How to Plan a Small Vegetable Garden - How I Do It

Do you have trouble planning your garden - especially your small vegetable garden? Reader Kelly Teater of Knit Together asked me for a layout of my garden. And while I've tried to show lots of photos of my garden, I agree it may be easier to see how I do things if I share some drawings. I hope this will help you plan your own garden beds.

Main garden bed.
Let's begin with what my main garden bed. It's in the back yard, near the fence. When we first moved here, it was nice and sunny. Now, due to neighbors' trees, it's part shade. That's why this year I chose to plant it only with things that don't mind shade. The bed was quite prolific this year, offering us more than enough greens (and we love our greens!), plus other goodies. It measures 12 x 14 ft., including wide pathways that my husband tills (so I don't have to hoe or hand weed them).

The bed is made up of five berms, each a couple of feet wide. I chose to make berms because our soil is heavy clay. Bringing in garden soil and turning it into berms or raised beds was the cheapest, simplest option. (If I'd wanted to amend our soil, it would have taken much more garden soil, plus tons of organic matter, and still might not be satisfactory.) Berms or raised beds make for slightly warmer beds, too, meaning an easy jump in the spring and a slightly longer growing period in the fall. Many people ask if I have a problem with the berms eroding. I do not. In the spring, before I plant, I dig compost into each berm and reshape them a bit.

The downside to berms or raised beds is they require more watering than gardens planted directly in the soil.

As you can see from the illustration above, I planted this bed pretty intensively this year. This did not deter production, but it did require more fertilization and water. (For an idea of how close I planted things, the general recommendation for kale, according to Mother Earth News, is single plants, 1' 4" each way (minimum); rows, 1' 2" with 1' 6" row gap (minimum). My plants are only about 4 inches apart. In another example, I planted my loose leaf lettuce just 1 inch apart; Mother Earth News recommends single plants, 0' 4" each way (minimum); rows: 0' 4" with 0' 6" row gap (minimum).)

First Berm: This is primarily a kale bed. I planted a couple of varieties. In the early spring, I also interplanted radishes - twice. Also interplanted are carrots.

Second Berm: This is primarily the collards bed. To one side, I also planted some parsnips and cabbage. Again, carrots are interspersed throughout.

Third Berm: The pea bed. In early spring, I planted just a few spinach plants in this bed; for the first time, I had success with spinach - I believe because the peas helped shade this cool-weather plant. Next year, I'll plant far more spinach, planted close together. And again, there are carrots here, too.

Left Hand Berms: One has tightly spaced beets and loose leaf lettuce. (I always recommend loose leaf because if you leave three leaves behind when you harvest, leaves will just keep coming. If you plant head lettuce, you really only get one harvest.) The other held leeks (planted in late fall and overwintered), and now has winter carrots.

On the sunnier side of the bed (the right), I have pots of herbs and one grow bag of potatoes. (This year, some sort of disease got these potatoes, but last year, I had an abundant crop from this grow bag, despite the fact that it's not in full sun. And I always recommend growing herbs in pots because #1, they make take over the garden if they are planted directly into the soil and #2, it allows you to move them around into bare spots in the garden.) In the very back of the bed, against the fence, are some honeyberries (only their second year; they didn't produce this year) and thornless blackberries. Really, blackberries like sun and well drained soil, but this year those vines actually produced some really delicious, huge berries.

Also in the backyard, and not part of this drawing, are the kiwi vine (quite ornamental, too, and growing on an arch), Jerusalem artichokes (in a grow bag), ground nuts (in a pot), and all along the back of the house, strawberries.

Front garden bed.
In the front yard, right in front of the house, I have one long front garden bed. It was there when we purchased the house, but was narrow and full of heavy clay soil. This year, my husband widened it and I amended it with chicken manure and compost. (This winter, I'll add more of both, and cover it with cardboard to discourage weeds.) This is not a berm garden; everything is planted either in pots/grow bags, or directly into the level soil.

The graphic here really doesn't do the bed justice; I have both summer and winter squash in this bed, and (as you know if you've ever grown either) a single plant fills in a lot of space very quickly. So try to imagine the entire bed covered in big, beautiful squash leaves. General advice is to plant squash about 4 feet apart. I did just a bit less than this, but you'll want to be careful not to get squash too close, or you'll have problems with air circulation and sunlight, which will reduce production. As my squash gets quite large now (in September), I am training them forward, onto the lawn, to save space.

In the back of this bed, near the house, I have two columnar apple trees and three blueberry bushes in pots. There is also a brick planter that's original to the house; it contains a few cabbages, lots of wild onions, plus my vigorous ornamental and medicinal passion vine. In the left hand corner of the bed, near the front, is a rhubarb plant. (This was it's first year, so I won't get a harvest from it until next year.) Next to it is a single zucchini plant - more than enough to keep us constantly in zukes!

I also have two pattypan squash plants and two large, vining, prolific butternut squash. The two pattypans have us giving away an awful lot of food, since we don't like this summer squash once it's preserved; next year, I'll probably only plant one - which will give me more room for some other plant. I also had one buttercup squash just behind these squash; it didn't do very well. I believe it just wasn't getting enough sun because it was closer to the house. This bed also had two grow bags of potatoes, many pots of herbs, some chives planted directly into the soil, and all those volunteer tomato plants. (Which are producing some fruit - though not as much as the plants I purchased.)

Side garden.
I have another tiny bed to the side of our house that holds six tomato plants, only about a foot or so apart, some onions, a handful of strawberry plants, and some wonderberries that scatter themselves throughout the bed each year. Here, everything is directly planted into the ground - which is some of the best soil in our yard. (The total of the long front bed and this small one is about 33 x 3 feet.)

From such a small amount of space, I think I get a pretty decent amount of food. (Click here to see our totals as of August.) The keys are:

* to give the plants the correct amount of sunlight
* to plant pretty closely
* to provide the correct amount of water and fertilizer.
* To grab space wherever there is some. (I'm not afraid to plant edibles among ornamentals, as long as the location is right for the plant.)
* To plant early and late season crops that don't mind some cool weather. (Examples include kale, radishes, and peas.)

I'm also careful to plant flowers nearby, to attract pollinators. My favorites are borage and nasturtiums; both self sow each year and are edible.

Could I get even more from my beds? I do think I have room to grow pole beans (or something similar) up a tepee, just behind the squash. They will get less sun, so I need to be sure to choose a plant that doesn't mind a bit of shade. And I could shrink the pathways in my main garden bed so I'd have more room for plants. But that means hubby couldn't use his tiller...and I would never hear the end of that!

All the layouts in this post were created using Mother Earth News' free vegetable garden planner.

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

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