Day 7: Designing Your Vegetable Garden

When you’re planning a vegetable garden, nearly as important as deciding what to grow in it is figuring out a design. A well-thought out plan will save you a lot of work and achieve better results for your crops.

I have a space in Oasis Community Garden in Roseville, which is comprised of 120 15-by-20-foot plots, so I get to see a lot of different garden designs. The gardens are all over the map, from neat and orderly to haphazard and seemingly random. Some people follow what I call the “mini-farm” design, where they fill their plot with straight rows, evenly spaced. That can work out well, as long as they’re mindful of which plants will get much taller and bigger than others, and space them accordingly so they don’t shade out or crowd smaller varieties.  I often see gardens where some plants are hopelessly marooned in a corner by a wall of giant tomatoes that’s impossible for the gardener to get through.

Similarly, vining crops like squash are frequently planted in an open expanse and are pretty much left to fill in the space, which can make them a challenge to harvest or even to see among the foliage. Observing examples like this made me think about how to create a better, more efficient design.

etable garden design spring

Tom’s garden in spring after beds and paths were installed.

When I plan a vegetable garden layout, my considerations are practical as well as aesthetic. My number one concern is weeding—I hate doing it. This was made abundantly clear to me my first year in the community garden, when I learned that without weed control as part of the design, I would never have enough time to devote to keeping the unrelenting invaders at bay. I needed something that was low maintenance, and along with that, I also wanted it to be easy to move throughout the plot to water and to harvest. Finally, I wanted the whole thing to look nice.

Earlier in this series I described the benefits of planting in raised beds. My second year in the garden I decided to base my garden design entirely around them, even though it meant creating all new beds every year.  (Oasis Garden is tilled down to the bare ground at the end of every season.)  I started out by enclosing the entire space with 32-inch-tall rabbit wire. Then I raked the newly-tilled garden soil into a heaped berm 24-inches wide around the entire perimeter of the plot, leaving two spaces on one end to get in and out of it. I then did the same in the middle, creating two 8-foot squares. This resulted in 24-inch aisles throughout the plot. Using a screw gun, I fastened together 8-inch wide cedar boards to contain both the square beds and the perimeter beds. After that came the hardest part; trundling what seemed like never-ending wheelbarrow loads of compost from the huge pile provided for the garden to fill up the beds. Once they were full, I laid down a thick layer of straw in the aisles to keep the weeds down, and the garden was ready to plant.

egetable garden planted

The garden after it has been planted.

My design allowed me to use the perimeter fence to train vining and climbing crops like peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons. The two square beds and a portion of the perimeter beds were planted with onions, beets, radishes carrots, parsnips, peppers, eggplants, kale and leeks, and were edged with marigolds and salvia. I planted a row of brussels sprouts down the middle of one bed, which proved to be a mistake because they got too big and shaded out other things.

vegetable garden midseason

The vegetable garden is lush, but its design allows the gardener to water and weed easily.

Last spring in my third season there, I pretty much followed this same formula, with two adjustments: I waited until all of my beds were filled before fencing the plot, and I used landscape fabric on the tomato beds for extra weed control.

I’ve been pretty happy with this design the last two seasons. Weeding has been minimal, and I can easily reach any area of the plot by hand or with a short-handled hoe. Even though my garden increased to two plots last year, I‘m able to easily water any part of it—though the use of mulch and raised beds meant minimal irrigation was required. And despite the extreme heat for part of the summer in both years, most things produced excellent yields.

I’ve found that the best part of this design is that it enables me to easily walk anywhere within the garden, looking at how things are growing, picking vegetables and eating them—just hanging out there. It’s then that it occurs to me just how apt the name Oasis Garden really is.

—Tom McKusick

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Adding Vegetables to Ornamental Beds.

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