The Kitchen Garden: Layout Ideas and Tips

Expert tips for growing food outside of the box, so to speak.

Small garden
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Are you planning to start growing your own food this year? Are you looking for ways to improve or expand your existing kitchen garden? As a garden designer, I thought I would share with you some of my favorite kitchen garden layout ideas and tips, to help you make this year's garden a success.

As with so many things in gardening, garden layout carries few hard and fast rules. There is no “one size fits all” approach. You need to take your location and individual circumstances into account. But here are some things that you might like to consider.

Think Outside the Box

Many kitchen gardeners begin with one of two ideas – traditional row planting, or the small space techniques of square foot gardening. But a kitchen garden definitely does not have to be so regimented. You can implement the ideas of either (or both) of these typical methodologies while still thinking outside the box.

Beds, for example, do not need to be square or rectangular. While sometimes using these shapes may be the best choice, other ideas can sometimes win out. Consider curving, more natural forms, as you might in an ornamental garden. You might even like to consider round beds, or more intricate forms such as those found in a mandala garden. Maximizing edge, the most productive part of an ecosystem, often involves playing around with different shapes and ideas.

Consider Access and Accessibility

While playing around with shapes, forms, and layout, don't forget to keep practicalities in mind. Make sure that you plan your kitchen garden layout to make it as easy as possible for you to tend. Beds should always be small enough so that you can reach all parts of them without having to tread on and compact the growing areas. Paths should always be wide enough to allow you through.

Think about how you will really use your garden, and how you will get from A to B. The more easy and convenient it is to tend your kitchen garden (and the closer it is to your kitchen) the more likely you are to make the most of it. And the less likely you are to neglect it.

Integrate, Don't Segregate

  • Think about water up front – integrate water harvesting and water management schemes into your layout and design.
  • Consider integrating composting into the beds themselves – creating lasagna beds or hugelkultur mounds, for example. You could also place a composting vessel at the heart of a keyhole bed. Or make a compost filled fence as a division between two garden areas.
  • Create polycultures – avoid mono-crop plantations. Use companion plants and beneficial plant combinations wherever you can.
  • Remember, many edible crops are ornamental. And a number of ornamental plants are edible too. Integrate your kitchen garden with ornamental flower bed planting – you can have both and it definitely does not have to be either-or.

Plan For the Future

You might be tempted to create your kitchen garden based on what you plan to plant in spring. But the ideal kitchen garden should feed you throughout as much of the year as possible. And it should continue to provide for you well and consistently over the years to come. Think about how you will maintain fertility over time from the outset. And consider ideas like succession planting and crop rotation from the outset.

I think it can be helpful to create growing areas in threes or fours, or which can easily be split into thirds or quarters. This will make it easier for you to plan for and implement a three- or four-year crop rotation plan over the years to come.

Use Perennials to Enhance Annual Growing Spaces

Finally, it is worthwhile mentioning the role that perennial plants can have in creating a great kitchen garden. Trees, shrubs, and other perennials are low-maintenance options that will enhance your garden for years to come. Most kitchen gardens will focus primarily on growing typical annual (and biennial) crops. But perennials can also plan an important role in such systems.

Of course, you could forgo the annuals almost entirely, and create a forest garden to provide your food. But most people who grow their own do want typical edibles like tomatoes, squash, corn, et cetera.

But just because you want to grow annuals, that does not mean that you should ignore perennial options altogether. Almost all gardens can be enriched by the addition of at least some perennial plants around annual production zones.

For example, you might consider:

  • Placing a fruit tree and guild to the north of a kitchen garden area. (Where it will, in the northern hemisphere, not cast too much shade.)
  • Mark the northern side of a kitchen garden with pleached or espaliered fruit trees, step-over apple trees, or other trained trees.
  • Creating a shelterbelt or mixed hedgerow to make a kitchen garden more sheltered against prevailing winds.
  • Creating a boundary or hedge around a kitchen garden with fruiting canes or fruit bushes.
  • Ringing a kitchen garden with a raised bed filled with perennial flowering plants to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.

These are, of course, just a few examples ... you can also incorporate perennial plants in the beds of your kitchen garden. One example is planting asparagus in a bed used for annual crops through the rest of the year.

Successfully growing your own begins with good garden design and planning. Thinking about these kitchen garden layout ideas and tips should help you move closer to creating your own perfect food-producing garden.