I’ve been gardening all my life, and over the years I’ve learned the hard way that success usually comes down to the preparation that is done before the growing season even starts. There are a few simple rules to follow when considering where everything should go. Get them right and you’re set up for success! Read on or watch our video to discover how to plan the perfect garden...
The Right Location
Choosing the right location for your garden goes a long way to ensuring its success. You need somewhere that gets as much sunshine as possible – ideally at least eight hours of direct sun a day, but if the only space you have gets less than this, don’t worry, there’s still plenty you can grow. It’s worth noting where the shadows fall on a sunny day, and at different times of the year too (including in summer when trees will be in leaf) so you can accurately judge how sunny the area you have in mind is likely to be.
Soil conditions are just as important. Your garden needs to be somewhere that doesn’t get waterlogged in wet weather or over the winter. If your garden soil tends to remain wet, raised beds are useful. By raising the planting area to above the level of the surrounding soil, water can drain away more easily.
You also need to avoid frost pockets, so steer clear of lower areas where sinking cold air tends to collect.
Your Vegetable Garden Layout
As your garden expands, so too does the importance of being able to easily move about it. Good, clear paths that are wide enough to comfortably get a wheelbarrow down will make life so much easier when watering, weeding or harvesting your crops.
Closely tied to path width is bed width. If you can, I’d suggest keeping the beds or growing areas between your paths to a maximum width of 4ft (1.2m). This means you can reach the middle of the bed from the paths without having to step on growing areas. That’s important, because treading on soil compacts it, which is worse for your plants.
Paths can be bare soil, laid to grass, or even paved. Personally, I love using woodchip on top of cardboard sheets for surfacing my paths. It prevents things from getting muddy and, as it’s a natural material, it will feed the soil and by extension the surrounding crops as it rots down. It will need to be topped up from time to time as it decomposes.
Drawing up Your Plan
There are three options for creating your garden plan:
Sketch out your growing area using old-fashioned paper and pencil. Using a pencil rather than a pen is important because you’ll need to erase and re-draw things as the plan evolves. It’s a very tactile process and one that people with an artistic streak love.
Create a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, with separate rows for each crop. It’s easy to create multiple versions of your plan that take you through the seasons, or even month by month, but harder to map out the overall layout.
Use our online Garden Planner, which makes planning a breeze! I can quickly draw out my growing area and add plants to my plan, and it’s got handy built-in tools like crop rotation and companion planting features. As I add plants, the accompanying Plant List is automatically updated. The Plant List clearly shows how many plants I’ll need to raise or buy, and what I’ll be growing when.
10 Steps to Creating Your Garden Plan
Now for the part we all look forward to – laying out the plants! Where best to grow them depends on their individual needs and growth habits. All three levels of planning above will work with the garden planning rules I’m about to share.
1. Fussy Crops
The first plants to place are the most fussy ones - the frost-sensitive, warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers. These need the sunniest spot you can find, ideally sheltered from chilly winds – we’re talking prime real estate! Make sure to position them where they won’t shade out lower-growing crops.
When growing corn it’s important to position them in a block formation – filling the entire raised bed – to encourage better pollination and fuller cobs. They’re also tall plants, but have fewer leaves so they don’t cast quite as much shade as tomatoes.
2. Climbing Crops
Next, we need to place climbing or vertically-trained crops because they will also cast shade on plants that are on their North side once they’ve grown up and leafed out. That doesn’t mean you can’t grow anything behind them though, because…
3. Shade-Loving Crops
…some plants like spinach actually enjoy the relative cool of a shadier spot, particularly if you’re growing in a hot climate. Salad onions, radishes and beets can also do well in areas that only receive two or three hours of direct sun a day.
The Garden Planner makes it easy to choose shade-loving crops using the plant filters. Click on Show More at the top of the plant selector to display options such as partial shade tolerant. You can also choose to narrow the selection of plants down further, for instance to show only plants that are frost tolerant, easy to grow, or which belong to a particular crop family.
4. Sprawling Plants
Next up are the sprawling plants, which are often also tender, sun-loving crops like zucchini, melons, and sweet potato. It makes sense to set these big, lolling crops towards the edge of the garden (sunshine allowing), because here they can spread out across paths or onto surrounding paving or lawn without fear of them smothering less rambunctious plants.
5. Staple Crops
With the choicest garden spots taken, it’s time to position what’s left. Vegetables like potatoes, onions and most root crops will appreciate at least five hours of direct sunshine but will still grow okay – just a bit slower – if they get a little less than this.
6. Thirsty Crops
Watering can be a time-consuming job in hot summers. You can minimize how much you need to water by growing thirsty crops like celery in an area of the garden that holds soil moisture for longer, or try grouping water-intensive crops together so it’s easier to water them all in one go.
You’ll also want to be close to a water source, or somewhere you can install barrels to collect rainwater for irrigation.
7. Convenience Crops
Convenience is always worth considering for things like watering and, of course, harvesting. I like to position crops that will be harvested more often closer to the house. For instance, my herb bed is the closest bed to the back door, so I’ll be more inclined to go out and nab a fresh sprig of aromatic goodness whenever a recipe demands it. Other crops you might want close by for regular picking might include tomatoes, salads, and chard.
8. Pest Defense
Make sure to include plenty of nectar-rich flowers in your vegetable garden. These will attract both pollinators and pest predators like hoverflies. Last year I planted poached egg plant, calendula, and nasturtium along my main vegetable garden path, and made an effort tuck in a few flowers within the beds themselves. They added a stunning splash of color while attracting the sorts of beneficial bugs any gardener would be thrilled to see.
If you’re seeking inspiration, the Garden Planner has all sorts of companion planting ideas, including plenty of companion flowers that’ll make your garden sing! Just click on a plant in your plan to highlight it, then click on Show Companions. All suitable companion plants will then appear in the plant selector, making it easy to add them to your plan.
As well as your paths and growing areas it’s important to make space for a compost heap or bin – either within the vegetable garden itself, or close by. Your garden will generate a lot of compostable material – and all of it can be easily turned into nutrient-rich compost to feed your soil next season.
10. Plant Protection
An optional extra is to include somewhere sheltered for starting off your seedlings, plus protecting more tender crops in cooler climates. A simple cold frame is good or, if space and budget allow, a greenhouse. You needn’t spend big bucks on this – I’ve seen some fantastic homemade cold frames! Anything you can use to keep the chill off will really help tender seedlings make the transition from indoors to out during those bright spring days when night-time temperatures can still be nippy.
I reckon my garden plan looks pretty colorful in its own right, and having this at-a-glance, easy-to-tweak way of making a plan has honestly transformed the way I garden, so I’m ultimately getting more from the space I have.
If haven’t yet tried out the Garden Planner, we offer a free 7 day trial so you can give it a whirl. We hope you’ll love it, but don’t worry, you won’t need to put in any payment details, and there’s no obligation to continue once the trial’s finished. Click here to start planning your garden the easy way!