you can back a truck right into the garden. This is a lot easier than having to transfer it into a wheelbarrow first.
In the past a reliable and pure source of water was a primary consideration when choosing a garden site, but now most of us have plumbing to supply this essential.
The very best source of water for your garden is rainwater, as it is free, falls on your soil without you having to do anything and even contains small quantities of nitrogen, sulfur and other nutrients. On average half of all rainfall falling on the ground, doesn’t soak in to the soil, but runs off and is lost. This is wasted, so it is a good idea to do whatever you can to ensure that the soil retains as much rainfall as possible. The best way to do this is to increase its organic matter content, though you might also be able to create swales to maximise infiltration.
The commonest source of water for urban gardeners is the utility company. City water doesn’t contain many nutrients and often contains a lot of chlorine (and sometimes fluoride) which plants and soil organisms don’t really like (I once tried to sprout alfalfa seed in heavily chlorinated water and it died). It also tends to be expensive and increasingly
unreliable due to droughts and hose pipe bans (at least
here in California it is). One advantage is that it has good pressure for overhead irrigation.
You can make your expensive tap water go further by using gray water and by collecting the rainfall that lands on your roof and other hard surfaces (more on both of these later).
Many suburban and rural gardeners get their water from wells. This is often superior to city water, but sometimes contains large amounts of dissolved salts. An increasing number of wells are contaminated from various industrial and farm sources, or from lawn chemicals. In some unfortunate areas we may now add pollutants from fracking to the list.
In some situations you may be able to get water from clean rivers, lakes, or streams. This is usually of good quality, though you should be sure of your legal position before using it. Unless you are a corporation and have friends in high places diverting it for your own personal use is often illegal. This is totally justifiable in drier areas, where streams can easily dry up from unregulated use.
It is good to have water faucets conveniently spaced around the garden. You can waste a lot of time going to turn distant faucets on and off (which often results in plants not getting all the water they need). This also tempts you to leave them turned on, which can be bad in hot weather, when the water inside the hose can heat up and cause it to swell and burst.
Water supply pipes should be buried 18˝ deep, to minimize the chance of them freezing in winter (alternatively you could drain them in winter). This also reduces the chance of hitting them while digging.
If you live in a dry climate you should think about installing a drip irrigation system. This takes time and money to install, but will usually repay this in time and water saved.
If your climate is suitable (you get some rain all summer) I would also suggest a rainwater collection system, to store rainwater from the roof. This makes particularly good sense if you use expensive city water. See Watering for more on this.
Other facilities you will appreciate
A few other things can make your time in the garden easier and more productive. When planning the layout of your garden you might think about whether you will need the following and where you might put them.
This is pretty much an essential, as it is used for storing tools, amendments, seeds, stakes, hoses, irrigation components and all of the other stuff the garden requires. It is also a good place to store and process seeds and herbs, keep gardening books and relax in wet weather. If you are a high tech gardener you might also have a computer or tablet and wi-fi there for quick reference. You may also want to have electricity for lights, heating cables, etc. Ideally it will be well organized and comfortable.
The shed should be located close to the main vegetable garden for ease of getting tools and putting then away, so they don’t get left out in the sun or rain. It should be put where it won’t cast shade on the growing beds (such as the north side of the garden).
It’s important that the shed be rodent proof. Not only will rats and mice eat anything even remotely edible (including large seeds, tubers and bulbs), they may also gnaw on anything made of leather, rubber, paper, cardboard or wood.
In my perfect garden the tool shed would have a covered area (with a transparent roof) adjacent to it, where you could work in the rain. This would act like an extended open greenhouse and give you an extra place to store tender plants in winter. You might even grow some tender plants under it permanently. This area is also a good place for a
workbench and provides a place to park your wheelbarrow, so it is protected from the elements.
A shed is a significant visual feature of the garden, so make it attractive as well as practical. Most manufactured metal and plastic sheds are pretty ugly and if you are handy I urge you to build your own shed to complement the house.
If your shed isn’t very attractive you can use screens and climbing plants to make it look nicer. You could also decorate it with paint or other artwork.
Access to the shed should be via a path that is wide enough for a garden cart or wheelbarrow.
If you don’t have a tool shed, at least have some kind of covered place to store tools. This should be close to the middle of the garden for maximum convenience.
A greenhouse isn’t absolutely essential, but for the serious gardener it comes pretty close (until you have had one you have no idea how useful it can be). Not only does it greatly expand your plant raising capabilities, but it also adds a lot to the pleasure of life in the garden. This is so important that I have devoted a whole chapter to it. See Greenhouses for more on this.
A cold frame can be used for raising seedlings, hardening off plants from the greenhouse and protecting tender plants. In cool climates they can also be used for extending the growing season. In chilly Britain the larger kitchen gardens often had row upon row of brick cold frames for producing early lettuce, carrots, potatoes, strawberries, melons and peppers. When the plants grew big enough (and the weather was warm enough) the glass lights (lids) were taken off and the plants left to grow in the open.
You will mostly use a cold frame for hardening off your transplants in spring, before planting them outside. It greatly simplifies this important activity and this alone makes it worthwhile to have one.
In a small garden this might simply be a plastic bin to take care of kitchen scraps, or a three bay compost bin. If you have a big garden and make a lot of compost, it’ may be helpful to have a dedicated area set up for making it, perhaps a large shaded area for windrow type composting. Even if you prefer to move your compost piles around the garden, building them in a different place every time to benefit the soil, you may still want a place to store leaf mold, manure, wood chips and soil. This area could also hold a worm bin, as it needs shade from intense sun and protection from raccoons and rats.
The compost area should be close to the main vegetable growing area, so you don’t have to move materials or finished compost very far. If you import a lot of bulk materials it should ideally have easy access to the road, so you can unload directly from a truck to the pile. You don’t want to have to move manure or other materials any further than necessary. Ideally this area will be downhill of the road, but uphill of the garden, to make it easier to move bulk materials.
This area should be protected from extreme weather. In hot areas it will need shade, while in cold areas it will do better in the sun, but protected from wind and rain. There should also be a source of water to keep the piles moist.
A propagation / nursery area (ideally next to the greenhouse) can play a crucial role in filling the garden with plants. It supplies plants for expanding the garden as well as for replacing those harvested, or lost to other causes. It should have a protected nursery bed for starting seedlings outdoors, a cold frame and an area for growing on cuttings and young shrubs and trees.
It is nice to have an area for growing on seedlings, protected with bird netting and maybe even shade cloth. This area might even have its own automated watering system.
This will usually be near the shed and propagation area. It provides you with a solid surface to perform a variety of gardening tasks, not just potting up plants.
An outdoor sink simplifies the task of cleaning vegetables and other things and helps to keep the house sink clean. Newly harvested crops can be washed and stripped of waste parts before they go inside (the waste stuff going straight on the compost pile, the water going back into the garden (this can also help to conserve water). It doesn’t need to be connected to anything permanent, attach a hose for water and have a bucket underneath to drain into (or a perforated drain pipe in the ground, with water loving plants around it).
The sink should be located near the greenhouse, propagation area and potting bench, so it can also serve these areas.
Seed starting table
In a warm climate you don’t need a greenhouse for starting summer seedlings, you can just start them outside on a table (to keep them up off the ground). This should be protected with netting, to prevent birds playing havoc with the tender seedlings.
A large productive garden will produce a lot of food, which must be stored carefully if it is to last long enough for you to eat it. This means somewhere to store it all is extremely important.
The traditional way to store vegetables and fruit over the winter is in a root cellar. This was traditionally dug down into the side of a steep bank to take advantage of the fact that the soil provides humidity and a cool stable temperature that is always above freezing in winter. This kind of root cellar takes a lot of work to build, but if you have the time and energy it will be worthwhile (it can also be quite picturesque). See Storage for more on root cellars.
If you have lots of fruit bearing plants (figs, apricots, plums, peaches, apples, mulberries, cranberries, grapes, blueberries (not to mention herbs, tomatoes, kale, onions and more) you will get far more fruit than you can use fresh and will have to devise a way to preserve some for later use. If you live in a sunny climate one of the best ways to do this is by investing in (or building) a solar dryer. This enables you to inexpensively dry some of the surplus for later use. If your climate is too cool or humid for solar, you could use an electric dryer, but of course this costs money to run.
The sun is very hard on hoses in hot climates. Not only does the ultraviolet light degrade the hose from the outside, but any water trapped in a closed hose may become hot enough to cause it to burst (always leave a hose open). Hoses will last much longer if you keep them out of the sun when they are not in use, ideally in their own covered hose center (make one for each faucet). If it is it big enough you could also keep plastic buckets there (they degrade in sunlight too), as well as small tools and maybe a notebook and pencil.
I think that the vegetable garden should also have a comfortable place to rest right next to where the work takes place. This gives you somewhere to sit and relax, chat, drink tea, think about the task in hand and to contemplate the meaning of life.
A sitting area will require comfortable chairs, a table and maybe even a hammock. It will benefit from some shade in hot weather, which could be an old tarp or sail, or an arbor covered in grape, kiwi or hop vines (or scarlet runner beans or cucumber for that matter).