Planning Your Garden Layout
While you might be tempted to get outside and start planting as soon as the weather allows, you should first sit down and plan your garden out a bit. Creating a good garden layout will pay off big time in the long run.
Layout plans are not just for raised beds and in-ground beds – they can help you visualize the positioning of your container garden as well!
The best way to plan your garden layout is to make a diagram of your garden. If you prefer to do this by hand, I recommend using graph paper and a pencil so that you can change things. If you are computer savvy, you can use Excel or a graphic design program like Canva, which will allow you to move shapes around easily.
It is best to make your diagram to scale so that you can accurately represent the amount of space you have. Go out to your gardening area and measure its dimensions. Then create a scale, such as 1 foot in real life = 4 squares on graph paper. Sketch an outline of your garden area using this scale.
An example of an garden area outline
Next, you will need to think about which plants you want to put where. Your garden layout will depend on a few different factors: the height of each plant, the amount of sunlight each plant needs, and the amount of space that each plant requires.
Some plants are taller than others, and you never want the taller plants to shade the shorter plants. For this reason, you should place taller plants farther away from the position of the sun and shorter plants closer to the position of the sun (to get a good idea of how the sun moves over your garden from morning to night, observe it one day when you are at home). For example, if your garden faces south, taller plants like corn and tomatoes should go along the northern edge of the garden, and shorter plants like watermelon and strawberries should be planted at the southern edge. Trellises would also go on the north side of the garden. You can check the heights of different vegetables here.
Your layout will also depend on the amount of sunlight each plant requires. If your plants do not get the sunlight that they need, they will not produce much fruit. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, require at least 6-8 hours of sunlight each day. These plants should go in the sunniest part of your garden. If there is an area of your garden that is partially shaded during the day by shadows from trees or buildings, it should host vegetables or fruits that are more tolerant of shade, such as broccoli, cabbage, or salad greens.
In our example, the garden area faces south and there is more sun as you move from left to right.
As a result, plants that are taller are planted along the northern edge of the garden, while plants that are shorter are planted along the southern edge. At the same time, plants that need less sun go to the left, while plants that need more sun go further to the right.
Lastly, you should think about the amount of room that each plant needs to grow. This is where your diagram scale comes in – it will help you count how many plants you can fit in your garden. The back of your seed packet will tell you how far apart to space your rows and how far apart to put your plants in each row. While you may be inclined to squeeze your plants closer together, you really do want to follow the recommendations on the seed packet. If your plants are planted too close to one another, they will compete for water and nutrients and grow poorly. You will get a much better harvest from a few large, healthy plants than from a bunch of sickly, crowded ones.
There are a few ways to maximize your garden space, though! Traditionally, vegetables are planted in rows. One alternative method designed to work in small spaces is square foot gardening. In square foot gardening, you divide your garden bed into a grid using string or wooden strips set one foot apart. Then you plant a certain number of seeds in each square foot space based on the amount of room that vegetable needs. For example, you can plant 16 radishes, 4 lettuce plants, or 1 cauliflower in each square foot. To learn more about plant spacing for square foot gardening, check out this guide.
A square foot garden layout in a raised bed. Image by Korye Logan (unmodified).
Another great way to make the most of your space is vertical gardening. If left to their own devices, many vegetables that grow on vines will sprawl across the ground, taking up a lot of room. The good news is that you can grow them on trellises instead! Cucumbers, peas, pole beans, and smaller squashes all benefit from being grown vertically. Trellises make it easier to harvest the fruits of these plants, since you don’t have to wade through a tangle of giant leaves and vines trying to spot your cucumbers. You can construct a cheap trellis by tying straight tree branches and sticks together with twine. Remember, trellises do not have to be flat – they can be three- or four-sided, like a pyramid. They can also be tilted (leaning back at an angle instead of standing upright).
I use round tomato cages as trellises for sweet peas.
Your garden may also benefit from interplanting. This technique involves planting different kinds of vegetables amongst each other. For example, your seed packet says that you need to plant your cabbages at least three feet apart, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t plant a different kind of vegetable, such as lettuce, between those cabbages. It’s especially good to plant pole beans next to corn – they are mutually beneficial companion plants, and the corn stalk serves as a support for the pole beans! Interplanting allows you to take greater advantage of the space you have. You can also use staggered rows to fit more vegetables into a space while still respecting space requirements (see diagram below).
Combining interplanting with staggered rows allows you to fit more plants into the same amount of space.
On a final note, don’t forget to leave enough room in your garden to access each of your plants! Your layout should allow you to water, weed, and harvest each part of your garden easily. If you are using a larger in-ground bed, you will need to be able to walk amongst your plants - another reason to space your plants farther apart. However much room you think you will need, make it more. You don’t want to lose your balance trying to squeeze between your tomatoes and accidentally flatten them!
In short, your garden layout should provide each of your plants with the sunlight and room that it needs to grow. Keep the above aspects in mind, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
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