raised bed garden filled with rows of crops like joi choi napa cabbage and herbs

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 for a garden layout or a specific combination that 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 anew 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 to help you create a garden layout this season. PS: If you are looking for things to consider BEFORE installing or building 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.

This is our front yard edible (mostly) garden. It used to be just a lawn, but now it grows perennial herbs, edible flowers, pollinator plants, alpine strawberries, garlic, and shallots.

Helpful Supplies to Create a Garden Layout

Any notebook (I really like these graph paper notebooks or you can download a free piece of graph paper HERE).

Pen or Pencil

Measuring tape or ruler (helpful if you don’t know the size of your garden)

What’s in Season? What plants are we working with?

The general steps to create a garden layout are the same, regardless of the season. Here in Southern California I might be planning for the warm season or the cool season garden (I have a list of Fall/Winter gardening crops here). So, write a list of what crops you can grow according to the season, and then circle the ones you want to grow.

Essentially, 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!

Are you wondering how to find out what crops are in season for your gardening zone? Determining what vegetables to grow in your garden each season is relatively simple. First, I always say to ask local gardeners or nursery employees because they will have the BEST idea of your specific climate. Alternatively, observe what the nursery may have in stock. Second, 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 10a, zone 10b, 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 welcome email).

early spring garden harvest of purple artichokes savoy cabbage sugar snap peas turnips carrots broccoli and romaine lettuce

Here are some examples of cool season crops for Southern California. Before garden planning, it can be helpful to know what types of crops will grow in what season. The vegetables you see here are more of Fall, Winter, and Early Spring crops.

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 freezing tomatoes and drying tomatoes 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 you plan and create your garden layout. In the meantime, you might find My Favorite Peppers Guide and my Tomato Growing FAQ post helpful.

Make a Diagram of your growing space

Before I get into the basics of plant placement and more detailed planning, it’s time to get ready to 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. 

To start, draw out the general dimensions of your garden so we can start deciding what crops go where. If using grid paper, you can make each square equal one foot. This would be the time to break out that tape measure if you’re unsure how much space you have exactly. 


watercolor diagram of a summer garden layout with dahlias cucumbers marigolds basil and melons

This was an old watercolor diagram of an actual Summer garden planting. Going full artsy watercolor is totally optional, but can be a fun way to create a garden layout. If you’re interested, this plant combination actually worked out very well for me. I’d do it again!

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, you can consider which vegetables need full sun, which need partial sun, and even which crops can tolerate shade. Sometimes we have to prioritize our crops based on their sun needs. For instance, melons will taste better and be more productive if grown in full sun where as a lot of herbs can grow wonderfully in partial sun if need be. 

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.

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.

Decide Where to Grow vertically

The first step we will take to create your garden layout is designating vertical growing spaces. 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!

sugar pie pumpkins growing on cattle panel arch trellis in backyard

Sugar pie pumpkins are one of the first crops I ever grew on our DIY cattle panel arches. Growing vertically has so many benefits for a small backyard garden!

Combine Flowers, Herbs, and Vegetables!

Funny story, I used to LOVE to plant my crops haphazardly, 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. In the end, I was able to space my plants more efficiently and had more success growing overall. That being said, growing more orderly doesn’t mean you can’t mix colors, textures and different crops to still create a beautiful garden!

For any given garden bed, try and include at least one type of vegetable, one herb, and one flower. This simple formula can help you create a garden layout that is both beautiful and productive. You can scale it up or down, depending on how much space you have. 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! 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.

Take those three elements (vegetable, herb, and flower) and make a pattern of groupings (for dramatic effect) or rows/patches for any particular raised bed or garden area. 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. Finally, if you need more flower ideas make sure you check out my  Top 10 Flowers for a Potager Garden.

This photo is quite a few years old, but it shows how to mix flowers, vegetables, and herbs. This was before I really started growing in a more orderly fashion.

Layering Plants by Height in the Garden

Taller plants can create shade or shade out shorter plants. This can be both detrimental or beneficial, depending on the plants. Typically, for maximum sun exposure, you want to place the tallest plants behind short plants. Turns out, 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) as you create a garden layout to determine how tall certain vegetables or flowers will grow. This will tell you where they can be placed in an effective garden design.

peas growing in a raised bed with cattle panel trellis

Layering by height in the garden is an important aspect of creating a garden layout. In this picture you can see the peas (which will grow very tall) placed behind lower growing flowers and vegetables.

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 “living 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

This is arguably one of the simplest ways to create a garden layout. When I first started gardening, I used the popular “square foot 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.

raised bed using square foot gardening spacing

Here is the NEW raised bed garden after the makeover. This picture is after having a new irrigation system and being covered with garden hoops and row fabric for only three weeks!

Method 3: Seed Packets

The last method for determining vegetable spacing is simply referring to the seed packet. Every seed packet has general information for the plant. If you look carefully, you’ll see “mature height and width.” These numbers will tell you how much space to allow between plants when planning out your crop layout. Furthermore, the packet might give specific instructions such as “thin plants to twelve inches apart.”

Gardening is a process

Gardening gets more fun every year. As I observe the garden each season, I learn something new. In fact, I highly recommend keeping a garden journal or spreadsheet to record the things you observe in the garden for future garden planning. Often, when I go to create a garden layout each season, I refer to these notes. Lastly, 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 a garden because you are nervous. Feel free to leave comments below if you have questions, or share this article if you found it useful!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

For Growers & Gardeners from High Mowing Organic Seeds