Planning the Vegetable Garden

August 9, 2006

Ellen made the following inquiry about planning a vegetable garden:

“I’m interested in any details you can share about how you plan your gardening, whether you track yields or other stuff, map it out on paper… I tend to be somewhat “spontaneous” but know I could make the garden more productive if I had more of a plan.”

Documenting Your Garden’s Layout

I also tend to be spontaneous when planning the vegetable garden but I do think that it is important to record the garden’s design and layout, even if it’s after the fact, so that you have a record that you can refer back to when planning your future gardens. Or you can take photos of your garden as a record of what was planted when, where, and the results.

If you want to plot the garden on paper before you start planting it’s simple to draw up your selection of crops and their planned location on a sheet of graph paper or on an Excel spreadsheet. There are also landscape and garden planning software applications that enable you to record and keep track of your garden’s design and layout.

Rather than use pen and paper, I usually visualize the general layout of the vegetable garden that I plan to grow and organize things in my head. The task is made easier by the fact that I do all of my vegetable gardening in raised beds.

Tips for Creating a Vegetable Garden Plan

My garden consists of four raised beds, each measuring five feet wide by approximately fifty feet in length. So before I even get started the garden is already divided into four equal quadrants that are easy to identify and keep separated. There is also a 10 x 30 foot growing area at the end of the raised beds that I use to grow herbs and perennial vegetable plants.

When planning the layout of the vegetable beds there are four main considerations that I keep in mind to guide my planting and growing strategy:

  1. Planting Location and Crop Rotation
  2. Size, Height, and Growth Habit of the Plants
  3. Growing Season and Time to Maturity
  4. Companion Plants and Ornamental Effects

Been There, Done That… Time to Change Up

Crop rotation doesn’t have to be complicated or formal. If you plant a particular crop or family of related crops in one raised bed the previous year, it goes in a different area or garden bed the next time around.

For example, I usually plant tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the same bed because I use cages to support them all. Even without a garden log it’s easy to remember where this group of vegetables was located in the previous season and to move them to a different growing bed during the next season.

In situations where I mix and interplant various veggies, herbs, and flowers together in the same area I don’t worry too much about rotating the plants. Crop rotation helps to avoid nutrient deficiencies and prevent the build up of diseases in the soil.

Sizing Up Your Garden Plan and Crop Layout

A very important consideration when planning your vegetable garden is to think about the size, height, and growth habit of the crops and to plant according to these characteristics. This will also require consideration of the orientation of your garden and the direction that the sun tracks across your landscape.

You don’t want to position taller plants where they will shade shorter plants that are growing next to them. Also avoid planting a large bushy plant like a summer squash in a spot where it will spread and crowd neighboring crops. Or placing climbers like cucumbers in a position where you can’t provide them with plenty of room and support yet keep them organized and growing within their boundaries.

Give your plants the space they need to mature but don’t waste valuable garden space by neglecting to incorporate intensive gardening techniques into the gardening plan. Just because those tomato plants need to be spaced four feet apart from each other doesn’t mean that you can’t plant smaller, quick maturing plants like lettuce, spring onions, or kohlrabi in between the tomato transplants.

Planning the Garden for Multiple Harvests

In order to maximize your garden’s production the most important consideration during the planning stage is to factor in how long your crops will occupy their space in the garden. Getting this right will enable you to employ succession planting techniques to grow two or three separate harvests in the same space that many gardeners grow a single vegetable crop.

When I plan and plant my spring garden I’m always thinking forward to the end of summer and the fall vegetable garden. This means that I’ll remember to group plants with similar growing seasons and times to maturity in the same bed or growing area.

For example, by planting fast growing spring crops like spinach, lettuce, spring turnips, and radishes in the same area of the garden, once these plants have all matured a section of the garden will be free to be replanted with green beans, summer squash, and other vegetables that will enjoy the warmer season.

Garlic, multiplier onions, and shallots are another example of crops that you can plan to grow in the same area to take advantage of their similar growing season and time to maturity. When the bulbs are harvested in mid summer the bed can then be used to plant fall crops such as kale, mustard greens, cabbage, broccoli, and other cool weather vegetables.

By thinking and planning ahead the same area used to grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can be replanted with your crop of fall garlic. In September after the tomatoes have slowed production, pull the vines, add a layer of compost to the bed and use the area to plant garlic to over-winter, or sow transplants of other fall and winter vegetables.

Planning for an Ornamental and Edible Garden

The final consideration when planning the garden is to think about the garden’s appearance and arrange the plants to provide the best ornamental effect. Many vegetable gardeners don’t worry much about the ornamental appeal of the garden, but with a little thought you can enjoy an edible garden that just as attractive as your favorite flower bed.

There are many unique vegetable varieties available that are not only tasty, but can also add an ornamental flavor to the vegetable garden with their unusual shapes, textures, and colors.

A little forethought and planning will go a long way towards creating a vegetable garden that’s overflowing with healthy, productive, and attractive fruits, herbs, flowers, and vegetables, and keep them growing continuously from spring right through the fall season.

Other Related Vegetable Gardening Posts:

  • Just discovered your blog…what a treat! I’ve started my own organic garden in California and am looking forward to reading more from you.

  • Wonderful post about the basics of planning. As an avid non-planner, I really want to stress how easy it is to keep track of what was planted where via your digital camera. I swear that it’s helped me figure out the eternal (for me) gardening question: “What is this? I know it’s not a weed, but I can’t remember what I planted there…”

  • Thanks for this detailed reply. I think I need more beds. I was salivating at the thought of your 5 huge ones! It’s a wonderful complication to have out here in the Bay Area, but my tomato plants are often productive until December so my garlic needs to go elsewhere. I think our long growing season complicates the successive planting ideas. Our seasons overlap but I can’t quite bring myself to tear out productive plants, as suggested by one local book. I think I’ll just build more beds!

  • Cyd

    Here at the Fish Creek House Bed and Breakfast in Montana, we are fortunate enough to have our own greenhouse where we can grow fruits and veggies, primarily organic year round. The most often asked ? here is can you grow vegetables in winter ?

    Most vegetables can be grown in a greenhouse year-round, but not without a little help from you . Creating the perfect growing environment in which vegetables will grow can be a challenge though, with heating during the cold season and cooling in the warm, monitoring the greenhouse is essential for the plants’ growth and your success.

    First we should start by understanding some greenhouse lingo. Cold greenhouse, cool greenhouse and warm greenhouse are common terms you’ll see quite often. They aren’t three different houses, only one with different temperatures maintained inside. Just a note, these minimum temperatures represent night temperatures, not temperatures maintained during the daytime. The sun heats a cold greenhouse and usually has a minimum temperature of 28 degrees F maintained. No growth occurs in this type of house but you can over winter plants that are not frost sensitive. Cool greenhouses are heated during the cooler months either with gas, oil or propane to a minimum temperature of 45 degrees F. This is just warm enough for a little plant growth and frost sensitive plants can be over wintered here. A warm greenhouse is where all the action is. This house is heated at night during most months and a minimum temperature of 55 degrees F is maintained. A wide assortment of plants can be grown during the winter, including exotic varieties and most vegetables. The one drawback to growing year-round in a warm greenhouse is the heating cost, which can be high for someone living in an area with a long winter season. Maintaining 55 degrees at night during the winter can be a little costly. There are ways to cut down on heating costs and we will discuss them in future articles. Cooling a greenhouse during spring and summer, where temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees, is just as important. Tomatoes for example will stop growing when the temperature starts to inch toward 90 degrees.

    In our greenhouse, peppers, cucumbers, beans, eggplant, melons, squash and of course tomatoes do quite well. Carrots, lettuce and radish can also be grown inside. When searching through catalogues for seeds, look for varieties made specifically for greenhouse production. They will have qualities that will make growing them easier for you and assure your success. For example, ‘Alicante’ tomato is meant to grow in a cool greenhouse because it can tolerate cooler temperatures and ‘Tornado’ is an excellent bush type that stays compact, a good idea for the greenhouse.

    Remember everyone’s season is different, so grow according to your areas climate. Manipulating the environment by heating in fall and winter and cooling in spring and summer will insure the proper growth of your vegetables so you can be harvesting all year long.

  • As an avid gardener for many years I find that the planning stages are some of the most fun. I start in January right after the holidays. Pouring through all the catalogues, visiting websites, sketching on my graph paper and dreaming about the lush and plentiful garden soon to come. Sure helps beat the winter doldrums here in the northeast 🙁

    Visit our website for some helpful articles on gardening especially if you are interested in growing organic.

  • I love everything about gardening, growing plants and learning all I can about organic gardening and all the garden accessories that are out there. Keep up the great work on this blog and I look forward to visiting again. By the way, you might really enjoy what you find at Have a great day

  • Wonderful post. Really very helpful to for the growers who are planning to start their new vegetable garden. Knowing as much as possible about the ins and out growing vegetable garden will give all the best advantages to grow healthier garden. Even found more information on the hydroponicsequipment blog related to hydroponics growing

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