Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Crash Course in Garden Layouts

If you haven't already, check out the first two posts in this series: Where to Begin?! and How to Determine Garden Size.

Sorry to burst your bubble... 

...but this is not going to be a how-to in garden designing!

See, the thing is, that every gardening book has a section on this topic, and they're all-- well, they're all helpful, but they end up leaving you more overwhelmed than anything. Or that's how we felt about it, anyway.

Look, there's some great material out there on layouts that work best. Carrots love tomatoes, veggies in general love marigolds and nasturtiums, plants need rotated every year so they don't over tax the soil of their specific nutrients, etc. The list goes on forever. And it's all legit, or at least a lot of it is. But as a beginner? It's too much. Even as a whopping four year veteran, it's too much. Every year I try to take these things into account, and each year I make the smallest steps forward, but mostly? I just plunk stuff down in a place that works.

This isn't quite as harum-scarum as it sounds, because I do try to incorporate some facets of these guidelines each year, but honestly, my top priority is just getting everything into the ground. Sometimes this allows for major rotation or companion planting, but usually it just calls for what works where.

So how do you go about picking what goes where? 

Well, you start by figuring out how much of each thing you need.  And naturally that's a nightmare in itself, because everything you ever read about this topic (much like any other gardening topic) is hopelessly nebulous and confusing, simply because-- well, nobody knows. Everybody has to figure it out by trial and error based on how their family eats.

But just to help you out, here's a few basics on the sort of numbers it takes to produce a certain amount. (By the way, if you keep track of the poundage of produce you eat in a year, it's extremely helpful for this. It's a pain, but it's also great to have that info on hand. Start now to get a good feel for 2015 plans!)

  • Potatoes: 1 pound of seed potato plants about 10 feet of row. 10 feet of row (planted at 12" apart) will produce about 20 pounds of potatoes, although that will vary by potato type. We grew 165 pounds last year, eat them frequently (although that will be going up next year even more), and still have plenty in mid-January. (Two people.)
  • Shelling peas: planted 3" apart, short pea vines (3 feet and under) will produce 3.5 pounds of shelled peas per 20 foot row. We like peas, but we love home grown peas; they are super sweet! We couldn't get enough, and we quadrupled the pea vines for 2014. I have just about given up trying to grow enough peas to get us through winter, but I'll be darned if we won't have enough to eat them endlessly while they're in season.
  • Garlic: One garlic clove produces a whole new head of garlic, so it doesn't take much to produce much in Garlic Land. Bigger cloves produce bigger heads of garlic, so if we say 4-6 cloves per head, you'll need to plant about 10 cloves (2 heads) to produce a pound of garlic. Garlic grows well at about 6" apart, so each pound of garlic (10 heads) will take 5 feet of linear row.
  • Cucumbers: one cucumber plant will produce about four pounds of cucumbers. More if you let them get bigger, less if you keep them small for pickling. If you vine them (we do), each plant only needs about a square foot of space.
  • Tomatoes: unless you hate tomatoes in all forms, there's almost no way to grow too many of these. People will happily take your excess fruits off of you, and if you're the canning type, every extra tomato can get turned into tomato sauce, to be eventually used in enchilada sauce, pizza sauce, or other such thing. The only problem is how to get enough tomatoes, in our garden. One plant requires about a square yard (less is fine, but I allow this, for walking space) and will produce anywhere from dozens of little tomatoes (cherry plants) to dozens of pounds of the larger kinds. Having thus far mostly failed in my tomato experiments, I can't give you personally gained numbers on this; each year I just wing it as to how many I plant, figuring more is better. Turns out there's no such thing as more if you can't get any of them to ripen before they freeze.
  • Corn: corn isn't super fruitful in terms of how much space it takes. Typically one corn plant will produce 3-4 ears of corn. Divided amongst a family, this really isn't much, especially if you're the type to cut off the kernels and freeze them. Unless you're growing it for a couple summer barbecues, you might want to think large numbers for corn plants.
  • Green Beans: these are one of the easier things to grow, and they're satisfyingly productive once they hit their stride, needing picked every two or three days. Bush beans are quickest to fruit, but pole beans take less space and are much nicer to pick (standing up). Both are prolific. It's hard to give you a real number for this since a lot of factors affect their continued productivity (how often you pick, for example), but The Google suggests that a pound per plant is a rough estimate to go by. Like tomatoes, unless you hate them, just plant more; you can always freeze or can them. I plant four 20-foot rows for two of us, but that provides a lot of frozen ones.

Moving on.

Raised Beds or Traditional?

This is always a popular topic, and yet again, there's no real answer. I have done years of 100% raised beds, and years of 100% traditional, in-the-ground gardens, but my favorite is a mix of the two. Honestly, with enough determination you can grow just about anything in either scenario, but I have just found that raised beds work great for some things, and the ground works great for others. That's just my preference, though. I love raised beds for carrots, which are notorious for preferring loose soil. I also like them for garlic, which overwinters in the raised bed and stays out of the way when it's time to rototill. Also, less weeds to contend with, and garlic doesn't like weeds. I prefer potatoes in the ground, where they stay cooler and take care of themselves with minimal watering. Little things that get lost in the big ground are great in raised beds, like lettuce or radishes. I love my raspberries in a long narrow bed; raspberries are infamous for spreading like wildfire, and the raised beds keep them corralled, easy to keep neat, and easy to pick. So-- basically, little stuff, beds, big stuff, ground. It works for me.

Some thoughts to consider as you decide for yourself what you might like to try:
  • Raised beds require more watering. Not only is their soil looser and the water drains more quickly (this is a good thing for some plants in particular), but they are above the insulating ground and heat (or cold) affects them from the sides as well. Don't skimp on the water with raised beds. 
  • Raised beds can be pricey. They don't have to be, but typically speaking, raised beds are filled with purchased dirt, because who wants weedy dirt from the backyard tossed in there to cause trouble? Also, some how-to books (such as Square Foot Gardening) have specific dirt-mix formulas. Speaking from experience, the SFG dirt recipe is fantastic and works wonderfully, but it is not cheap to get it started. 
  • Raised beds tend to have less weeds. The first year you probably won't have any weeds, unless you used random dirt from your yard. The following years, wind will have blown a few seeds into your lovely beds, but even then you'll find it easy to keep up with. The looser soil and raised components make it easier to do away with weedy visitors.
  • Raised beds look so nice and neat! If you're Type A, you'll appreciate this. Depending on how you build them, you can also plan for them to be semi-mobile, by adding a plywood bottom (with drainage holes), and this can be a major plus for some yards.
  • Raised beds are often ready to use in the spring before the ground is warm enough. This is where the proclivity to hold heat is a good thing. 
Naturally there's a myriad of other things one could add to this list, but it all comes down to what you prefer to work with. And although I have no experience with them, there are loads of other design options available, including vertical gardening, hydroponics, and permanent in-ground beds. I'd like to work to the latter of these, which is basically a series of "beds" mapped out on the ground with permanent walking paths between them. It's easy to rotate crop types, and you end up never tilling the ground because the permanent beds are never walked on, which maintains soil chemistry and microbial life much better.

Shade or Sun?

Kara found a great rule of thumb to go by when trying to figure out sun or shade requirements for plants: If you grow it for the fruit or the root, full sun is best; if you grow it for the leaves, partial shade is all you need. This is great to go by! So sort through your list of want-to-plants, and break it down into two more lists: shade and sun, according to the quote above. This will help you figure out how to place things. You can also think in terms of living shade, using some of your taller plants to help shade the cooler ones in the heat of the summer.

Vining plants or bush plants?

In some plants, you'll have the option of vining or bush versions. This applies to beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and probably several others I don't habitually think about. Vertical gardening proponents have even found ways to grow squashes and other heavier vining plants vertically, although it takes some ingenuity. The vining vs. bush debate is your call, but sometimes your yard will help make the decision for you. Here's some plus and minuses of one or the other.
  • Vining plants take less ground space. This is their primary selling point, although the neat things people do with vining plants are awesome to behold. Bean teepee for the kids, anyone?
  • Vining plants are easier to pick than bush. I've held off on vining plants for years because having to rig up a way for them to grow up was too intimidating. This year I'm going vining, all the way. Once you work your way down long rows of beans and peas on your knees on a thrice-weekly basis, you'll come to see why I've made that switch.
  • Bush plants require no infrastructure. If you're like me, and having to figure out infrastructure on top of this new gardening venture, then bush plants will be a sigh of relief for you. You'll survive a couple years' picking on your knees (or assign the kids to bean duty), and eventually you'll make the switch. Or not, because that's totally fine too.
  • Vining plants provide shade. They don't have to be planted with this in mind, but if you're trying to stretch your cool weather crops into the summer, or just mitigate the serious sun exposure that you have, some heat loving beans are a great option to run up some fencing and build "living shade".
  • Vining plants can be interplanted with strong/tall plants. Sunflowers and corn are great for this; you plant them, and plant the beans (or whatever vining plant) around them, and they'll provide trellising without buying or making infrastructure! Again, this can provide shade, as well as growing two plants in one area. Don't try this with tomatoes, though, unless you're prepared to provide extra support, as well as helping them by tying them to their supports.
  • Vining plants tend to produce over a longer time frame. This can be great if you want to eat them through the summer, or just can't handle massive canning-fests all at once. On the other hand, if a huge crop in a relatively short time frame is exactly what you want, you might want to think seriously about bush options. Read the descriptions carefully, though, because this doesn't necessarily apply across the board. Some bush plants produce pretty well for a good while.
By the way, tomato plants come in two forms: Determinate and Indeterminate. By and large this means that determinate types are bush types, and indeterminate just keep climbing! As with beans, the bush types produce over a shorter time frame, and they're the type that will work in a container. 

Prolonging the season...?

Do yourself a favor. If you don't already know what you're doing with gardening, don't try to make the most of your year by sowing things in succession (carrots every two weeks, for example), or trying to plan for a spring and a fall crop of something. If you're Super Woman and don't care if it crashes and burns, then absolutely go for it. All I know is that from my Type A, take-on-too-much mentality, nothing broke my certainty that I could handle this until I started trying to incorporate season prolonging or, worse, planting two crops in one spot. Good grief, as though this placement thing isn't difficult enough, let's add in a math component of how many days a crop will be in one spot, then find another later season crop to take its place right away! Seriously, somebody get me a padded room.

Needless to say, I haven't incorporated this skill yet. If you have, you rock...and I'm slightly jealous. You might as well take over the world now, with balancing powers like that. Pardon me while I continue to plant one crop in one spot per year and try not to feel guilty about it...

Also, those season extender ideas? Hoop houses and cold frames and such? I think they're awesome, and every year I try to figure out how to make them happen. And every year it doesn't happen, and every year I feel guilty about it because I'm wasting the growing season and buying it instead and shame on me, right?! Bless my grandmother's heart for pointing out with wonderful common sense: "Lettuce is seasonal. You eat it in the spring, and live without it until next year." Aren't grandmothers the best?

Design Help

If you're the type to be interested in computer programs, there's several options available on the internet, which you can find by check out this Google search. Seed Savers Exchange, one of the seed companies Kara and I buy from, has one available as well, found here. I haven't enjoyed using this type of program much, but I think it's just how I design that makes them incompatible with me, not that the programs are particularly faulty. Give them a shot if it helps you at all.

This is what Kara's and my designs looked like after we finally got conclusive about our plans. Obviously there's more than one way to do this: Kara's is to scale but is much more generic. Mine is quite detailed, with info about how far apart the plants will be placed, and sometimes the name of the plant if I have more than one type to try. I find this helpful in the months long after I'm done designing, because I designed the garden based on how much we need for eating, and if I don't write down how far apart I planned for within the design, then I might end up with less than planned just by memory error. And trust me, memory error is my most defining personality trait...

 Next week, tune in for an overview of our favorite seed companies, why we prefer heirloom (and some hybrid) seeds over GMO, and a big seed giveaway!

Wildcrafting Wednesday Featured Blogger Award

This post is hosted at the Homestead Blog Hop, Unprocessed Fridays, Old Fashioned Friday, Home Sweet Home, Real Food FridayGreen Thumb ThursdayHome and Garden Thursday, the HomeAcre HopReal Food Wednesday, Down Home Blog Hop, Wildcrafting Wednesday,  Growing Homemakers, Tutorials & Tips, Tweak It Tuesday, Maple Hill Hop, Backyard Farming Connection, Tuesdays With a Twist, the Gathering SpotHomestead Barn Hop, Natural Living Monday, and Amaze Me Monday blog hops.


  1. Lots of great info here! Thanks for joining Home Sweet Home!

  2. So much to consider! I have a square-foot bed, in-ground plants as well as potted vegetables. As long as I get something to eat out of it, I'm happy! Thanks for sharing on The Maple Hill Hop!

  3. You certainly have provided a ton of useful information that will help anyone starting a garden. Funny how many people don't realize how much consideration and planning goes into a garden to be sure it thrives. thanks for sharing your knowledge - it has been very helpful. Visiting from WIldcrafting Wednesday blop hop. Have a wonderful healthy day. Will share you article

  4. Some great advice for folks just getting started on gardening. The best advice I can give is to start small and grow what you like to eat. I've been gardening for a while, but still can't get myself to extend the growing season in fall. By then, I am still tuckered out by preserving the abundant harvest. BTW, I found your blog through The 104 Homestead Blog Hop.

  5. Wow! This is like four blog posts packed into one! Basic information like this is so helpful, especially the yield information.

  6. Thanks for sharing this on Wildcrafting Wednesday!!! Now I have to check out the rest of the series. :)

  7. Really terrific information - I'm saving this to refer to! I am delighted that you shared with Home and Garden Thursday,

  8. Great post! Thanks so much for sharing this info at our HomeAcre Hop! Hop is live and we'd love to have you back again this morning.

  9. I agree as a beginner there is alot to take in, thanks for sharing again on Real Food Fridays join us again tonight at 7 central.

  10. Thanks for all these tips! I am aware of companion planting and the craft of garden design...and it all goes out the window in the chaos of SPRING when the time comes, too! ;) I haven't given much thought to yields, and that was especially helpful; now that we have as much space as we could desire, I would like to really plant to produce for as much of the year as possible..thanks for that!

  11. Great post. Congrats on being chosen as a featured post on this week’s Wildcrafting Wednesdays! I hope you'll join us again and share more of your awesome posts.