Finding the perfect layout for the garden can feel a little like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each element has a specific shape and size that needs to fit with the others in a way that will be both fruitful and functional. And while having a less than ideal garden layout isn’t going to mean total garden failure, having a smart layout can make your job as a gardener much easier and more enjoyable.
Give Them Space to Grow
Spacing is key to a good garden layout. To start with, know how much space the plants you have chosen will need. Plants grow in 4D, so anticipating the height, spread, root depth, and time necessary will make the task of placing the plants in the garden easier. This information is almost always included on the seed packet or plant tag and is readily accessible if you don’t have any personal experience with a particular variety to work with. Once you know what to expect from the plants you have chosen, follow these simple guidelines:
- Arrange plants by height, so that you don’t unintentionally shade sun-loving plants that grow lower to the ground (I always plant my tallest plants on the north end of the garden to take full advantage of the angle of the sun). Also, make sure that you provide towering and climbing plants, like tomatoes and pole beans, with the proper plant supports to keep them growing up.
- When you think about how much space a plant will take up, think in terms of both spread and density. Vining crops like winter squash and melons need space to sprawl and meander, while a bush variety squash like zucchini is going to pack a lot of bulk into a relatively small space. If plants are too close together, yields can suffer and problems with mildew and fungus can increase.
- All plants need adequate root space to thrive. This is especially true with root crops like beets and radishes, so take care to create proper spacing through careful planting or thinning. If plants are too crowded, root formation will be inhibited.
- Take into consideration how much time it will take for each plant to mature. Those little pepper seedlings may look like they do not need to be spaced so far apart in late May, but by the time the July sun has kicked in, they’ll most certainly need the extra space. Likewise, plants that grow to maturity quickly, like radishes and spring greens, will be long gone by the time the neighboring kohlrabi is ready to take up some of their space.
Give Yourself Space to Garden
When it comes to creating a garden layout, there are a number of approaches you can take to ensure that not only do your plants have the space that they need, but you have the space you need to access your garden as well. There is a delicate balance to making the most of your growing space and maintaining good access. Generous space will have it’s advantages, but will limit the amount of food you can grow. More compact planting will increase your yield, but the more limited you are with where you can step in the garden, the greater an issue soil compaction will be. I find that a combination of these three approaches works well for me:
- Traditional rows are a good approach if you have a lot of space to work with. Wide spacing between rows allows you to avoid compacting the soil right next to the plant’s root system, provides good airflow, and allows for easy access for tending and harvesting. Even a modest 1-2′ between rows can give a nimble gardener the necessary access to the fruits of their labor.
- If you’re still looking to get a little more out of your garden, try using staggered or double rows. I’ve had really good results planting twice the number of onions in the same space by staggering the sets in a zipper pattern. Scallions are good choices for double rows, leaving a narrow space between the two rows and larger access rows on either side of the double row. In the same spirit, I’ve also had luck planting lettuce heads in clusters of three, increasing the number of plants I can get out of the same space, while still allowing space for the heads to grow outwards.
- Another approach that many small space gardeners might find useful is Square Foot Gardening. The basic premise is that you impose a grid on top of your garden, planting each square foot with a crop according to its size (i.e. one tomato plant per square foot, nine beets per square foot, twelve onions per square foot, etc.). The main advantage is that this method maximizes your growing space. You will also spend less efforts on weed control using this method. Square Food Gardening works best if you have a raised bed that you can access almost entirely from outside of the bed, but it could also be adapted to select sections of a regular garden as well.
Be a Matchmaker
There are some plants that grow really well together, providing mutual benefit in the form of pest control, nutrient sharing, and attracting pollinators. These are good plants to match up either as companion plants or as a part of your rotation plan from year to year. There are a number of companion planting charts floating around the internet (this one and this one are two of the most comprehensive that I’ve seen) that will tell you exactly who are the friends (and frienemies) of a particular plant, but here are a few general rules that will be helpful to keep in mind:
- Alliums are your onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. They are highly aromatic and are excellent companions to plants that are more susceptible to insect problems, like broccoli or cabbage.
- Amaranths include spinach, beets, and chard. They benefit greatly from aromatic companions, like umbellifers (will attract beneficial insects) and alliums (will repel bad insects).
- Brassicas are a diverse group which includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower cabbage kale, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, and even arugula. They benefit from alliums for pest control and are excellent choices for attracting pollinators to the garden. Brassicas are a good choice to follow a particularly bad year with mildew (to which alliums are highly susceptible), as they can actually reduce mildew in the garden soil.
- Cucurbits include cucumber, melon, pumpkin, and squash. Cucurbits’ vines and broad leaves provide good ground cover, which helps maintain moisture and prevent surface evaporation. Their spiny stems can also act as a pest deterrent for small animals that might be trying to get at your sweet corn.
- Legumes (peas, beans, and lentils) are nitrogen fixers and are incredibly important to recharge your garden soil. They take nitrogen from the air and turn it into a plant-friendly form in the soil. Legumes will prepare (and replenish) soil for heavy feeders like brassicas and nightshades.
- Nightshades are your tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant. They rely heavily on companions that attract pollinators to the garden. Planting aromatic herbs (like basil and oregano) with nightshades will improve the flavor of nightshades’ fruit.
- Umbellifers include carrots, celery, dill, fennel, parsley, and parsnips. They provide aromatic benefits to the garden, attracting pollinators. Umbellifers are classic companions to nightshades.
Still having a hard time fitting everything in to your garden? Consider some of these solutions to making your garden plan work:
- Container Gardening: A lot of herbs and vegetable varieties will grow well in containers. In fact, sometimes it’s actually more convenient to have your herbs in containers on your deck than in a corner of the garden. Choose varieties that are suitable for container growing and make sure that your containers provide enough root space to support the plant.
- Vertical Gardening: If your space is limited, consider incorporating some infrastructure for vertical gardening. Last year I installed a vertical garden fence in one of my raised beds to grow cantaloupe and cucumbers without giving up too much garden real estate and it worked incredibly well!
- Continuous Planting: If conditions allow, you can continuously replant your garden as things are harvested. After that garlic is harvested early in the season, use that same space for a late planting of radishes.
- Focus on color and texture: Plant a row of carrots with their delicate foliage behind a row of dark and sturdy Bull’s Blood Beet greens or alternate your yellow banana pepper plants with your big red pimento type pepper plants to create some interest and contrast.
- Create a focal point: Go ahead and place that bean tower or your selection of heirloom tomatoes in the center of the garden and design out from there. You put a lot of thought into your garden choices, so go ahead and showcase them.
- Plant in formation: Take some inspiration from traditional potager garden plans, and use geometric formations for your rows and plant groupings. Create unique pathways or plant in concentric rows to make your garden stand out.