Not unlike a well-organized closet or a well-designed kitchen, a well-planned food plot is an inviting respite from your daily grind. Before you get caught up in a frenzy of spring planting, step back, take stock and spend a weekend charting a course for the growing season and laying the groundwork for a successful garden.
Vegetable gardens have a way of getting out of hand–cucumber vines clambering over arugula and crabgrass coming up in the onions can keep you so busy you almost forget to harvest the tomatoes as they pass from perfectly ripe to slightly rotten on the vine. A perfectly ordered patch of seedlings in April can erupt into an overgrown thicket by August, making you wish you’d never tilled up your lawn to begin with. Food gardening too easily becomes a ball-and-chain chore rather than a pleasure-filled passion. But there is a better way.
Step One: Make a Map
You’ll need a tape measure, ruler, pencil, paper and a rough idea of which way south is (hint: it’s midway between where the sun rises and sets). Plan your garden for a flat or gently sloping part of the yard that receives a minimum of 6 hours of sun each day, but preferably 8 to 10 hours. A south-facing area of the yard is ideal. If possible, plan the garden within eyeshot of the front or back door—gardens closest to the house are tend to be the most productive and well-maintained.
- On a piece of paper, plot out the location of existing pathways, trees, shrubs, garden beds, doghouses, fences and other existing elements in the garden area. Record the cardinal directions on the paper and the scale that you are using (a scale of one foot equals a quarter inch allows a garden area of 30 by 40 feet to fit on a standard sheet of paper).
- Choose a shape for the garden that suits the space, the materials you want to work with and your personality. Rectangular, 4-by-8-foot beds are an easy increment to work with and lend themselves to a sense of order, especially in rectangular spaces. Keyhole beds and mandala gardens are a circular alternative for designing garden beds. Wood works well for beds with straight edges, while brick, stone and concrete blocks are better for making curves. Or, you can go without a border on your beds, which saves money and effort up front, but is more difficult to maintain later. Just remember, 4 feet wide (or one inch on your plan) should be the maximum width for a vegetable bed that is comfortable to plant, maintain and harvest.
- Design a system of pathways to access the garden beds. Paths that are too narrow often end up getting crowded with vegetation as the season progresses. Two-foot pathways may be suitable in some areas, but if you want to bring a wheelbarrow or garden cart through, three or four feet width is necessary.
- Consider adding components to your garden besides beds—a bench, shed or birdbath, for example. You may want to frame the vegetable beds with a border of flowering perennials on one or more sides (these are great at attracting beneficial insects) and have a backdrop of shrubs and small trees (these could be plants with berries that attract birds or fruits for your own enjoyment). Another option is to locate a focal point in the center of the garden (such as a circular bed with a piece of garden art in it) or to leave a patch of grass in the center of the garden so you have a place to relax amid the vegetables.
For the artistically inclined, it’s painful (visually) to plop rectangular boxes into a well-designed yard. Curved beds are one way to get around this dilemma, but you can also get creative with rectangles by arranging them in patterns such as a zig-zag or octagon. To make designing easier, cut out colored pieces of paper to represent beds of various shapes and sizes and experiment by arranging them in different configurations on your plan. A clear design preserves a sense of order and coherence as the vegetable garden morphs and swells in and out of chaos throughout the seasons.
Step Two: Make Lists
Besides a plan for the physical garden layout, you need a plan for how you’re going to use it. Here is a list of useful garden lists and why they are important.
- Favorite Foods: Plant what you and your family enjoy eating and, of those, prioritize the crops that grow best in your region (melons are hard to grow in places with short, cool summers, for example).
- Weekly Chores: Some households have a chore wheel for who takes out the trash, washes the dishes and sweeps the floor. Why not do the same for the garden? There are daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms of watering, weeding, prepping beds and training vines to their trellis. Plotting out who will do what when keeps garden maintenance from feeling overwhelming, whether it’s a shared endeavor or you are doing it solo.
- Planting Calendar: Local gardening associations generally provide a planting calendar for the region where they’re based. Combine this with your list of favorite foods and create a timeline for what needs to happen in the garden at different times of year to ensure that your efforts are not wasted. For example, cool weather crops (like spinach and sugar snap peas) wilt in the heat and never mature to an edible state if planted too late in spring. Likewise, so-called ‘fall crops’ need to be planted in mid to late summer to mature before cold weather sets in—a time when most gardeners are consumed with harvesting and may not think about preparing the beds until it’s too late. Having it on the calendar helps.
Being realistic with your gardening ambition is one of the many keys to success. Planning for about one hour of maintenance per 4-by-8-foot bed per week is a good rule of thumb.
Step Three: Lay it Out
Hopefully, planning and designing your garden is a fun, creative process, not a bore. It’s surely not as fun as actually putting it in the ground, though. This is where you have to make sure the plan translates to reality.
- Mark out your design on the ground. String tied between wooden stakes is helpful for marking straight lines and right angles, while a garden hose (warmed up in the sun first) is a low tech method for making curves. Step back and consider your design now that it’s on the ground and adjust it to your liking.
- Build your beds and install the necessary infrastructure. Do you have a hose that will reach the garden or do you need to extend a pipe underground from the house? Will you need a trellis for peas, beans, cucumbers, grapes or hops? Now’s the time to think about these things.
- Lay out your plantings with a method in mind. Plant tall crops (corn, for example, or anything that grows on a trellis) on the north side so smaller plants aren’t shaded out. Follow the recommended spacing on the seed packets so things don’t grow into a thicket. It’s also wise to stagger small batches of vegetables over time so there is always something to harvest, rather than being overloaded with more than you can use all at once (that’s especially important with fast-maturing crops like lettuce, beets and radishes).
Rotating different crops through the beds in each season and from year to year is helpful not only for spreading out the harvest, it also ensures that diseases related to specific crops don’t have a chance to build up in the soil.
And one final tip: mulching. Wait until your seedlings are at least 6 inches tall and then spread a layer of fresh, golden straw over the beds. A thick layer of mulch keeps the weeds down and conserves soil moisture, so you can spend less time fretting over the garden and more time enjoying it.