How to Plan a Vegetable Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

A well planned vegetable garden

Every year we get enquiries from people who are a little bewildered by the complexity of planning their first vegetable garden and don’t know where to start. Some are looking for a 'quick fix' – some way to magically come up with the perfect plan for their garden. Others are prepared to spend time but find the plethora of possible combinations of plants and layouts confusing. With that in mind, here's our best advice in the form of principles to follow when producing a good plan for a new vegetable garden.

New Gardens

When planning a vegetable garden it’s all too easy to jump in with both feet and try to grow as much as possible in the first year. Many experienced gardeners will tell you that this is just setting yourself up for disappointment as the amount to learn, maintain and weed can quickly become overwhelming. Far better is to make a list of your favourite vegetables and narrow it down to the ones that taste best fresh or cost a lot to buy in the shops. Plan to create a few vegetable beds each year, expanding as you become confident and find the timesaving shortcuts that work for you. Defining good paths (using materials such as woodchip and weed suppressant fabric) will pay back many times over in the time saved maintaining them.

If the area you are going to use for your vegetable garden is new then the next decision is what style of garden and planting system you would like to use: raised beds, traditional rows, square foot gardening etc. In general it’s a good idea to define garden beds 4 feet (1.2m) wide and as long as you want them to be with a 2 foot (60cm) path between them. This is about as wide as you can go before it becomes uncomfortable to lean into the middle of the bed (you’ll appreciate this when weeding) without treading on the soil (best avoided as it compacts the soil structure). If you have children around then it’s useful to clearly mark the edges and building raised beds is a good way to do this (also good if you have heavy or waterlogged soil as they drain well.)

Poached egg plant attracts beneficial insects

Companion Planting

Many different crop layouts can work for a particular garden space and there will be far more variation in the harvest due to factors beyond our control such as weather and pests than in whether leeks should be placed next to carrots. Although some gardeners swear by complex companion planting systems the main principles that have been proved to work are summarised as:

  1. Mix up plants to confuse pests: Large areas of a single crop (or a single crop family) attract pests whereas mixed planting can confuse them. See our article on Common Sense Companion Planting for details. The one exception to this is where plants require special protection, for example, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers may be grown together if they are all going to be protected from caterpillars in a tunnel of netting or horticultural fleece.
  2. Grow insectary plants: There are a number of well-known flowers that attract beneficial insects (ladybirds, hoverflies etc) that will naturally control pests. See my article on Flowers for Vegetable Gardens for help in choosing these.
  3. Consider Shade and Support: Tall plants can shade others or can be used to offer support to others e.g. climbing beans can grow up sweet corn.

Step-By-Step Planning

With these general principles in mind here are my recommendations for placing plants in a new vegetable garden:

  1. Tender Plants: Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, basil etc are the most fussy. Unless your climate is extremely warm you’ll want to reserve the best sunny spots in your garden for these high-value crops so add them to your plan first. South facing walls can be particularly good for providing the heat that these plants like in order to produce an abundant harvest.
  2. Roaming Plants: Next place plants that like to send out vines that roam around the garden – melon, squash etc. These need to be situated at the edge of your vegetable beds so the broad leaves attached to the vines don’t cover your other plants. Placing them at the edge lets them spread out across paths or grass.
  3. Vertically Climbing Plants: Anything that grows up supports – peas, beans and some squash such as cucumbers, will need to be located where they won’t shade other vegetables. The one exception is areas with very hot summers where some cool-season crops such as lettuce and spinach can benefit from shade in the heat of the day.
  4. Irrigation: Some plants perform badly in dry conditions – celery, onions, strawberries etc (see our Plant Guides for full details). Areas of your garden that are slightly lower will retain more moisture or you may need to plan to provide irrigation to get consistent growth.
  5. Pollination: Certain plants need to be near others in order to pollinate well and ‘set fruit’ (ie produce the edible portion). The main one you need to consider is sweet corn which should be grown in blocks to ensure that it produces full cobs – see our article on sweetcorn for details.
  6. Accessibility: What plants do you want to be able to regularly harvest? Herbs, salad, tomatoes etc..? These should all be placed as near to your kitchen as possible. Not only will you then be more likely to use them but it will help you to keep on top of the weeds and remove slugs regularly.
  7. Succession Planting: If you are short of space or want a crop throughout the season, consider using succession planting and intercropping – see my article on getting more crops from an area and our video on using the Garden Planner to organise Succession Planting.
  8. Don't Overcrowd: Finally, tempting though it is, be very careful not to overcrowd plants as you add in the remaining ones to your plan. This is the number 1 mistake made by new gardeners and it’s easy to see why – plants look so small as seedlings and we all hate pulling up the result of our hard work to thin them out! Our Garden Planner can help with this and show just how much you can get into your space.
A well planned garden maximises your harvest

An Art or a Science?

Gardening is both an art and a science and it’s that tension that is at the root of the confusion for many new gardeners. There are scientific principles that need to be followed – overcrowding plants or growing in poor-quality soil will set you up for failure. In subsequent years the principles of crop rotation will add more constraints. However, that still allows for a lot of different possibilities and the art is in placing plants in a way that makes best use of your space without breaking any of the rules.

It’s worth remembering that these aren’t a hard and fast set of rules. The art is in using these guiding principles to design something that’s uniquely your garden and, with experience, that becomes a very satisfying and enjoyable process.

Pests, Beneficial Insects and Plant Diseases

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner (for PC & Mac) or if you'd prefer an app for your mobile or tablet device, our iPad & iPhone app Garden Plan Pro is available on the App Store here.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

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Comments

 
"This is the kind of article I needed a while back! The biggest thing I had to do was to allow myself to make 'mistakes' in my plannning (in the end it comes down to experience and personal preference). lol@Jeremy - have you got a veg patch in your front garden? I think my neighbours would shoot me if I did - shame on them! lol!"
Kevin on Saturday 26 March 2011
"Good article! And guess what, KEVIN....I have MY vegetable garden in MY front yard, too...neighbors admire it and no one has complained...this is my 5th year in this house...and have had garden for four of them. I believe Americans are finally getting some common sense about what REALLY matters! LOL Since I am not a sheep I see no need to grow grass for pasture grazing. ;) Ms. Dee (The Gardenmuse)"
DRT on Saturday 26 March 2011
"Yes, my main vegetable garden area is now in front of our house and neighbours have been surprisingly complimentary about it (though you should see the looks it gets from passers by sometimes!) We figured that our kids want to play out the back so the front was space that wasn't being used. I still grow fruit and some vegetables out the back (ones that don't mind the occasional football heading their way) and have a greenhouse there too but I'm proud of having the vegetables at the front!"
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 26 March 2011
"Sounds very interesting. Thanks. I will be planting starting in May as we are pretty north and it is in the country so bears and deer abound and will be only too thrilled to find food. I have read a little about different types of deterrents and would like to have your input. Thanks. Sona"
Sonia on Thursday 31 March 2011
"Bears and deer can potentially be a big problem and there's no simple solution apart from very high strong fences. However, one of our customers told us that tightly stretched fishing line around the perimeter has prevented deer because they can't see it and get frightened when they hit it. You have to keep checking it and replace it if they snap it though."
Jeremy Dore on Thursday 31 March 2011
"Great information on what to plant and where. I am planning to put my vegetable garden in our front yard and want to know how deep to dig up the grass. There is clay and lots of it so I want a raised bed. I thought I'll just dig out the grass with about 2" of dirt around the roots, then frame it and add about 6" of top soil or more as needed. My husband doesn't think that will be deep enough. He thinks he will need to dig out more clay. What do you think?"
Cathy on Thursday 31 March 2011
"Cathy, that all depends on how deep you will make your raised beds. If they're going to be filled with 6-12 inches of soil then you probably don't even need to remove the grass as it will rot down. If you are making more shallow raised beds then it's worth removing the grass down to 4-6 inches and turning it over so it rots down with the grass facing downwards."
Jeremy Dore on Friday 1 April 2011
"Our problem here seems to be white flies and aphids. Are there good plants to keep them away or natural techniques?"
Doug on Friday 1 April 2011
"Doug - to control whitefly and aphids you need to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings, ladybugs etc. You'll find details of the plants that do this in my article on Flowers For Vegetable Gardens: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=146 and also in Barbara Pleasant's recent article on Buckwheat: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=184"
Jeremy Dore on Friday 1 April 2011
"This is going to be my second year for a garden. I have 2 4x4 and 1 4x8 raised beds. I definitely had them overcrowded last year and will need tto adjust my plans this year. My biggest problem was the japanese beetle. They destroyed my basil. I tried sprinkling flower on them but it did not help, in fact I think this too damaged the plants. Any suggestions for this pest? "
cindy on Saturday 2 April 2011
"Brilliant - thanks so much! This helps a great deal and as soon as I have my disaster of a yard transformed into something that resembles a garden I will keep you posted. Your site is fantastic and it will be invaluable to start a garden this year."
white collar | green soul on Saturday 2 April 2011
"Cindy, I've no direct experience with japanese beetle (thankfully!) but from what I've read they can be difficult to deal with. They usually start at the top of a plant and work down and one way to control them is to regularly check your plants and flick them off into a jar of soapy water. In a small garden like yours you could also apply the nematoes which attack japanese beetles but they're not cheap."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 2 April 2011
"Thanks so much for the quick response. Where do I purchase nematoes? Lucky for you no beetles! "
cindy on Saturday 2 April 2011
"@Cindy - Hi Cindy! I have a unique perspective on Japanese Beetles that may or may not help... I used to live in a neighborhood where they were sooooo bad. They ate everything! A lot of people may not know it, but they will attack you too! When they are really bad like that, if you come near a tree they are all over, they will swarm you and bite or sting...what ever it is, it hurts! They were so bad, lots of neighbors, including myself tried Japanese Beetle traps, I was catching them by the very large garbage bag full!!! Three years ago, I moved - not far away, just about 5 miles, but away from the neighborhood. I bought a small farm. Now I only see the occasional Japanese Beettle (for three years now!). I have way more "goodies" here for them to eat then I ever had in that neighborhood. I am now CONVINCED that it was all those lures for the traps in use through out the neighborhood that lured them there by the droves. Unfortunately, the solution to that doesn't stop with just you. You would need to convince all neighbors to stop using the traps (which have a lure scented with a mating scent of some sort). I am just amazed that I am still so close to where they swarm, but only see a few here and there in the summer, with NO damage. And they didn't just dissapear all together. My friends from the neighborhood say they are still just as bad, if not worse! Hope that helps some!!! GOOD LUCK! :o)"
Kathy on Monday 4 April 2011
"As a beginner, the more I read the more I wonder how anyone manages to grow anything it all seems to complicated...yet on the other hand you have kids programmes making it look so easy! I love your articles, so very clear and down to earth. Also love the fact you've used the Holy Grail of the front lawn for your veggies!!! "
webwahm on Monday 4 April 2011
"Just read a newspaper article about starting a vegetable garden by using water soaked layers of newsprint to choke the grass and weeds. Then putting compost/soil for beds and wood chips/mulch for paths on top of the newspaper. Eventually the paper will disintegrate and the grass/weeds will too. My question is --Is the ink in the newsprint safe for the soil especially when veggies are growing there? "
Cathy on Tuesday 5 April 2011
"Cathy I'm glad you posted this. I have been wondering the same thing about the ink. My husband said no to even putting it below where I want shrubs and such. "
Cindy on Tuesday 5 April 2011
"Cathy, what you are describing is called lasagne gardening - a form of no-dig gardening - and it works well as long as you never tread on the soil which compacts it. The question about newspaper depends on how purist you are. 10+ years ago there were a lot of concerns about petroleum based inks with heavy metals. Now many newspapers are printed with soy or vegetable inks which are OK but it could be worth checking. In any case don't put color pages down as they have much higher ink levels and are less likely to compost well. In my own gardening I have used cardboard instead which is (I think) just as good and has less printed on it. I hope that helps."
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 5 April 2011
"@ Cathy. I too use newspaper in my gardens. It is great for in between plants, and in the pathways. I agree about the colors. There are better uses for things like the comic pages. Everything just breaks down, and I can till it under the next spring."
Erine on Monday 11 April 2011
"I've just built a new raised bed veg garden. I'm fairly new to veg gardening although I have grown a few veggies before. I'm a little confused about how I go about planning my new veg plot and about how you 'mix up plants to confuse the pests'and also do crop rotation at the same time. Any words of advice?"
Susan on Tuesday 12 April 2011
"Susan, crop rotation is just making sure that crops from the same family don't go in the same space in subsequent years (usually 3 -5 years back) and it's easy if you use our Garden Planner as that will advise you on how to do it. Mixing up plants to confuse pests just means not having single large areas of the same crop (or same crop family) as you are then more likely to get a big problem with a particular pest. e.g. A large area of lettuce is more likely to become infested with aphids than if you plant your lettuces in different places around the garden together with flowers that attract beneficial insects that eat the aphids. It's not something to be too worried about and every year there will be a few less successful which you can learn from."
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 12 April 2011
"PLEASE! Does anyone know if deer will eat parsnip greens? I'm in process of planning this year's veggie beds and want to know if I HAVE to have the parsnips in a fenced area."
Anna Banana on Wednesday 11 April 2012
"Cathy, I understand why you might come to those conclusions about Jap beetles, but I think you have misinterpreted. Jap beetles are often the worst in the suburbs due to all the lawns. The beetle larvae are lawn-infesting grubs and neighborhoods full of lawns are just giant factories for beetles! Traps can pull in mind-blowing numbers of beetles if you're the only one in the neighborhood using them. Either talk your neighbors into using them too, or else don't use them at all. My suggestion: observe what the beetles attack the most, and spray those plants when the beetles are flying. They only last a few weeks, then you can relax. There are too many to kill, all you can do is just provide a little protection for the plants they favor. The idea that you can control them by flicking, or picking them off by hand is a joke for anyone who deals with heavy populations. Maybe if you have just a few, but not when they're swarming. Like you, Cathy, I have used traps and they pull in, LITERALLY, several thousand beetles EVERY DAY! "
Cornfed on Wednesday 27 March 2013
"to the japanese bettle issue, I read a few years back to put the trap for bettles over a bucket of water with dish soap in it. The bettles get in the water and can't get back out because of the soap and that will catch A LOT of bettles. Also if you do decide to pick them off you need to pick them off early morning or evening when they are dormant on the plants."
Tona on Sunday 5 May 2013
"I'm about to start a veggie garden, this is with a view to being more self sustainable. This site has helped heaps with regard to sensible planting and positioning but I think I'm going to need to purchase the planner as this is my first really genuine effort at getting off the grid. Anyone have any tips that I must know"
Bron on Monday 20 May 2013
"We are starting our second time planting and need help. I like the sound of what the garden planner software does. Will keep you posted."
Krisula & Robbie on Monday 15 July 2013
"Thanks"
Deborah Freedman on Sunday 3 January 2016
"Third time gardener. Would like to be part of a group or site, that will be able to answer all my questions and queries."
Dan on Thursday 18 May 2017
"This article is more than 6 years old but it is evergreen content. You did a nice job explaining quite a bit in detail. I personally wouldn't have put the companion planting part in it but it sure is nice to read through. Really nice job."
gardening with fatsteve on Tuesday 24 October 2017
"I would like to start a vegie garden out of a rough play ground 25 x 30m in Rustenburg north west can you guid me in this venture ,thank you . "
Nicolas Pana on Sunday 26 November 2017

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