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Garden Planning: Form and Function

Plan and design your best gardens ever. We offer tips and ideas to help you get started.

Beautiful Garden DesignSurprisingly — or not — garden planning has become more important the smaller my garden gets. When I started out with the first plot of my very own back some (garbled) years ago, I had plenty of room. It was easy to plot crop rotations year to year and find space for vegetables I’d never tried before. Sure, I’d pour over the seed catalogs, then order too much. I’d draw up a plan that I often deviated from when I actually put my garden in. Because the entire, quarter-acre space was in full sunlight when the sun indeed shone there in the rainy Pacific Northwest, I didn’t have to worry about plants to grow in shaded parts of the garden (except for that spot just north of the Jerusalem artichoke patch). But I did have to worry about selecting vegetables that grew well in cool, cloudy locations, pretty much the same thing.

I often tried to raise vegetables that weren’t really suited to my growing conditions. Catalog descriptions made those wonderful plants so desirable! But after a few years I’d learned my lesson. With the help of local, experienced gardeners, I found the types of corn that would (mostly) make it to harvest despite the conditions, tomatoes that would set fruit if not ripen up, and winter squash in enough of a hurry that we’d harvest fruit late in the season. Covered rows and raised beds helped get things to maturity and extended the growing season. One year, I even harvested three, small cantaloupe from under a tent of Visqueen, the first melons, one of the old-timers claimed, grown west of the Elwha River. True or not, that boast made me bust buttons.

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Some (garbled again) years later, I was down to a patch that was less than 100 square feet in a (much) less rainy, short-season location in Montana, the southwest corner of which was partially shaded by bushes and a tree. Finding space for smart rotation and spots for full-sun plants like tomatoes and peppers became a year-to-year problem. Plotting just-so sized, rotating spaces for lettuce and other greens while finding room for summer squash and sunlight for sweet peppers — and the space to access it all — became something of a puzzle. As my garden grew smaller, and my experience larger, I learned to look at the bigger picture.

So when one of these cold winter nights you’re sitting down with your seed catalogs and garden journal to plan your vegetable patch, be sure to consider everything. We so often focus on space and placement — I like to draw “maps” on graph paper and then revise them a time or two — that we forget other components of good garden planning such as second planting times, companion planting and aesthetics. The better garden planner you become, the more detailed your plans become, and the more you see how those components are interrelated. You can find good, practical advice from the National Gardening Association on planning here.

Let’s start with the last component: aesthetics. Planting a row of sunflowers along the northern side of your garden will add beauty while not shading any of the other plants. A row of sunflowers on the western side or southern side will help shade the greens prone to go to seed in mid summer, allowing you a longer harvest. Don’t remember how high your sunflowers were or the length of their shadow on July 15? Now there’s something to make note of in your garden journal. Some of the vegetables themselves, like kale and cabbage, can turn your garden into a flowery-looking place or provide edibles from right out of your landscape. Marigolds are not only a great companion plant for basil, eggplant and tomatoes, they can make for a pretty, low-growing (non-shading) border along one of your garden’s edges or along a footpath. Beauty can be functional.

Also when planning, consider the state of your garden as the growing season progresses. You can plan for second plantings of peas and greens that will go in right after the first planting has been harvested. I like to plant early season greens around squash and pumpkin hills, knowing that the space they take up will be given over to trailing squash vines after the greens are harvested. I’ve also tried planting greens between corn rows thinking that the shade from the corn would delay the green attempt to go to seed; but this technique has had limited success. Don’t forget to plan space for covered rows and raised beds. The warmest, sunniest place you can find is usually best. It will give you a big head-start on the season and extend the season enough to possibly squeeze in another planting between them (uncovered, of course) during the middle of the season.

Every gardener has their own conditions to consider when planning. What are some of yours and how do you deal with them? And don’t get too worked up about drawing up specific plans for your garden. Planning a garden is a form of creative expression. The joy of planning is much like the joy we experienced as kids drawing up a wish-list for Santa. It’s a perfect time for dreaming.

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