Why think about your vegetable garden design before planting? Thinking of you and your family's desires, needs, and goals before planting is the single biggest thing you can do to have a garden that won't become a burden. I have heard SO many people tell me that they started a garden one time only to give up around July when the weeds and heat became too much.
It doesn't have to be that way - I promise!
In this section of our Vegetable Gardening 101 series, I'm going to give you my tips for designing a garden for easy care - the same techniques I have used successfully for years - so that you can have success with your garden. I want you to find the enjoyment that comes from watching what you've planted grow and then eating the beautiful, organic produce - without frustration or losing hope along the way.
How NOT to Garden (if you want easy care):
My limited experience with gardening growing up involved having to go out and weed the little tilled garden patch we had at our house. All my sisters and I could see were a sea of weeds, but we were told there were lettuce seedlings in there somewhere. To say I dreaded this is an understatement!
So, the thought of growing vegetables in the "traditional" way of tilling a large plot of land and planting in rows just kinda scared me when I wanted to grow a few vegetables in our first house for a number of reasons:
- I'd never used a tiller (and couldn't afford one)
- I didn't want to wait until mid-May or later to plant (I read that you have to wait for the soil to dry out- hello? This is Oregon!)
- and most importantly, I didn't want to deal with the weeds.
5 Steps To A Vegetable Garden Design For Easy Care
1. Use Raised Beds
When I read in Organic Gardening back in the 90s about raised beds and how they help to lessen the weed problem and make gardening easier, I knew they were for me! There are so many reasons to have raised beds - and even if you like to use a tiller, I think everyone should make room on the edges for a couple of beds because:
- Root crops like carrots and parsnips grow so much better and are easier to harvest.
- Crops of lettuce and greens can be started earlier, as well as crops like peas.
- They make gardening tasks easier- less bending, easier weeding (when needed), planting, and watering.
- There's no need to weed the permanent paths between the beds of gravel, wood chips or pavers or even clippings or straw you place yearly. The few weeds that may sprout are easy to pull.
- When the beds do need weeding, the soil is loose since it hasn't been compacted with walking so the weeds just pull up easily.
- Using raised beds also makes it easy to use row covers for early crops like cabbage and broccoli and to give summer crops like tomatoes an early start in areas with cooler springs. (You can read more about how to plant tomatoes and get them earlier here.)
In spring before planting I can weed a 4' x 12' raised bed in 10 to 15 minutes with just hand tools and after that only a few weeds appear the entire remainder of the season. It's easy to just pull them here and there when I'm out harvesting. I NEVER have to spend hours weeding the garden after planting.
Have I convinced you yet?
You can make beds out of untreated wood, cinder blocks, stacked concrete or other stone blocks or even just raised dirt sides (though they are harder to maintain). One other benefit for people who will see the beds from their house is that it's easy to make them look pretty and they look neat and tidy even at the end of the season with their permanent sides.
2. Sketch Out A Plan
As you can see from my rough sketch above, it doesn't have to be fancy or well-drawn, but it should be as much to scale as possible (each square on the graph paper above equals 2 feet). Here are the most important things to think about:
- How much time do you have & how much produce your family needs. My big advice here is to START SMALL. You can always add more later. It took us 3-4 years to fully complete the plan I show above. We started with the 6 long raised beds and added from there.
- What do you want included? Just raised beds for vegetables or do you want to include more permanent things like fruiting trees and shrubs or perennial vegetables like asparagus?
- The direction of the sun. Aligning your beds north-south, for instance, minimizes shadows from rising and setting sun patterns.
3. Rotate Your Crops & Keep Track of Successes and Failures
In addition to your overall garden plan, take time each season to quickly plan your garden crops, rotating them from bed to bed and keeping track of what did well and what you liked (or didn't).
Rotation of crops is a key pillar of organic gardening, since it lessens the chance of losing plants to soil-bourne diseases and you do not want to spend time, energy, or money growing something again that you forgot didn't do well for your garden or family's needs. A simple list of what you planted each year with brief notes is enough.
The 6 longer raised beds are my main vegetable beds. They are 4 feet x 12 feet with 10" sides and I use soaker hoses to water at the roots. It takes about 20 minutes to plan this on paper, copying from the previous year and rotating crops through them each year to lessen disease and group like plants together (i.e., tomatoes in one, broccoli and cabbage in another).
You can read more about how I plan my vegetable garden here.
4. Do Not Use A Tiller
Our garden also consists of 4 larger beds with edges made from 4"x4" pieces of wood. These are what I call my "nontraditional raised beds" since I do have to walk on the soil some when planting and harvesting. They are about 9'x20' and I use these larger beds to grow corn wee-free, potatoes, dry beans, squash and pumpkins.
To be honest, in the beginning I was tempted to till them under, but everything I read about tilling put me off it for good. Basically,
Tilling actually PRODUCES more weeds!
Two things can happen with tilling:
- Weeds that propagate from the smallest root fragment (think dandelion and bindweed) will come back ten-fold after being cut up.
- Dormant weed seeds (that can live for years in the soil!) that need light to germinate will be brought to the surface so they can sprout anew. That's why there always seem to be more weeds after tilling - because there are!
Tilling can also damage the tilth of the soil, especially if it's done too early creating clumps of sod that never break up.
SO, how what to do with large beds that look like this in spring? I swear, if I thought I had to deal with this, I would run screaming far, far away...to the market to buy produce, ha!
The answer is simple & easy:
5. Use Plastic to Kill Weeds
In February or March of each year (I'm up north - adjust for your seasons) cover your larger beds with black plastic, holding it down with rocks, bricks, wood, or whatever you can find. The plastic + the sun's power will kill all the weeds underneath in the month or two before planting.
Then it's simply a matter of removing the plastic and raking up all the debris. There are usually a few perennial weed roots like dandelion that need to be remove, but not many. After that, add a layer of compost, rake it smooth, and plant! That's it! (You can read more details of my Easy No-Till Planting Method here).
And you want to know the best part?
These beds have never been tilled and have never had herbicides used on them.
To create them in the beginning, place your edging, put large pieces of cardboard over the grass (mowed short) and fill them with about 6" of manure and soil (a 1-inch layer of manure topped with purchased soil/compost mix). Then plant - really. I even planted corn the first year in the shallow soil above the cardboard and it grew great, never falling over since the cardboard composted as the season passed.
Using these 5 tips to design a vegetable garden for easy care means I absolutely DO NOT spend hours weeding my vegetable beds - and you don't have to, either!
If I could shout it from the rooftops, I would! Since I can't (won't?), I have written lots more about my low-weeding approach (and some tips for flower beds, too) that you can see here.
There will be some planning up front and a small outlay of money for the beds, but you will save hundreds of hours of weeding and eliminate the wasteful watering of paths that occur in the "traditional" method. PLUS, you'll be able to grow things on your timetable and not be at the whim of wet or dry spring weather determining when you can till to be able to plant.
Ready to plan your vegetable garden design for easy care?
You can check out the rest of our 101 gardening series for more information:
- Get Started Gardening: 10 Basic Steps to Start Your Vegetable Garden
- How to Start Seeds – A Step-by Step Tutorial
- Caring for Your Seedlings at Week 1
- Caring for Your Seedlings at Week 6
- How to Plant Seedlings
- Monthly Checklist of Vegetable Garden Chores
- Planning for a Fall Garden
Note: Our classic vegetable gardening series was published in the first year of the blog – 2009. It’s been republished with updated information and clearer formatting.