This article has been updated from its original text.
The first thing to remember about planning a garden is that while there are many right ways to do things, there are very few wrong ways. As the Chinese proverb says, “All gardeners know better than other gardeners.” Even a vegetable garden can be approached like a work of art – with creativity, imagination and the willingness to make mistakes.
Location, location, location
Just like investing in real estate, location has the biggest impact on how successful your garden will be. Consider these important factors when thinking about where to site your garden beds.
Which way is south? The south side of your house will get all the sun, and the north side will usually be shaded by your house. Facing your garden towards the south takes the guesswork out of predicting where the sun will be. But what if the best part of your yard doesn’t have any soil? While soil can be brought in or built up, the sun can’t, so a south-facing location is still the priority over what’s on the ground.
Even if your chosen location faces south, you still need to ensure it gets enough exposure throughout the day. Most vegetables need eight to ten hours of sunshine per day during the growing season. When siting your garden, look for an open area away from trees, which will not only shade the garden, but may also drop debris and leaves, and send out roots to compete with your plants (which they might do anyway without some prevention).
Is there a level area or are you gardening on a hillside? If you’re lucky enough to have a level, sunny, open area, good for you! Most people don’t, so a little extra strategy may be needed.
In many regions, deer will eat your garden without extra protection, but if you rent, or you live in an urban or suburban area, you might be surprised how strict the rules are regarding fencing. While most sources recommend a deer fence about eight feet tall, many fence bylaws restrict heights to six feet. If adequate fencing is going to be a problem, consider a deer-proof garden or other solutions that use ‘invisible’ deer netting.
Where is the water source located? This is one thing that many people forget. If your hose is too long, you’ll lose water pressure and it will make it difficult to water the far reaches of your garden adequately. Make sure you are close enough to a water source to make watering easier.
Orientation and bed design
Whether you are using raised beds or rows, your plants will generally be growing in a line. This line needs to be oriented to capture the most light possible, and while many gardeners agree that pointing rows north/south is best—so that shading from tall plants does not become an issue—others prefer the east/west arrangement for more even sun overall. Whichever you choose, be sure to place trellised vegetables on the north side of your garden to prevent them from shading shorter ones.
Dealing with slopes
If you aren’t using raised beds, any kind of slope will cause runoff. This is when water runs downhill off the surface of the soil rather than soaking in. If you place your rows across the slope, instead of running downhill, the runoff will be more likely to flow along the length of the row and have more chance to sink into the soil.
If runoff is still a problem, you may need to create a runoff ditch, also called a swale, which is a shallow ditch that has gently sloping sides. Rather than filling with water, this ditch is designed for water to soak in, and can also be planted with perennials.
When you are using raised beds, you can correct the slope by using a terracing effect. This brings up an important question – should you use rows or some kind of raised beds, and how should you design them?
Using raised beds
I’m a huge fan of raised beds, and there are lots of reasons why. Plants love them for the protection they provide. They also prevent runoff (which protects the soil), look wonderful and are easy on your back. Unlike planters, they are open on the bottom, so plants can stretch their roots deep into the ground. Not only that, you can purchase pre-built boxes and kits which makes them one of the fastest and easiest ways to put a garden in.
But before you go out and start buying raised beds, first measure your garden area and find out your total square footage. You’ll need to make space for pathways, and it’s very tempting to make the smallest paths possible to leave more room for plants, but that’s not always the best strategy. Your paths need to be as wide as the legs on your wheelbarrow, so you can trundle in dirt and compost, and easily cart out weeds. This is by far the easiest way to save your back. A regular wheelbarrow has legs around 18″ apart, so your path should at least 20″ wide.
Your pathways will be prone to weeds if you are spraying the garden with your hose or watering overhead. Instead, consider using drip irrigation or soaker hoses for targeted, efficient watering and mulch your pathways using wood chips or straw. Run water lines parallel to garden beds, attaching emitters (if using) where desired.
Designing your watering system during the planning stages will help you minimize costs and maximize benefit.
The final planning consideration is the positions of your plants. Each plant has its own shape, height, water, and light requirements. While these are usually listed on the back of your seed package, there are a few general rules worth following:
- Height: If you follow the north/south orientation rule, then tall plants and trellises should be on the west side so that they don’t shade your other plants. However, delicate plants like greens just can’t stand high heat or a full day of sun in the summer. In this case, it makes more sense to plant your tallest plants on the east side with your most delicate, partial-shade crops right next to them, so they will benefit from a little shade in the afternoon.
- Vining plants: Plant spreading crops like squash vines on the edges of your garden so that they won’t take over your beds.You can train them to spread over perimeter grass or even up sturdy fences, since most are easy to lift and point in the direction that you want them to grow.
- Perennials: Plant your perennials separately, on the north side, so that you can rotate your other crops easily without disrupting perennial roots.
- Keep it simple: It’s easy to get overzealous and order more seeds than you have space to plant, but one rule of thumb is not to plant too many types of plants. Stick to your favorites, and choose the most cost-effective varieties.
Putting it all down on paper
As noted above, it’s a good idea to get your garden plan down on paper so that you have a visual representation of the ideas floating around in your head. This doesn’t have to be to scale, but you can start by making a few key measurements to get a grasp of the length of each side and your square footage. You’ll be able to make better judgements in how many seeds to buy and how to irrigate than if you are just guessing.
If you do want to make it to scale, use mathematical grid paper, with each square representing a square foot. If not, you can make a simple sketch of the placement of the plants you want, the shape of the beds, and key features like rocks and trees. This chart is also a useful place for recording which amendments you add to your soil and when. In future years, when introducing new crops, you can look back at your notes and know whether or not you’ll need to add anything further to specific beds.
Don't get overwhelmed
One of the most common mistakes of beginning and experienced gardens alike is doing too much. Ambitious plans quickly turn into weed infested monstrosities because life happens. Instead, choose to be a smart gardener by planning a ‘no-work’ garden.
Have you ever heard of Ruth Stout? She was a lovely eccentric, born in 1884, who claimed to have participated in Prohibition and nude gardening in the 70s, and it was she who pioneered the idea of raised beds and mulch to eliminate work. As she said, “Why do people who like to get up early look with disdain on those who like to lie in bed late? And why do people who like to work feel superior to those who prefer to dream?” A garden is not meant to make more work in your life, and with careful planning, it can be an enjoyable and relaxing process.