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Small Kitchen Garden Design: Layout

Perrenials fill two traditional farmyard planting beds: asparagus on the left and raspberries on the right.

I can’t tell you exactly how to build your small kitchen garden. That’s because I don’t know exactly what conditions you face as you make your plan. There are a few design considerations to have in mind as you make decisions about how to build your own planting beds.

How Big Your Bed?

Forget, for the moment, the soil conditions at the location you’ve chosen for your new planting bed. More importantly: how much space are you going to convert into a small kitchen garden?

A square that is 10 feet by 10 feet can hold 7 crowded rows of vegetables with 18 inches between rows. For plants that require little space—radishes, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach, peppers, and beans, for example—you can get away with such crowding… but you’ll be wiggling between rows when the plants are full-grown.

You might crowd larger plants such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, to two feet… but again, you’ll be hard-pressed to find places for your feet when you’re in the garden.

Do You Need to be In Your Garden?

Here’s the key question in choosing a layout for a small kitchen garden: Do you need to be in your planting beds? A traditional vegetable garden on a country farm is a ploughed area in the yard. If it runs 100 feet by 30 feet (modest for someone to live off of year-round), then someone needs to walk in it to till it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it. But, if you’re going small, perhaps you should design a garden with planting beds in which you never walk.

Walk Versus No-Walk Planting Beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds whose management requires that you walk in them. I’ve color-coded the characteristics where green=advantage, yellow=neutral, and red=disadvantage:

  • They are generally more than three or four feet across at their shortest dimension
  • You can easily use a power-tiller to turn the soil and mix in amendments.
  • The soil gets compacted from regular traffic
  • You must reserve tilled areas between planting areas where you can stand and walk while working the garden. This significantly reduces yield per square foot of tilled earth.
  • You must manage the open spaces to keep down weeds
  • There is enormous flexibility for how you arrange crops in the garden and for how you rotate crops from year-to-year.
  • For the same total square footage of planting beds, it takes less fencing to protect a single large bed than to protect multiple smaller beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds you can manage without ever walking in them:

  • Beds are no more than three to four feet across—two feet across if you can access them from only one side.
  • A small kitchen garden of no-walk beds typically has several adjacent planting beds with room to walk between them and work them from all sides. If multiple beds aren’t an option, then a long, narrow bed provides the most versatility for rotating crops from season-to-season.
  • For equal areas of tilled soil, you need far more space for no-walk planting beds than for planting beds in which you walk… but remember: you can grow far more per square foot in a no-walk planting bed than in one where you must walk to work the garden.
  • Without someone pressing down on it, the soil doesn’t get compacted quickly. That makes it easier to work when you’re amending, planting, and weeding.
  • Areas between planting beds can be lawn, permanent mulch, paving, or other easily-maintained surfaces.
  • A no-walk bed can support far more plants per square foot than a large planting bed can. Consider: In a bed that’s only 18 inches wide, you can plant a row of vegetables near each boundary of the bed—you don’t need to get between the rows.

In a traditional in-ground planting bed, it can be difficult to distinguish where the yard ends and the garden begins.

Cutting-in a Planting Bed

I’m sure I’ve overlooked several notable characteristics of both walk- and no-walk planting beds. Please chime in if you want to share pet peeves about your planting beds, or identify advantages I’ve missed.

My next post will explain (with photos) how to lay out and cut-in a traditional farmer’s-style planting bed in your yard. In later posts, we’ll talk about differences between these traditional in-ground planting beds and the somewhat more European raised beds.

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5 Responses to “Small Kitchen Garden Design: Layout”

  • I have a walk-in bed, and I use old fence boards as stepping “stones.” This helps minimize the need for weeding between sections, but doesn’t really help with the soil compacting. I do chance the layout every year, and I think that helps.

  • admin:

    Daisy, thanks for the suggestion. My garden is a walk-in, and it gets compacted badly because there’s a lot of clay in the soil. I mulch heavily with lawn clippings, and wade in them all season. Putting boards on the mulch when I need to be in the garden would cut down on the mess I track into the house…

  • [...] ago, I define a traditional in-ground planting bed as one that is simply a soil patch in which you garden. The patch is large enough that you need to [...]

  • [...] dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this [...]

  • I had a large area I wanted to convert to a vegetable garden that was compacted with clay soil, had been a gravel road at one time – so was in awful shape.

    For the first year I cleared it, topped it with leafgrow and put in a few plants. Then in the fall I planted a cover crop of rye.

    The next spring I did not till in the cover crop except where I was planting but kept it cut back until it died. It kept the weeds at bay well into summer. And then again in the fall I planted a new cover crop.

    This spring my soil is wonderful! I can’t express enough how much planting cover crops in the fall can do for soil. It’s full of earthworms and easy to till when needed – but it is so large I only till where I am going to plant.

    Remember – cover crop – cover crop – cover crop.

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