Every year we get inquiries from people who are a little bewildered by the complexity of planning their first vegetable garden and don’t know where to start. Some are looking for a 'quick fix' – some way to magically come up with the perfect plan for their garden. Others are prepared to spend time but find the plethora of possible combinations of plants and layouts confusing. With that in mind, here's our best advice in the form of principles to follow when producing a good plan for a new vegetable garden.
When planning a vegetable garden it’s all too easy to jump in with both feet and try to grow as much as possible in the first year. Many experienced gardeners will tell you that this is just setting yourself up for disappointment as the amount to learn, maintain and weed can quickly become overwhelming. Far better is to make a list of your favorite vegetables and narrow it down to the ones that taste best fresh or cost a lot to buy in the shops. Plan to create a few vegetable beds each year, expanding as you become confident and find the timesaving shortcuts that work for you. Defining good paths (using materials such as woodchip and weed suppressant fabric) will pay back many times over in the time saved maintaining them.
If the area you are going to use for your vegetable garden is new then the next decision is what style of garden and planting system you would like to use: raised beds, traditional rows, square foot gardening etc. In general it’s a good idea to define garden beds 4 feet (1.2m) wide and as long as you want them to be with a 2 foot (60cm) path between them. This is about as wide as you can go before it becomes uncomfortable to lean into the middle of the bed (you’ll appreciate this when weeding) without treading on the soil (best avoided as it compacts the soil structure). If you have children around then it’s useful to clearly mark the edges and building raised beds is a good way to do this (also good if you have heavy or waterlogged soil as they drain well.)
Many different crop layouts can work for a particular garden space and there will be far more variation in the harvest due to factors beyond our control such as weather and pests than in whether leeks should be placed next to carrots. Although some gardeners swear by complex companion planting systems the main principles that have been proved to work are summarized as:
- Mix up plants to confuse pests: Large areas of a single crop (or a single crop family) attract pests whereas mixed planting can confuse them. See our article on Common Sense Companion Planting for details. The one exception to this is where plants require special protection, for example, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers may be grown together if they are all going to be protected from caterpillars in a tunnel of netting or horticultural fleece.
- Grow insectary plants: There are a number of well-known flowers that attract beneficial insects (ladybugs, hoverflies etc) that will naturally control pests. See my article on Flowers for Vegetable Gardens for help in choosing these.
- Consider Shade and Support: Tall plants can shade others or can be used to offer support to others e.g. climbing beans can grow up sweet corn.
With these general principles in mind here are my recommendations for placing plants in a new vegetable garden:
- Tender Plants: Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil etc are the most fussy. Unless your climate is extremely warm you’ll want to reserve the best sunny spots in your garden for these high-value crops so add them to your plan first. South facing walls can be particularly good for providing the heat that these plants like in order to produce an abundant harvest.
- Roaming Plants: Next place plants that like to send out vines that roam around the garden – melon, squash etc. These need to be situated at the edge of your vegetable beds so the broad leaves attached to the vines don’t cover your other plants. Placing them at the edge lets them spread out across paths or grass.
- Vertically Climbing Plants: Anything that grows up supports – peas, beans and some squash such as cucumbers, will need to be located where they won’t shade other vegetables. The one exception is areas with very hot summers where some cool-season crops such as lettuce and spinach can benefit from shade in the heat of the day.
- Irrigation: Some plants perform badly in dry conditions – celery, onions, strawberries etc (see our Plant Guides for full details). Areas of your garden that are slightly lower will retain more moisture or you may need to plan to provide irrigation to get consistent growth.
- Pollination: Certain plants need to be near others in order to pollinate well and ‘set fruit’ (ie produce the edible portion). The main one you need to consider is sweet corn which should be grown in blocks to ensure that it produces full cobs – see our article on sweetcorn for details.
- Accessibility: What plants do you want to be able to regularly harvest? Herbs, salad, tomatoes etc..? These should all be placed as near to your kitchen as possible. Not only will you then be more likely to use them but it will help you to keep on top of the weeds and remove slugs regularly.
- Succession Planting: If you are short of space or want a crop throughout the season, consider using succession planting and intercropping – see my article on getting more crops from an area and our video on using the Garden Planner to organize Succession Planting.
- Don't Overcrowd: Finally, tempting though it is, be very careful not to overcrowd plants as you add in the remaining ones to your plan. This is the number 1 mistake made by new gardeners and it’s easy to see why – plants look so small as seedlings and we all hate pulling up the result of our hard work to thin them out! Our Garden Planner can help with this and show just how much you can get into your space.
An Art or a Science?
Gardening is both an art and a science and it’s that tension that is at the root of the confusion for many new gardeners. There are scientific principles that need to be followed – overcrowding plants or growing in poor-quality soil will set you up for failure. In subsequent years the principles of crop rotation will add more constraints. However, that still allows for a lot of different possibilities and the art is in placing plants in a way that makes best use of your space without breaking any of the rules.
It’s worth remembering that these aren’t a hard and fast set of rules. The art is in using these guiding principles to design something that’s uniquely your garden and, with experience, that becomes a very satisfying and enjoyable process.