Vegetable Garden Design Tips

The flavour of food straight from a garden grown in healthy balanced living soil is wonderful! It is streets ahead for nutritional value, indeed that’s probably why it tastes so much better – your taste buds can sense the higher levels of minerals, vitamins and so on. There is also more than ample evidence that the source of our food is one of, if not the most, significant single factors in the impact we individually have on the health of the environment, and it is certainly much cheaper. So there are good “push and pull” reasons to grow your own. The process can also be an extremely rewarding and rejuvenating pass-time, if you set things up to make it as easy as possible.

There are many authors with books and websites on growing vegetables, fruit and herbs so I won’t go into that here. However, the early experiences of simply applying other people’s prescribed formulas in my own garden, and lessons learnt from others lead to the following tips about location, layout, set-up, and helpful other infrastructure.

As with just about everything in life, as Jan Smuts observed, there are broad patterns that can be useful in planning a successful food garden, but every individual situation is truly unique in its details at least, and these are just as important as the broader patterns if you are to have a successful food garden. So the tips I lay out here should be read with this critical fact in mind. They should also be read and considered “as a whole”, that is, everything should be considered in your particular situation. Your best layout and set-up will quite probably need to involve some compromises.

Finally, before we launch into specifics, there are many theories as to how best to lay out the garden and assemble plantings within. They range at one extreme from a jumbled wild perhaps romantic paradise, all self-sowing utopia where weeds are loved as much as harvestable crops, through organic shapes with key-hole beds for good “energy”, to anally-retentive elaborate versions of formal French potagers at the other. From my own experience, observations of elsewhere, reading, analysing and trialling, I suspect many of these theories are driven more by the particular personalities and paradigms of the author, rather than thorough research and trialling where the primary objective is harvesting the maximum amount of usable produce while minimizing the amount of effort resource and inputs needed to grow it, and enhancing rather than degrading the ecosystem in the process.

That said, I am not asserting that I “know it all” by any stretch what-so-ever! Nor that any other way of arranging your food growing is necessarily inferior. The following is just the summary of my learning to date of the likely easiest “minimum set-up”. My advocacy of regular rectangular shaped beds for example was arrived at not because I particularly like order and certainly not through any love of symmetry! However, I have found them by far the most adaptable for rotation and variety of crops (both of which are essential), and being able to use a number of tools and infrastructures - see below – all of which make the job a pleasure, rather than a drag. For example, I’ve seen wagon-wheel layouts with a chook house in the middle and a single big sprinkler on the top of it all. I can conceive of circumstances where it would work, but I suspect an essential element for it to work well over a long term is a lot more available space than my suggested prototype starting point below. The theory looks wonderful when sketched on a pretty plan, but I can see it creating all sorts of shading, overhead watering on many crops leading to fungus diseases, and access problems which 4 “boring” matching rectangular beds avoid. Of course, if there is room and you have a taste for it, I think spreading the 4 basic beds apart, and inter-planting them with all manner of other things could have lots of advantages for the health and visual appeal of the whole garden provided the other planting didn’t shade, compete too strongly for water and nutrient, etc, and that there is enough room to easily carry out all those things necessary to actually harvest your food, without compacting your soil by regularly walking all over it.

I think a potager style garden where fruit herbs and cut flowers are thoroughly mixed with vegetables and purely ornamental plants too could be wonderful, but have not yet had a job where a/ there is room and b/ the client has the desire to undertake the amount of regular work needed for it to succeed.

So, please read the following with your specific site and the way you want to live with your garden in mind. Apply your own creativity and critical analysis.

Location and size of your vegetable garden:
Wherever your garden, give lots of thought to the location of your vegetable and fruit gardens. An apparently small adjustment can make a world of difference to your ease of success, so take the time to observe your site in detail, and over at least a full year before you commit to anything which can’t be easily changed. At the risk of repetition; the primary aim of the tips here is on-going, long term, easy and successful harvest of most of your food, while enhancing the ecosystem rather than degrading it.

  • The nearer to the kitchen the better. First and foremost, having tried it close, medium and far distant myself, and observing many many others too, there is absolutely no doubt that the nearer to the kitchen the better, while considering all the other factors too. Depending on your particular circumstances and tastes/aesthetic, it may be wise to have it at least partially hidden from living or entertaining spaces.
  • 50sq mts of bed per person to be fed. At Niwajiri, we’ve found that a total of around 50sq mts of planting space per person to be fed (ie not including any paths, retaining walls or other infrastructure) enables us to grow about 90 to 95% of our vegetables, and I believe we can get close 100% with some refinements to the annual crop planning. It is entirely possible to grow some of your food in far more cramped conditions for a year or so, but remember we are aiming at EASE of ON-GOING long term success, not a quick “one-hit show-off wonder”. Space for permanent (as distinct from annual) herbs and vegetables such as thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, asparagus, rhubarb, and habitat for beneficial insects, fruit, and ornamental flowers for cutting are all in addition. See Internal Layout below for more detail on paths and beds.
  • If you are new to growing vegetables, it is sense to start small and with easy crops to get experience, but in your planning leave adequate room for eventual expansion. We didn’t, and now we have one of our 4 beds in a much less than ideal location, but we can’t bring ourselves to take out the other garden that is in that ideal location.
  • Where does the frost gather? Mid-winter frosts actually improve the flavour of some cold-adapted vegetables (parsnips, cabbage and Brussels Sprout to name a few), but are a real threat to most especially in spring and summer, so plan accordingly.
  • Where is sunny and where shaded throughout the year. Most vegetables want as much sun as they can get especially in mild, cool and cold weather. The exception is in excessively hot weather, when they do better with some light shade. I’ve found it most flexible to give them the shade with movable clothes or other temporary techniques rather than having beds permanently albeit lightly shaded through the summer, which locks you into inadequate sunlight and warmth if there are long spells of cooler weather. I have observed though, that many of what we affectionately call “the old Italian gardens” in Adelaide, have their vegetable garden beds lightly festooned above with grape vines on high trellises or other fruit trees, but I’ve never seen them with total cover.
    If at all possible, get an absolute minimum of 6 hours direct unbroken sunlight per day onto all of your vegetable beds all of the year. More is better. Keep in mind that depending on your latitude, the winter sun is much lower in the sky and so shade from trees and buildings to the “equator side (north in Australia) can cast a very long shadow. A radiata pine across the road from our vegetable garden at Niwajiri got so big that a third of our garden received no direct sun during the winter and early spring, so with the co-operative neighbour’s approval we paid for its removal. At first glance this may seem extravagant, but our garden is much more productive as a result, because the soil doesn’t get so bitterly cold in winter and it warms up much earlier in spring. I calculate the “financial pay-back” from the increased production to be only 7 years, and the emotional pay back was immediate!
  • Where do damaging winds come from and when? Take note that generalization for your district may not be applicable on your site – trees, buildings, and hills can all turn wind. Apart from gently moving slight breeze, most winds are not good for vegetables so you may need surrounding wind-breaks on windy sites even internal ones too.
  • How will you access the garden to get materials in and out? Vehicle access is ideal, but at minimum you’ll need easy wheelbarrow access.
  • What other relationships may you want to create at some point in the future – perhaps with chooks, or ducks? Circumstances change over time, so keep an open mind to possibilities and how that may impact your location and internal layout over long and short term.
  • What relationships/impacts may be foisted on you that are not there now from wild birds, rabbits or maybe a neighbour’s growing trees or building?
  • Where is your kitchen and where will you do the intermediate cleaning off of soil and inedible parts, before the harvest goes to the kitchen?
  • Where will you locate compost and worm farm? They must be easy to use or you won’t; but they usually don’t rate high in the aesthetic appeal stakes, so away from other living space is wise.
  • Keep in mind that the roots of many trees are a dammed nuisance in a vegetable garden sucking moisture and nutrient from your crops, so your vegetable garden needs to be far enough away from these or you will need to create effective permanent barriers or be prepared for lots of extra work.

Vegetable garden internal layout tips:
The following tips should be read in addition to such other references as Permaculture design books, organic gardening books etc.

  • Get a complete soil test done. Test for poisonous residues if there is any chance there is industrial, agricultural or domestic waste or residual chemicals lurking in your soil. A complete soil test from somewhere like Australian Peri-Agricultural Laboratories will give you nutrient amendments to make to your soil which may dramatically increase your success rate by increasing plant health and thereby disease resistance. It will also improve (in some cases dramatically) the nutritional value and flavour of your produce.
  • If you have the chance, experiment with temporary layouts before you commit yourself to solid and expensive (either in effort or cost) permanent infrastructure.
  • Design for maximum flexibility. Crops need to be moved around from season to season and year to year. You will quite possibly change the mix of crops you wish to grow, and your available time may change.
  • Design for the easiest access you can, both to and within the garden, but keep it in balance with space available for growing the crops!
  • If you can, design for the possible inclusion of chooks in your rotation. Do so even if it may be some time off or you are not enthusiastic at the moment – they are such a boon it’d be a pity to lock yourself out of the possibility later.  Keep in mind though that free-ranging chooks with permanent access to your orchard or vegetables can create a lot of grief turning favourite areas into moonscapes.
  • Raised beds are a great solution to a number of situations, but are not always necessary. Here at Niwajiri our main reason for them is because there is so much rain in winter it creates a number of problems, which raised beds solve. By contrast, I recently designed and built raised beds in a garden near the beach which had a/ excessive drainage through the pure sand of the site, and b/ invasive roots from a large and beautiful Eucalyptus, which had to stay for many good reasons. Raising the beds enabled us to install a permanent root barrier on top of natural ground, install drainage on top of that and fill the beds with a much more productive soil mix. A win all-round; the owner has easy access to beds and reduced work as she ages, the Eucalypt stays un-disturbed, vegetables have great soil, no root competition and adequate but not excessive drainage.
  • If you can, use beds of a regular size and shape, or at least “modular”. This enables infrastructure such as trellising, netting, chook-tractor etc to be used easily in each.
  • Think about how you are going to do the various tasks in your vegetable garden and design for making every job as easy as possible. Tasks such as digging, temporary trellising, bringing in mulch, keeping out snails slugs etc, keeping birds off if necessary, irrigating as appropriate to each crop, harvesting the crop.  Beds and layouts of the right size, shape, height etc. are a treat to work with. Poor ones are awful, back-breaking, frustrating and time consuming.
  • Think about how you might incorporate useful companion plants around or through the garden. Our experience is that some of these are best not in the beds themselves, but very helpful nearby.

A model for planning your Vegetable Garden:

I hesitate to include this for fear that it may be interpreted as “the ideal which must be aspired to”. As repeatedly stated, every situation is unique at least in its details and these details are just as important as the broad patterns. With that proviso though, the following is the model I usually start with for my clients.

  • 4 equal sized rectangular and usually raised beds 2.2mts wide (of growing soil). I would not make them any wider than 2.4mts absolute maximum, and I think more narrow than 2.2 becomes inefficient use of space if all other things are equal. To feed 2 people, these beds would each be about 11 or 12 mts long. These can be broken up if necessary, but it consumes more space and reduces flexibility of planting even if only a little. I certainly would not make them longer than 12 mts in a single block as walking back and forth around them becomes tedious, and you should never tread on your soil if you can possibly avoid it. Soil compaction is terrible for its and your vegetables health. If you are feeding more people, add more length, not width, and if necessary add more beds, but lay them out if possible so that you can have effectively 4 distinct beds for planning and rotation purposes.
  • 4 regular beds make your planning and use of movable infrastructure SOOOooo much easier. If you want to get really complex with your rotation planning, by all means add more theoretical beds to your rotation, but do keep them all consistent. For a “self-sufficient”/home vegetable garden I suspect the slight increase in production is not worth the added complexity.
  • If on flat ground, the beds are raised about 200 to 300mm above the surrounding paths with solidly built walls of only 100mm width. This makes a number of tasks easier, and the walls can serve to hold access planks across the bed so that you don’t tread on and thereby compact the soil. They also take being knocked and levered against with a fork or spade.
  • If on a slope, create terraces with the beds running across the slope. Slopes are OK for vegetables to grow on, but they make your work much harder and the steeper the slope the more erosion and difficulty for irrigation.
  • The paths between and around the beds are a minimum of 1.2 mts width, better still 1.5.
  • If possible have no “dead-ends” which make backing out the wheelbarrow or vehicle more difficult – remember we’re trying to make all your tasks as easy and pleasurable as possible.
  • Finally, in most but not all circumstances, I have a narrow strip of no more than 100mm at the outside foot of these walls in which to grow habitat for beneficial insects. At Niwajiri this is not a neat straight strip, but rather the left-over space from the large stepping stones that are the thoroughfares. I find that having the habitat plants in the bed is a nuisance and often competition for water and nutrients, but at the outside edge surrounding each bed is still close enough for the insects to do their work. Having tried tangling and intertwining “habitat” species (as distinct from harvestable crops) with those crops here at least, there is little doubt that the habitat is better near-by than mixed in. I suspect it’s because while in the wild the community of plants and creatures in any one particular location are constantly changing, while your available space probably isn’t, and secondly, that even heirloom varieties are at least hundreds if not nearer or more than thousands of generations from their original genetic make-up. The conditions they’ve been selected for consciously and by circumstance in human-made and managed vegetable gardens for those generations in most respects are completely different from their wild ancestors’ conditions.

Other facilities that make vegetable gardening much easier:

As with the pointers above, the following are my suggested minimum requirements for maximum pleasurable ease of operation. How they are assembled and whether in fact all in one place or in several is very site and people specific. You can get by with a lot less, and there are many situations where more would be useful.

  • Always keep in mind the principle – design things so that the easiest thing to do is the right thing to do.
  • Tools - Acquire the highest quality, best-made tools you can possibly afford! You’ll probably have to do it over time, and / or scour second hand shops for old ones that can be restored. The difference in the ease of operation to achieve each task properly is staggering! Well-made and maintained tools will last generations. The garbage that is passed off as tools by most garden centres, hardware and chain stores are an absolute waste of your money, and the need to keep replacing them is designed to maximise profits for all concerned except you, with no concern for the environmental damage caused by such unnecessary waste and consumption.
  • Space to store your tools in an organized manner, located for maximum convenience. That may mean in several places. I’ve found hanging most of them on the outside of the garden shed but sheltered from rain and direct sun (which degrades timber handles and rusts steel) is a better solution than inside the shed, because you can easily pop each tool back in its place between tasks. If they are inside one tends to lean them against the shed or other things where they get in the way, fall over, and even get left out in the weather. I find about 4mts along x full height of wall to be the minimum, and you need at least 600mm width access (more is better)
  • Space to keep barrows and any other wheeled devices out of the way and weather.
  • Have clean-up facilities on the way from the garden to the kitchen where soil can be washed off, the unused parts of the plant can be removed for composting, and you can wash your hands. This is much easier outside than in a normal domestic kitchen and best if under cover so as not too scorching hot or wet. Arrange it so you can capture that washed top soil (it is the very basis of your nutrition and you don’t want to waste it) and easily get the discarded plant matter to the compost.
  • Space to stack and store the movable weather-proof infrastructure such as stakes, trellising, frames for poly-tunnels, perhaps irrigation depending on how you arrange this.
  • Space to store bulk and trace-element fertilizers, and organic treatments. Some are best on narrow shelves at a convenient range of heights (deep ones tend to gather containers of stuff that get lost and never used). Others are better in bulk bins or buckets. I prefer the really big bulk bins for the organic fertilisers I make up myself (see Steve Solomon’s book for recipes) on wheels so I can move them around without breaking my back. We also have a platform about 70mm off the ground to store bags of lime, dolomite, blood and bone, volcanic rock dust etc so that if the floor gets damp they’re not affected.
  • Out-of-the-weather-and-sun space to store folded fabrics like pest-exclusion nets, shade clothe, or “polyethylene” (to use as movable cloches aka mini green-house).
  • Facility to germinate and grow seedlings earlier than the weather would normally allow. I have found a small “cold frame” is adequate. Thermostat controlled “bottom heat” is a huge advantage, but not critical and may not be needed at your location. A glass or hot house is a lovely luxury, but usually not essential in Australia just for the vegetables unless your site has potential for killer frosts, in which case a glass or hot house to shelter frost-sensitive trees like many citrus is very useful and can start your vegetables too.
  • Compost making facilities!
  • Space and racks for drying crops that need it, eg garlic, and onions. This can be extended to drying other crops for storage, like tomatoes, grapes and other fruit if you really getting into it, but this is not a critical thing.
  • Garden office - Most people don’t, but I am convinced that a dedicated space for a small “kitchen garden office” is a huge help. Having wasted lots of frustrating time running back and forth from the veg garden to the dining table to check or update my plans and records, because having them outside they get dirty or wet or blow away, I build this in to my “minimum size garden shed plans”. The space needs to be easily kept clean so that your pens and pencils will still write on the paper!; light but out of direct glaring sun, dry, cool in summer and not too cold in winter. It also needs to be pleasant so you enjoy being there. It needs a desk big enough to spread out your charts to work on as well as space for reference books, wall space to hold all the current charts for quick and easy reference when you do have muddy hands, and ideally storage for previous years charts and notes, which are a huge help for planning and problem solving. You also need to be able to clean and dry your hands easily before touching those charts and desk, or they quickly get dirty and difficult to write on or even read.
  • A dedicated Kitchen Garden Shed is often, but not always, the best way of housing many of the elements above in on and around it right on the edge of the vegetable garden to make all your tasks easier. Depending on the circumstances, it may serve other functions too, and be somewhat larger than the minimum I suggest. I have also designed several “out-door cupboards” as a better alternative for the particular circumstances, usually where space is limited. Animal exclosure – if there is even a remote possibility that animals such as rabbits, hares, destructive pets (not only yours) or free-ranging chooks might become a problem, it’s often easier and more economical to set things up to keep them out as part of the initial design and set-up. The damage they can do often more than out-weighs the cost and effort.
  • Appropriate size and conditions of storage space for the produce which is not all consumed immediately it’s harvested.

Finally, When to start?
That is, at what stage of your property’s development and your life should you start your vegetable garden? The factors to go into this decision are obviously very specific to each household.

I can tell you our vegetable garden at Niwajiri takes about 8 to 10 hours per week (albeit at a comfortable pace, and spread over the whole week) from September until end of February, reducing to 6 or 7 hours March and April, and only 4 or 5 from May to August. This includes all planning planting, compost, irrigation, setting up each seasons trellising nets and cloches, harvest and processing, but not time experimenting or building new infrastructure. Growing a few easy crops like herbs, lettuce, carrots, beetroot etc requires much less commitment, and is definitely worth doing if you haven’t yet the time for a fully self-reliant source of your food.

I strongly advocate that you PLAN where your vegetables and other food growing will be very early in your gardens development and if you have the time by all means get some easy crops going, or even set out the beds (they can be planted to grass or other easy crops) but don’t launch into full-scale self-reliance until you have time.

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