Vegetable Garden Layout

A wide-bed vegetable garden layout wastes less space in paths than a row garden doesA carefully-designed vegetable garden layout.

The vegetable garden layout that will work best for you depends on several factors. You'll need to consider:

  • whether you're planning an in-ground, raised bed, or other type of garden
  • what you plan to grow
  • how much space each specific crop needs
  • which areas have all-day sun or partial shade
  • how tall you are (seriously? yes!)
  • what grew where last year (unless you're a first-time gardener)

Taking all these factors into consideration at once can be daunting at first! But I'll make it easy for you by breaking it all down into a step-by-step plan. Taking time now when doing your layout will make your work load easier throughout the summer and will increase your yields come fall.

Vegetable Garden Layout Step-by-Step

Step 1: Decide Which Method You'll Use

Your vegetable garden layout is determined in part by which technique you’re going to use. Raised beds are beautiful and are extremely popular, but they have some drawbacks you may not be aware of. Read more at pros and cons of raised bed gardening. There is also a technique called “Square Foot Gardening” and if you're going to do that, buy the book and follow their spacings.

Explore the links above if you are not yet sure which technique you want to use. They each have advantages and disadvantages.

But that "good ol'" rototilled, parallel row garden is largely a thing of the past, because it wastes so much space, destroys the soil ecosystem and creates a hardpan just below the depth of the tines.

After trying out all the methods above and then some, I now garden in 42" wide in-ground beds with 18" wide paths between, that are never tilled or walked on, and are rich, loose and friable after years of compost, appropriate minerals and microbial teas. But any style garden will work provided you care for your soil. (Soil is a living ecosystem, not dead bits of rock.)

Step 2: The Ground Plan

Next draw out your garden space to scale on a sheet of graph paper, or on regular paper with 1-foot marks made with a ruler along the bottom and sides. Mark where the shade is, if any. Remember if you're laying this out before the trees leaf out in the spring, that there may be shade in some places that isn't there now.

Orient your garden beds so that you can drag a hose up the path between beds, rather than across a bed. Even if you're going to use drip irrigation or leaky pipe, there will be times you need to get a hose in there.

Now you're going to lay out beds and paths on your graph paper, and here's where how tall you are comes into play. If you're tall you can have wider beds because you'll be able to reach over further. You need to be able to reach over to the middle of the bed because of this ironclad rule: never walk on your beds. It compacts the soil and restricts root growth. So whether raised or in-ground, figure out how far you can reach over comfortably, and make your bed twice that wide (you'll reach the other side of the bed from the next path over). I'm 5' 2" and my in-ground beds are 42" wide. You can generally reach farther over a raised bed than and in-gound garden.

Over the years I've settled on 18" as my ideal path width. It's wide enough to drag a hose down, but when the tops of the plants invariably hang over the paths, I can still navigate.

I would suggest keeping your garden small and simple if you are just starting out, and avoiding anything fancy like circle gardens or winding paths. They look cool, but its a lot easier to do a vegetable garden layout on paper than it is on the ground. And remember you'll need to drag a hose around and get in there with a wheelbarrow at times.

Step 3: The Plant Plan

On another sheet make a list of everything you plan to grow, and next to that write how many of each plant you think you'll need.

Most homegrown produce gets much bigger than what you buy in the supermarket, so consider that a healthy chard plant will provide many 18-24" long leaves, and one zucchini plant might make four or five squashes a week if you harvest them when little and tender. How much of which vegetables do you eat now?  Try to be realistic when allotting precious garden space on your vegetable garden layout.

Spacing

A single carrot plant obviously takes up a lot less garden space than a single zucchini plant, so knowing proper spacings is very important when figuring out how many plants to buy from the nursery (or start ahead of time indoors) or how many seeds to plant.

Next to each plant write down how much space that plant needs. This is where many beginning (and not so beginning!) gardeners get tripped up. Follow the recommended plant spacings on your seed packet or the tag that came with the seedling from the garden center. It's easy to think "but they're so little, they can't really need that much space!". Oh... but they do!  Consider this drawing of a Hubbard squash's roots at 11 weeks old:

Each square represents one square foot, so its roots are 28 feet across! (From Root Development of Vegetable Crops by John Weaver, University of Nebraska)

Don't make your crops fight each other for light, soil nutrients or water. Those darling little tomatoes can get to be 8 feet high and 5 feet across, if you happen to like Brandywines.

Now if you're like... well, everybody, here's where you start to realize that your garden isn't big enough for everything you drooled over in those luscious seed catalogs. You're probably going to need to pare down your dream garden and eliminate some things from your vegetable garden layout plan. But don't be tempted to cheat on the plant spacings and try to squish things closer together. It never work outs well in the end.

Hexagonal Spacing

Because of the old parallel-row paradigm, people think that plants should all be planted in a straight rows next to each other. But if you offset your rows, you can fit in a few more plants while still giving each plant its required spacing:

You don't have to do this, of course, but it does "waste" less space.

Sun

Most vegetables need at least 8 hours of full sun a day, and peppers, tomatoes, squashes, herbs and eggplants need full sun all day. If you have areas that only get partial sun or all shade, check out the chart at the bottom that shows the more shade-tolerant vegetables. Note on your plant list any vegetables that will tolerate some shade.

What to Plant Where

Plant your tallest crops, like corn and indeterminate tomatoes, on the north side of the garden. This will keep them from shading out smaller plants.

I like to plant different crops together in the same bed, like carrots and tomatoes or romaine and spinach. Some plants have other plants they like or dislike, and taking advantage of this is known as companion planting. Companion planting also confuses the bugs. But if you're just starting out, don't worry about this yet.

Planting the Garden on Paper

Now you can start drawing your plants in on the graph paper as circles, making sure you leave each plant its recommended spacing and its favored sun requirement. You can use a circle template with different sized circles from the art store for this, but you don't need one.

I do my vegetable garden layout with a pencil and paper every spring, with my maps of the last few years' gardens in front of me. If you garden every year it is very important  to pay attention to crop rotation when working on the vegetable garden layout because different crops pull different nutrients from the soil, and are affected by different diseases and pests that may linger. But of course if this is your first garden, you don't need to think about crop rotation yet either!

There are computer programs out there that can be fun to use in the middle of winter when you're bored, but again, you don't need them. They can actually detach you from the thinking part, which detaches you from your garden. Better to think about and learn what plants need rather than let a computer plan your garden for you. Having said that, The Old Farmers Almanac offers one here if you want to check it out.

I've gotten now to where I just know how much garden space I will need for the amount of zucchini or collards I want, and leave that much linear space in the garden plan. Then when I actually go out and plant, I follow the recommended plant spacings and stop planting when I've filled the space allotted. I don't have to draw in each individual plant on my vegetable garden layout plan anymore. This is just by way of saying that it does get easier and faster with experience. Provided you do it rather than rely on a computer.

Shade Tolerance Chart

Veggies Needing Full Sun Veggies Tolerant of Some Shade
Tomatoes Lettuces
Peppers Swiss Chard
Cucumbers Collards
Onions Radishes
Carrots Peas
Corn Broccoli
Squash Spinach
Eggplant Cauliflower
Melons Beets
Most Herbs Beans

Step 4: Taking Your Vegetable Garden Layout Outside

Vegetable Garden LayoutHexagonal spacing on radishes.

You now need to take your vegetable garden layout off the page and onto the ground. If you're using raised beds you don't need to do this part, because the beds and paths are already defined.

(NOTE: It's easier to do your soil preparation (weeding, cultivating, adding compost and amendments) before you lay out the garden into rows and paths. The amendments you put in where the paths will go are not lost, because roots will grow under your paths too.)

You will need some stakes, some twine and a tape measure to lay out your beds. You can buy 1/4" bamboo stakes from the garden center (but I live in Colorado, and actually, they're much cheaper from the pot-growing supply store, even though no I don't), and saw them into 3' sections. They're useful later for lots of other things in the garden. (Like fencing out the ducks... which is another story,)

Put a stake in one corner of your garden space, and measure out whatever width bed you settled on. Measuring and staking helps to keep your beds even and parallel.

Drive in another stake across of the bed (at 42-60" depending on your reach). Then mark out another 18 inches from there for your path, and drive in another stake. Keep marking this way until all your beds and paths are laid out along one side of the garden. Go to the other side of the garden, and drive in stakes at matching intervals.

Run twine between the stakes down the long edge of the beds, so that you can clearly see where your beds and paths are going to be.

Congratulations, you did it! Next step: Take your paper vegetable garden layout outside, and your seedlings and seeds, and


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