Tips For Creating a Garden Crop Plan & Layout
How do you decide where to plant your crops? Each year I seem to come away from the past season with a new idea or a specific plot I didn’t like very much and don’t wish to repeat. The beauty of this process is that each season gives us the opportunity to start new with how we arrange our crops—be open to making mistakes and enjoying the process!
Garden planning can be very involved. There is a reason that people can go to school to learn garden and landscape design, and there are different aspects to focus on depending on your needs in the garden. You’re in luck though! Below I’m sharing my best tips for deciding where to place plants in your garden and things to think about when planning your vegetable garden layout. PS: If you are looking for things to consider BEFORE installing raised beds, I have a different article for that HERE.
Today I’m going to focus on planting your vegetables, flowers, and herbs in patterns that suit their needs and look aesthetically pleasing. Remember, no matter what I tell you, there really is no single way to figure out where everything goes in a garden. You’ll also find that the more years you garden, the more you feel open to flexibility and are less worried about the exact specifics. Trust me. The more familiar you get with plants, their demands, and growth habits the more it becomes second nature to arrange them.
Related article: How to Amend Your Soil Between Seasons
What’s in Season? What plants are we working with?
Write a list of what you can grow according to the season, and then circle the ones you want to grow (for the 2021 growng season I decided to not circle okra this year).
Before we even start the process of planning out which vegetables go where in the garden, we need to know what vegetables are in season for growing!
Determining what vegetables to grow in your garden is relatively simple. I always say to ask local gardeners or nursery employees because they will have the BEST idea of your specific climate. You should also familiarize yourself with your gardening zone. You can find your gardening zone HERE with a simple zipcode lookup tool. Once you know your gardening zone, you can simply research planting charts for your zone.
If you are a zone 10b, zone 10, or similar gardening zone, you are in luck! You can view my own, personal seed schedule as a guideline for what is in season (just subscribe and click on the Garden Resources Library in your intro email).
What do you like to eat? Do you have any garden goals?
Ask yourself these questions for a moment. You might have familiarized yourself with what plants CAN be grown this time of year, but do you WANT to grow them? Especially for those of us gardening in small spaces, it is even more important to grow what you will actually use and enjoy eating.
For me personally, I LOVE jalapenos so I always grow at least three times more jalapeno plants than any other pepper. Sam and I also enjoy preserving tomatoes as sauce and for drying in the dehydrator, so I like to focus on my favorite sauce tomatoes and medium sized tomatoes for drying.
Write down these goals and favorites so they are always at the front of your mind while planning.
Make a Diagram of your growing space
Draw it out! For beginners, it might be best to use graph paper (which is why I LOVE graph paper notebooks) but you can even just draw it out like a picture or drawing. Check out this old picture from years ago I painted.
Vertical gardening has many benefits, especially for small garden spaces. I discuss all my favorite vertical gardening tips in my Guide to Vertical Gardening, but we do need to consider this aspect of gardening when developing a garden design/plan.
I like to identify which vegetables need a trellis or support and denote all the areas of the garden that can facilitate vertical growing. For example, I have two cattle panel trellises that allow me to grow vertically, and one large metal trellis. Vertical space is usually a valuable commodity in my garden—-I already know the areas that can have trellises or are already equipped with a structure. Assign these areas NOW because chances are they won’t change. It’s a good place to start.
For example, one year I grew mini sugar pumpkins on my cattle panel trellises like in the photo below. Be sure to check out my Vertical Growing Guide for more inspiration!
Vegetable + Flower + Herb = Success
Ahhhhh the actual “design” part of things!
Funny story, I used to LOVE to plant my crops specifically with no straight lines or rows. I definitely disliked growing vegetables in an orderly fashion. It looked too sterile for me. I wanted romance and charm which I thought meant avoiding organization! I was wrong! In the last year I’ve discovered a passion for growing in rows and mass plantings. Growing in a more orderly fashion lets me care for each crops’ specific needs more efficiently and made harvesting and seasonal switch-overs easier. I was able to space my plants better, and overall had more success! That being said, growing more orderly doesn’t mean you can’t mix colors, textures and different crops to still create a beautiful garden!
This simple formula can help you create a garden that is both beautiful and productive: vegetable + Flower + Herb = Success. You can scale it up or down, depending on how much space you have. While some gardeners have experienced increased yield by combining certain, specific vegetables, flowers, and herbs (also known as companion planting), I personally feel that specifics aren’t quite as important as just planting what you enjoy.
For any given garden bed, try and include at least one type of vegetable, one herb, and one flower. A good example would be peppers, marigolds, and basil. The flowers will attract pollinators, which can increase your vegetable yields, while the herbs can confuse and deter pests. If you follow this general plan, your garden will have color, flavor, and variety!
Take those three elements and make a pattern of groupings (for dramatic effect) or rows or patches for any particular raised bed or garden area. In the photo below, you’ll see how I’ve arranged my lettuce, celeriac, and garlic in rows with This has been really helpful for caring for the specific needs of each plant, and I love the visual impact of growing food like this. In the end, do what makes you happy.
If you don’t have the space or need for lots of flowers or herbs, they also make great corner plants for garden beds. Nasturtiums are especially dramatic cascading over raised bed edges. You can also read about another pollinator favorite, Gaillardia Blanket Flower, in my Top 10 Flowers for a Potager Garden.
Determining Sun Exposure Before Planning
Do you know what areas of your garden get the most sun? Do you know what areas are mostly shaded? After so many years, I know these areas of my garden like the back of my hand, but you can easily observe your own garden over a weekend and get a good idea of the sun exposure. Ideally, you would have installed your garden area where you get full sun, but I know that’s not always possible when working with limited space. Either way, determine the sun exposure so you can properly choose which plants to grow.
Once you know the sun exposure in your garden, I like to assign my full sun vegetables there, and assign partial sun vegetables (or anything that likes partial shade) to those areas. I do this because, in general, these areas won’t change and we can get an idea of our layout and further nail down our design for the season.
Southern California gardening tip:
In hotter gardening zones (like zone 10), whatever is considered “full sun” can usually tolerate partial shade because our sun is so intense.
We average 90 degrees all summer, with many days in the triple digits. Last year we hit 112 degrees. Does that sound like your climate? Then consider planting more “full sun” plants in partial shade. I also talk about this in my Growing Peppers in SoCal guide.
Other plants that are usually considered “full sun” but do fine in partial shade here are: tomatoes, peppers, kale, and basil.
I’ve got an article on How to Protect Your Garden in a Heatwave because, even though we always plant for the proper season, our Summers can be have some extremely brutal days. On the flip side, our DIY row covers can also be made to extend your growing season during the cool season if you choose the proper type of fabric.
Layering Plants by Height in the Garden
Taller plants can create shade or shade out shorter plants. Typically, for maximum sun exposure, you want to place the tallest plants behind shorts plants. This is also visually appealing, as your eyes will be able to see more layers and texture in the garden, rather than tall plants covering up everything else.
Understanding the mature height of your plants can also help you create microclimates within your own garden. If you want to purposely create a shady area, you can place tall plants where they will purposely shade other vegetables in the garden. Sometimes heat-sensitive vegetables (like lettuce, radishes, and various herbs) benefit from the shade or shelter of larger vegetables like tomatoes, corn, or eggplants.
In general, simply refer to the seed packet (or your own experience) for how tall certain vegetables or flowers will grow. This will tell you where they can be placed in an effective garden design.
How to Figure out Vegetable Spacing
This is a common question I see in my inbox. There are a couple ways to approach vegetable spacing in the garden so that you can calculate how many plants you need:
Method 1: Experience
First, you should know that I am notorious for somewhat crowding my plants. This should not be confused with OVERcrowding, but I do believe that hot climates allow us to plant closer because the plants end up protecting each other from extreme heat. In fact, I sometimes use small plants (like lettuces perennial herbs or cascading flowers like nasturtiums) around the bases of my tall plants to act a “mulch.” Mulch is important in the garden and you can read the various ways I mulch in Let’s Talk Mulch!
Experience allows you to envision how large certain vegetables grow, and I simply space mine according to the mature size of each vegetable. For example, I envision how large my butterhead lettuces usually grow and that determines how far apart they should be. I guess it’s all about closing your eyes and visualizing the garden in its full-grown state.
Method 2: The square foot gardening method
When I first started gardening, I used this popular gardening method to plan out my garden. Square foot gardening was developed by Mel Bartholomew and there are general guidelines offered for how many of each type of vegetable can fit in one square foot in the garden. For example, if you google “square foot gardening guide” you’ll see that one eggplant can be planted per square foot, 4 heads of lettuce in another square foot, 2 swiss chard….you get the idea. If this helps you get started on garden spacing/layout I highly recommend just dividing your garden into squares and trying it out!
If you like square foot gardening, I also recommend you check out these fantastic garden grids for watering. They make watering efficient and also provide you with an actual grid for spacing your plants. I also have a full Irrigation Basics article where I go over the different types we use and how to choose a good irrigation system for your needs.
Method 3: Seed Packets
Every seed packets has general information for the plant. If you lok carefully, you’ll see “mature height and width.” These numbers will tell you how much space to allow between plant when planning out your crop layout.
Gardening is a process
Be kind to yourself and have fun! There will always be something we will try differently next year, and there will always be something that “didn’t go right.” The worst thing you could do is not start because you are nervous. Feel free to leave comments below if you have questions!