Planning your vegetable garden layout is the first step to becoming a successful gardener. Plot size, soil, and sunlight are deciding factors. But you also need to factor in how much time you can dedicate to your garden and how many vegetables you need to grow to make it worthwhile.
This article looks at 6 of the most common gardening methods and layouts, how to set them up, and what to grow in them. It also discusses the importance of companion planting, crop spacing, average plant yields, and how to use them to decide which garden layout is best for your space.
Read on to find out more.
As the name suggests, row gardening is growing vegetables in rows. It’s a traditional gardening method that has been used for millennia, long before using greenhouses or even raised beds. Many gardeners still use this method with great results, especially when polytunnels are included.
Use gardening twine and some metal hooks or wooden pegs to mark your rows. Leave a path at least one foot wide between the rows. This will give you space for sowing, watering, weeding, and harvesting and also leave room for a mini-tiller, a wheelbarrow, or other gardening equipment.
Garden rows should be oriented from north to south in the Northern hemisphere or south to north in the Southern hemisphere.
Plant taller crops at the back of your garden, and shorter crops at the front, to avoid having them shading one another.
What to Grow
Some of the best vegetables for row gardening are large Brassicas such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and nightshades such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, onions, and leeks, as well as tall, vining plants, such as runner beans or pole beans.
Plant cool-weather, fast-maturing crops such as spinach, lettuce, radishes, and carrots in early spring to make the most of your space throughout the growing season.
Crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and cucumbers can be started indoors, then transplanted into your rows by late spring or early summer.
Before deciding what to plant in a row garden, there are a few things to keep in mind. For example, corn should never be planted in a single row because this hinders pollination.
Instead, plant it in blocks of at least four short rows. Pumpkins, melons, zucchini, and sweet potatoes are large, sprawling plants that can easily break the layout of your rows. They are a better choice for square or grid garden layouts.
Raised Bed Gardening
Raised bed gardening is the most popular alternative to row gardening. Instead of planting vegetables directly in the garden soil, the method uses rectangular, raised containers filled with a nutrient-rich, well-draining soil mix.
You can build a raised bed out of any sturdy material, moisture and rot-resistant. The best wood options are cedar and redwood, which have not been chemically treated. Alternatively, you can also use galvanized steel, corrugated metal, reclaimed brick, concrete blocks, and stone.
A raised bed should be wide enough to fit as many vegetables as possible but not so wide that working on your garden becomes a strain.
Minimum size of 2 x 4 feet works for most gardeners. In terms of height, aim for a minimum of 1 foot. Tall raised beds or elevated beds make it easier to plant, grow and harvest your crops, and are more gentle on your back and knees.
To make it easier to visualize your growing space, use a sheet of graph paper and divide your garden area into 1 sqft squares.
Then draw the individual beds according to the desired size, and remember to leave a one-foot wide path between the planters.
For example, in a 20 x 20-foot garden, you can use 5 3 x 18 feet long planters or 16 4 x 4 feet beds and still have plenty of space for one-foot wide paths. For two-foot-wide paths, a mix of 5 x 4, 5 x 6, and 6 x 3-foot beds will help you make the most of your space. Or, if you want to be creative, you can even set your raised beds in a maze layout.
To maximize growing space, you can also put a support or trellis in the middle of each planter. Or you can set your raised beds against a wall or fence and use the vertical space for growing climbing plants.
What to Grow
The beauty of a raised bed garden is that you can grow anything you like. You can dedicate an entire bed to growing a single crop or a mix of vegetables and use the raised beds to grow berry bushes and fruit trees on espaliers.
Square Foot Gardening
The concept of square foot gardening was developed in 1981 by retired civil engineer Mel Bartholomew and relies on one core principle: making the most out of small gardening space.
He used a 4 x 4 foot raised garden bed divided into 16 one-foot squares to achieve that. Each of these squares was then planted with a mix of vegetables and companion plants.
The result was a compact yet productive garden that was also less susceptible to weeds and pests.
The building block of your square foot garden is the 16 one-foot squares grid. Start by dividing your garden area into 1 sqft squares. Next, group 16 squares to create a 4 x 4 bed, and leave a one-foot wide path between each bed.
Repeat the process until your entire growing area is divided into 4 x 4 beds and paths.
Once you have the best layout, build your 4 x 4 planters, and divide each planter into squares. You can use wood dividers for this or just mark them with string.
For best results, Mel Bartholomew recommends filling your raised beds with equal parts coconut coir or peat moss, vermiculite, and compost.
What to Grow
The key to a successful square foot garden is diversity. Avoid planting just one type of vegetable in each bed. Instead, aim for a mix of early-maturing and late-maturing crops and companion plants such as herbs, marigolds, or nasturtiums.
Here are a few plants you can try:
- 1 plant per square: tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, okra;
- 2 plants per square: cucumber, kale, celery, basil, chard;
- 4 plants per square: head lettuce, mustard greens, bush beans, pole beans, bok choy, endive, shallots, mint, corn;
- 8 plants per square: spinach, turnips, carrots, garlic, leeks, cilantro, parsley;
- 16 plants per square: baby carrots, radishes, turnips, scallions, chives;
- 1 plant per 2 squares: squash, zucchini, asparagus
- 1 plant per 4 squares: melons, pumpkins
Straw Bale Gardening
Joel Karsten invented straw bale gardening in 2013. He aimed to make growing crops more straightforward and more sustainable in areas with poor soil. And the easiest way to do that was by using straw bales as containers to grow fruit and vegetables.
To start a straw bale garden, water and fertilizers are used to condition the bales. The conditioning process turns the straw into compost, which means that you only need to add a thin layer of soil on top of the bale, then plant your vegetable seeds directly in it.
Straw bale gardening is, essentially, a form of raised bed gardening. If you keep that in mind, deciding on the layout is relatively easy. Keep your straw bales in full sun, and leave a path at least one foot wide.
The main thing you’ll need to pay attention to is having a water source nearby. Straw bales need a lot of water during the conditioning process, and you’ll need to thoroughly soak them at least once a day for the first two weeks.
Once they’re conditioned, straw bales become very heavy, and moving them around can be difficult. Ideally, you’ll want to pick a spot for them early on and keep them there for the rest of your growing season.
What to Grow
You can use straw bales to grow the same vegetables you would grow in a raised bed. The only crops you’ll want to avoid are top-heavy ones.
Corn, for example, can destabilize and break apart the bale. In addition, tall, vining plants such as runner beans or climbing peas can fall over in high winds unless their supports are firmly secured in the bale.
Vertical gardens are the ultimate space-savers. As long as you have a vertical surface that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, you can use it to grow vegetables. And because you’re not planting in the garden soil, you can easily find space for a vertical vegetable garden on a patio or a balcony.
The first step in deciding your vertical garden layout is finding a vertical surface that receives full sun. For example, a south-facing wall or a sturdy fence would work wonderfully.
Next, decide on the type of planter. Hanging grow bags, living wall pocket planters, and PVC pipe planters are excellent space-fillers, great for leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, and other small crops.
Individual pots and planters arranged in a lattice pattern provide air circulation and are ideal for hanging plants. A tiered planter is a great middle-ground, especially if you don’t have a wall or fence that’s sturdy enough to support the weight of all your pots.
You can also get creative in very small gardens by combining vertical planters and raised beds or containers in the middle. This way, you can maximize your yield even if you only have a 4 x 8 feet balcony garden to work with.
What to Grow
A vertical garden is as versatile as the type of containers you use.
Wall planters are ideal for growing short crops with a deep root system, such as lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, onions, radishes, herbs, and microgreens.
Hanging baskets are perfect for cherry tomatoes, chili peppers, nasturtiums, and strawberries.
Containers with a stake or trellis are great for peas, beans, cucumbers, and vining tomatoes.
A mandala garden uses a round or circular layout for growing plants and vegetables. It is both aesthetically pleasing and practical, allowing you to use the edges of your garden to grow plants that would otherwise shade or overcrowd your main crops.
The first step in designing your mandala garden is laying out the paths. Next, use a long piece of string to draw an X in the center of your garden. This X will essentially be your main entryway into the garden.
Then, use several pieces of string to mark several concentric circles around your X. Each circle represents a garden bed. The beds should be at least one-foot wide, separated by one-foot wide paths.
After laying out your beds and paths, use gravel or mulch to cover the paths. You can leave the beds at ground level, elevate them using wood and compost mounds (the Hügelkultur technique), or even use wedge-shaped raised garden beds.
This is the most accessible mandala garden layout for beginners.
You can try many other designs, such as laying your beds and paths in a wheel spokes pattern, creating a spiral, or even building an elevated spiral garden using brick, stone, or wooden walls.
What to Grow
Use the outer circle to plant large or sprawling vegetables, such as potatoes, cabbage, and squash—plant tall crops such as sunflowers, corn, and pole beans in the middle.
The rest of your circle beds can host a mix of herbs, salad greens, root crops, fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and companion plants. As seen from above, your mandala garden should look like a series of geometric patterns bursting with color and texture.
The edges outside of your mandala garden can also be put to great use. They’re ideal for companion plants and large, perennial plants that take up a lot of space and shade out neighboring crops. Use them to grow:
- Small fruit trees;
- Berry bushes, especially blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and currants;
- Large perennial herbs such as dill, lovage, rosemary, thyme, and sage;
- Annual plants that attract pollinators, such as nasturtiums, marigolds, borage, alyssum, poppies, and zinnias.
Deciding Your Garden Layout & What to Grow
Picking the best garden layout requires you to look at all your resources. Here are five questions to ask yourself to decide which garden layout works best for you and what to plant.
How Much Space Do You Have?
Unless you plan to become self-sufficient, 100 sqft of garden space per person should be enough. Of course, the more space you have, the better. But for the urban and suburban gardener with a day job, this gardening area is both productive and easy to manage.
In terms of layout, row gardens take up the most space and need at least 20 x 40 feet of planting and access surface.
A 20 x 20-foot garden is perfect for raised beds or straw bales, while a 10 x 10 feet plot can be used for a mandala garden.
The smallest garden layout that also produces sufficient yield is 4 x 4 feet, which should be used for square foot gardening. As for apartment balconies, vertical gardens are usually the most productive.
How Much Sun Does Your Garden Get?
All vegetables need between 6 and 8 hours of direct sun per day. If your garden is south-facing and has no trees or buildings shading it, then you can use whichever layout fits your space best.
If your garden receives less than 4 hours of direct sunlight, you can grow cool-season, shade-tolerant crops such as salad greens, leeks, carrots, and Brassicas. Or you can grow veg in a vertical garden layout, which receives more sun throughout the day than a horizontal layout.
Pay attention to your garden orientation.
For example, in the Northern hemisphere, plant tall vegetables on the northern side and short crops on the south side. In the Southern hemisphere, plant veg the other way around. This way, all your crops will receive sufficient light.
What Type of Soil Do You Have?
If your garden has loamy, well-draining soil, put it to good use with a mandala garden layout or a row garden. If your garden has poor soil, you can use well-rotted compost to improve the texture and pH of all types of soil.
If you’re planning a garden in a backyard that’s covered by lawn, gravel, or paving slabs, container gardening is your best choice.
Depending on how much space you have, go for a raised bed or straw bale garden. Small areas with no soil, such as patios or apartment balconies, are ideal for a mix of container and vertical gardening.
Related Articles on Garden Soil
Are You Gardening on Your Own?
A vegetable garden can be labor-intensive during three crucial stages: sowing or transplanting, fruit setting, and harvesting. On top of this, it will need regular watering, mulching, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and clearing of the harvested crops to make room for new crops.
If you’re gardening on your own, these tasks can easily take up all your spare time, and gardening can become a chore.
Row gardens and mandala gardens take a lot of time to plan and setting up. If you’re planting directly in the soil, you will also need to prepare the plot with compost and other amendments at least a month in advance.
You will also need to install an irrigation system, making watering your vegetables much more effortless.
Building a raised garden bed, filling it with soil, and planting it takes about an afternoon. Square foot gardening is also easy to set up, and because vegetables are growing in a compact bed, they need minimal weeding and no mulch.
How Many People Are You Growing For?
The amount and type of vegetables to grow depend on the size of your family, what you eat regularly, and how much you plan to store.
Salad greens and radishes are the first crops to mature, but they don’t store well and should be eaten fresh. Onions, garlic, carrots, and potatoes are the base for most dishes, and they can be stored for a long time without processing.
Beans and peas don’t need much space to grow, and if they’re dried and stored correctly, they can keep for up to two years. Meanwhile, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants can be eaten fresh, cooked, or preserved later.
Here are the average yields for some common vegetables and how much to grow and store per person per year.
Here are the average yields for some common vegetables, and how much to grow and store per person per year.
|Vegetable||Yield (lbs) per sqft||Average need (lbs) per person||How much to plant per person (sqft)|
|Lettuce & spinach||0.5 to 0.8||5||6 to 10|
|Onions||1.5||10||7 to 10|
|Potatoes||2||50 to 100||25 to 50|
|Beans & peas||0.5 (dry) to 1 (pod)||5 to 10||10 to 15|
|Tomatoes||2.5||20 to 40||8 to 16|
|Peppers||1.5||3 to 10||2 to 7|
|Pumpkin||2||10 to 20||5 to 10|
The best garden layout is the one that makes the most of your resources. Your goal is to use the available garden space to grow the most vegetables for you and your family. But you’ll also want your plants to be healthy as well as productive. Knowing which plants grow best in full sun or partial shade, or how many plants to grow in a garden bed without overcrowding them, is just as important as the design you pick for your garden.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Vegetables Should Be Planted Together in a Raised Bed?
Here is a list of vegetables and companion plants to grow together:
- Carrots and onions;
- Nightshades (tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato) and onions;
- Corn, runner beans, squash;
- Potatoes and beans, peas, and Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.);
- Brassicas and onions, corn, beets;
- Herbs (oregano, parsley, basil, thyme, cilantro, sage, etc.) with all vegetables;
- Always plant nasturtiums and marigolds in your raised beds to attract bees and keep pests such as aphids, flies, and beetles off your main crops.
What Vegetables Should Not Be Planted Next to Each Other?
Here is a list of vegetables that don’t grow well together:
- Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) with beans, peas, and strawberries;
- Nightshades (tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato) with Brassicas, beans, corn, and dill;
- Alliums (onion, garlic, leek, etc.) with beans, lentils, and peas;
- Carrots with dill, parsnip, and radish;
- Potatoes with cucumbers and pumpkin;
- Fennel should always be planted on its own because its roots release a substance that inhibits the growth of other vegetables.
How Close Can I Plant Vegetables in a Raised Bed?
Always check the spacing instructions on your vegetable seed packets. To maximize your growing space, sow the seeds in triangles rather than rows or squares.
How Far Apart Should the Rows Be in a Vegetable Garden?
Leave at least one foot between your vegetable rows and garden beds. This will give you space to move around and work in your garden, improves air circulation, avoids overcrowding your vegetables, and reduces the risk of pests and diseases spreading from one plant to another.
What Can I Plant Around My Vegetable Garden?
The best plants to grow around your vegetable gardens are companion plants. Your aim is to repel pests and attract pollinators for fruiting vegetables.
Here Are Some Great Picks
Plants that attract pollinators:
- Garlic and chives.