How to Plan Your Vegetable Garden the Right Way (2024)

Like with any long-term project, good planning is essential to a successful vegetable garden. Vegetables have specific requirements, and you must choose your site and varieties carefully to ensure a bountiful harvest down the road.

To help you map out your own vegetable bed, we're sharing our tried-and-true approach. Follow these tips and you're sure to yield quite the crop at the end of the season.

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Use Nutrient-Rich Soil

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If you have nutrient-deficient or compacted soil, you could end up with weak and slow-growing plants, says Chad Massura, the CEO and founder of Rosy Soil, an eco-friendly potting mix company. "To improve soil quality, consider adding organic matter, such as compost and vermicompost, and amendments, like pine bark fines and biochar," he says.

  • The Best Soil for Any Type of Garden

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Test for Proper Drainage

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To prevent poor drainage in advance, you can test your soil by digging a hole 1 foot deep and 1 foot across. Fill the holes with water, and time how long it takes the water to drain away. Two to three hours after the hole has emptied, refill it, and again, time the interval it takes for it to empty. Then calculate the rate of drainage by dividing the total depth of the water (24 inches) by the total number of hours it took for the hole to empty two times.

An average rate of an inch of water lost per hour makes for "well-drained" soil, which is best for vegetable plants. A substantially faster rate is typical of "sharply drained" soil, a type that dries out quickly, and unless enriched with water-retaining compost, is suitable mainly for drought-tolerant plants. A drainage rate markedly slower than an inch per hour indicates poorly drained soil, which will probably drown the roots of most plants.

If you have poor drainage, powdery mildew and root rot could occur as a result, says Massura. The former is a powdery, white fungal disease that signals excessive moisture or poor air circulation. Root rot happens when there isn't strong drainage. Biochar or pine bark fines can help remedy drainage issues.

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Find Out Your Zone

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If you plan to grow perennial vegetables, like asparagus and artichoke, you'll first need to identify your hardiness zone before purchasing only plants that are recommended for your climate. For annual vegetables, like tomatoes and lettuce, your zone is less important, but can help determine which varieties will thrive best in your area.

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Consider Sun and Shade Requirements

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Plants described as requiring "full sun" (most vegetable plants fall under this category) need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, says Massura. "Part sun" or "semi-shade" plants flourish where periods of direct sunlight alternate with periods of shade, or where the sunlight is filtered by an intermittent canopy of branches or a trellis overhead. "Full shade" describes a spot where direct sunlight never penetrates, due to shadows cast by dense evergreens or solid man-made structures, such as a high wall or porch roof.

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Understand the Different Types of Vegetable Plants

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First up? Open-pollinated (OP). These plants come from a parent of the same variety and they can, in turn, produce offspring of the same variety. This is called "coming true from seed." The seed from open-pollinated varieties can be collected from the plants you've grown and saved to grow again next year.

Heirloom vegetables, on the other hand, are open-pollinated varieties that have been cultivated for at least 50 years. They are often more flavorful, colorful, and interesting than hybrids, but they may lack disease-resistance or require staking.

Last but not least, hybrids are the result of cross-breeding to produce offspring with certain desirable traits, such as disease-resistance or uniform color or size. Their complicated genetics mean that the seed inside the fruit you grow one season will not produce a plant like its parent. Each year, you will have to buy new seeds of this variety if you want to grow it again.

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Learn About Crop Timing

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Vegetable crops fall into two categories: cool-season and warm-season crops. The former yields peas, lettuces, radishes, brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, collards), and spinach; these varieties germinate and thrive in the lower temperatures of spring and fall and tolerate light frosts. Many cool-season crops can be direct-sown in the garden before the last frost.

Tomatoes, eggplants, summer and winter squash, beans, and corn prefer summer's heat. Plant these only after the soil has warmed. Many warm-season crops require a long growing season and should be started indoors in late winter or early spring, or purchased as seedlings ready to be transplanted.

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Consider Easy-to-Grow Varieties

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If you are a beginner gardener, start with hardy vegetable varieties for a successful harvest. Radishes, for example, are easy since they are one of the fastest growing crops. They're also compact, making them ideal for smaller gardens, says Chia-Ming, a Los Angeles-based edible garden consultant. Other easy-to-grow vegetables include lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, and carrots.

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Estimate Mature Size

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Before installing any plant in your garden, check the size it will reach at maturity, then make sure where you plant it can accommodate the growth. You can maximize your growing space by choosing some vertical plants like tomatoes.

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Map Out Your Plants

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Sketch out your plan on paper. Use graph paper and draw to scale, keeping in mind the mature size and habit of each kind of plant. Site larger plants, like corn and tomatoes, where they won't cast shade over shorter plants. Choose compact varieties if you have limited space.

"Overcrowding your garden can lead to competition for sunlight and nutrients," says Massura. "Make sure to space your plants according to their mature size—recommendations can often be found on the seed packs or from your local nursery."

And start small: You can always dig more beds or enlarge existing ones in subsequent years.

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Opt for Row or Intensive Cropping

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There are two key ways to grow a vegetable garden: row or intensive cropping. "Row cropping involves planting vegetables in straight rows with ample spacing between them," says Massura. "This method makes it easy to cultivate and manage the garden, but it can require more space."

Intensive cropping is a space-saving option. Your plants will grow in grids or raised beds that are close together. This way, species are co-selected and can support each other. "This takes a bit more patience and planning, but the results can be spectacular when done right," says Massura. "One of my favorites is three sisters, a Haudenosaunee indigenous farming practice, where corn, beans, and squash are grown together to support each other."

Follow these steps to properly practice each method, according to Massura:

  • For row cropping, create straight, evenly spaced rows in the garden. "Plant each vegetable type in its own row, and provide enough space between rows for maintenance," he says. "Refer to your seed packs or local nursery for information on spacing."
  • For intensive cropping, plant vegetables in a grid pattern with tight spacing in raised beds (or use containers). "Be mindful of the sunlight and water requirements of each plant when planning your layout," he says. "There are some great online tools and templates to help with the planning."

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Get Your Hands Dirty

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Before growing season begins, you can start your seeds inside; it's also time to prepare your garden for planting. For more information on how to do both, refer to our comprehensive vegetable garden guide, which walks you through each step of the process.

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Prevent Weeds

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Avoid weeds by applying a layer of organic mulch, like hay or grass trimmings or wood mulch, around your plants to help stop weed growth, says Massura. "Mulch also has the double benefit of preventing evaporation, meaning you need to water less," he says.

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Deter Pests and Animals

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There are a few common pests that infest vegetable gardens: aphids, slugs, and snails. Massura recommends using natural repellents like crushed eggshells, copper tape, or diatomaceous earth to deter slugs and snails.

If you have animals (think: deer and rabbits) that frequent your yard, place fencing or chicken wire around your vegetable garden to keep them from eating your crops, he says. Bird netting can protect your plants from birds and squirrels. Otherwise, consider planting crops that animals don't like, such as sages and mint, says Sabine H. Schoenberg, the host of Sabine's New House on Smart Healthy Green Living.

How to Plan Your Vegetable Garden the Right Way (2024)
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