How to Start a Garden Part 2: Creating a Garden Design • Gardenary (2024)

How to Start a Garden Part 2: Creating a Garden Design • Gardenary (2)

Design Your Garden Like a Pro

If you want to design your garden all by yourself but make it look like a pro did it, then Part 2 of our "How to Start a Garden" series is for you. I'm about to walk you through the things I consider for each and every one of the garden's I've designed since I started my kitchen garden company back in 2015. You can use my garden layouts and design methods in your own space to create something you love.

The first garden I ever "designed" was not exactly pleasing to look at. It also wasn't very productive. The raised beds were only 6 inches tall and spaced just 1 foot apart, which meant I had to hunch over to tend the garden and was constantly bumping into the other beds. I spread pine straw mulch in between the beds, so my legs were also itchy from the straw.

The second garden I set up, I built taller beds, used gravel for the pathways, and gave myself more space to maneuver in between beds. My garden design has evolved from there, and now you get to learn from all my mistakes I made over the years. The biggest lesson is this: The way you set up and design your garden can keep gardening from being fun. Taking some time to design your garden space now can make a huge difference in both how attractive and how functional your space ends up being.

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The 5 Key Elements in Your Garden Design

Before we look at the different garden layouts for your space, let's examine the 5 key garden elements that I use in all of my garden designs. You'll want to include as many of these as possible in your dream garden.

Let's start with the most essential structure if you plan on growing your own fruits and vegetables—the raised garden bed. At Gardenary, we believe 100% in the value of growing in an elevated garden structure. A raised bed can be made of a variety of materials, but it needs to be, at minimum, 6 inches above the ground. It will also be an open-bottomed structure unless you’re on a patio or porch.

Even if you're not growing in raised garden beds, you can still incorporate the other garden elements, which include garden trellises, borders, pathways, and native plant and pollinator garden spaces.

Let's look at them in more detail so you can get an idea of how each of these elements can take your garden ideas for your home to the next level.

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Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds have been critical to my success in the garden, and I know they'll do the same for you. From a practical standpoint, a raised bed allows you a completely fresh start. You can fill your raised bed with high-quality organic material that will feed your plants from the beginning. You don't have to worry about weeds popping up or amending your existing soil. Building a raised bed is a bit like demolishing a condemned structure and starting from scratch.

You won't need a raised bed if you only plan on growing things like native plants, shrubs, and flowers, none of which are very particular about their soil. Annual fruiting plants and leafy greens, in comparison, tend to be much pickier. They need a loose, nutrient-rich soil to support their rapid growth, and they dislike having their roots sitting in water. Raised beds provide much better drainage for these plants than if they were in the ground. The soil in a raised bed structure drains quickly, even after heavy rains.

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More Advantages of Growing in Raised Beds

Raised beds also are great for temperature control. Because the soil warms faster aboveground, you can plant earlier in the spring, which allows you to maximize your growing seasons.

I delve further into the benefits of growing in raised beds in this post, but the last advantage I'll mention here is the comfort and ease of tending a raised bed versus an in-ground garden. If you're growing plants that need a lot of pruning and attention, it's much better to have them closer to your level so you don't have to stoop or work on your knees. Growing a vegetable garden directly in the ground might be cheaper, but it's also a dirty and uncomfortable experience. I can tell a major difference in my knees and back after working in my in-ground pollinator garden versus my raised beds. Most of my raised beds are right at my knee height, so I don't have to do a lot of bending and reaching to tend my plants.

The added height of raised beds can be wonderful for children because they can tend to the garden without worry that they’ll step on something they shouldn’t, fall, or experience some other mishap. Raised beds can be perfect for older adults or those with mobility issues, as well. By making it more comfortable and enjoyable to garden, we’ll all garden more, which is what we want all around!

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Design Principles to Keep in Mind for Raised Beds

Let's start with the size and shape of your raised garden beds.

Size & Shape of Raised Beds

In general, it’s not worth having a raised bed if you can’t have one that’s at least 1.5 feet wide. A raised bed only 1 foot wide won't allow you to plant enough rows to make it worth it. The maximum would be 4, possibly 4.5 to 5, feet wide. You can stretch the width if you have big trellises down the center of that bed and can fill and tend the bed from each side of the trellis. If you’re planting against a wall or a fence, you want to keep the raised bed width to about the length of your arm. In general, most of us can comfortably reach about 2 feet; anything wider than that, and we’ll find ourselves bending and stretching uncomfortably to tend the interior of the garden.

Shop Gardenary's Raised Bed Kits

The minimum height for a raised bed is 6 inches. My preference is beds that are 2 feet tall, and that depth allows you to grow a wide variety of plants that you might not be able to otherwise. For example, a bed just 6 inches tall limits you to growing lettuces and herbs (plants with smaller root structures). The standard depth for a raised bed is 1 foot deep, which allows you to grow more deep-rooted plants like carrots, celery, and peppers. When you graduate up to 18 inches or 2 feet, large fruiting plants like tomatoes and eggplants will be much happier. As you start planning for your beds, keep these minimum heights in mind and compare them to the plants you’ve decided you want to grow.

Now let’s talk about the length of your raised beds. To ensure that your beds don’t bow without bracing, we’ve found the maximum length to be about 10 to 12 feet long. We once made a bed 25 feet long but ran into structural trouble once the soil was added. When you start shopping for your materials, you’ll find that 8-foot-long boards have the largest selection and are the most economical. That's why 8 feet is a typical length to build beds.

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Raised Bed Materials

We stress the importance of selecting materials that are natural, beautiful, durable, sustainable, and also affordable. We consider materials to be natural when they're as close to their naturally occurring state as possible. For safety reasons, we wouldn’t select pressure-treated wood or metal that isn’t food safe. We love materials like brick, stone, and concrete that are a natural fit in your landscape. We also make it a priority to match the aesthetic quality of the material to the existing structure, design, and landscape.

Remember, a raised-bed garden is an investment of both time and money, so you want to ensure that you get the most out of it. As you consider materials, give careful thought to how long your choice is expected to last in your climate. Make sure you factor in humidity, rainfall, sun exposure, and temperature, and choose the material best suited for your needs.

Learn more about the different materials that you can use for your raised beds and their durability and affordability.

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Garden Trellises

Trellises have become my signature structure for Gardenary, and they're one of my favorite aspects of any garden space. Trellises allow you to grow vining plants in a smaller area. They also provide enduring beauty and design to your garden, even in winter when they're bare.

Trellises, first and foremost, are used as a support for your plants, particularly vining plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds, pole beans, and sugar snap peas. Most large plants are either a vining type or a bush type, and generally, trellises will be for the vining type of plant.

In addition to supporting plants, trellises exponentially increase your growing space. If you were to grow vining plants without some kind of structure for them to climb, the vines would spread outward and quickly take over your entire garden bed. Training them up a trellis frees up all the surrounding space so that you can grow more plants!

Trellises also help with plant health by giving each plant their own "personal space." Plants can be like my kids when they get crowded and start touching each other—nothing good comes from that! Plants need good air circulation, access to water, and sunlight, so using trellises gives them everything they need, plus room to grow and spread their stems.

Lastly, trellises add presence and beauty to your space. I love to use trellises to create a sort of living wall at the back of a garden space or even an inviting entrance. Whether you're growing in the ground or in raised beds, trellises enhance your overall landscape all four seasons, not just when they're covered in thriving plants.

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3 Types of Trellises for Your Garden Space

There are 3 types of trellises that we use in our designs: panel, obelisk, and arch.

Panel Trellises

Panel trellises are flat, and they can either be hung or propped against a wall or fence, or placed down the middle of your beds to function as a divider. Panel trellises are perfect for narrow raised beds because they give more space to grow up when you don't have the room to spare otherwise. We often use panel trellises when we're growing in gardens that line driveways or fences.

Explore our guide to panel trellises.

Shop Our Favorite Panel Trellis

The Modern Panel Trellis is our bestselling panel trellis design. It's made of powder coated steel and features a contemporary rectangular design.

Dimensions: 23"W x 78"H

Obelisk Trellises

Some obelisks are shaped like narrow pyramids, while others are tall cylinders. Obelisks are perfect for the center of the raised bed or an in-ground bed to create beautiful focal points. They also lend great support to climbing plants while providing access to all sides. The one downside to obelisks is their height. Plants can quickly grow taller than the structure itself, which can lead to bunching at the top. Choosing the tallest obelisk you can find can help you avoid this situation.

Learn more about what to look for in an obelisk trellis.

Shop Gardenary's Obelisk Trellises

Arch Trellises

Arch trellises make the biggest statement in your space. Arch trellises can be rounded or rectangular, but at their most basic, they're essentially panel trellises that connect in the middle. They're perfect for tying two or more raised beds together to create a sense of cohesiveness or for creating a grand entrance to the garden space. I love to use arches to create pathways and movement throughout the garden and to grow plants that would otherwise be difficult to grow in the confined spaces of a typical backyard garden.

Find more arch trellis inspiration.

Shop Gardenary's Arch Trellises

Design Principles to Keep in Mind for Trellises

The trellis you select should be as durable and strong as it is beautiful. If you're installing trellises in the ground, I recommend anchoring them in concrete. In raised beds, make sure to bury their base at least a foot or more deep into the soil to secure them.

Trellis Material

Many of us start with wood like cedar or bamboo; just be mindful that they will likely only last a year or two in the garden before you’ll need to replace them. They are still a great option to explore if you want to try a trellis without making a significant investment as you’re just starting.

The trellises I use in all of my designs are made of powder coated steel. These trellises can often last longer than the raised beds themselves. Metal trellises might be a stretch for your budget, but you'll be able to enjoy them for many, many years.

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Garden Borders

A border is just a line or element that defines where the garden starts and ends. Basically, they separate your garden area from the rest of the landscape and help simplify care and maintenance. I set up my first kitchen garden right on top of the existing grass. In no time at all, we realized that it was tough to mow or edge between the beds without damaging the sides. By taking the time to plan for a border now, you'll make life much easier for yourself later.

Borders also serve the purpose of keeping your existing lawn from growing into the garden space. You can create a distinct and beautiful space for the garden that separates it from the rest of the landscape. I have metal edging around my entire kitchen garden to separate it from the native plant garden that surrounds it. I have more edging around the native plant garden to separate it from my lawn. The edging holds in materials like gravel and mulch, while keeping grass out.

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Design Principles to Keep in Mind for Borders

Borders should be solid and secure, which means you'll need to dig a trench to hold them in place. You'll be digging around the entire perimeter of your garden space, so you may want to enlist some help for this task.

Make sure you select a border material that's durable and strong. Metal edging is both, and you can pick from different colors to match the aesthetics of your home. In addition to steel, there's hard plastic edging, stones, and bricks. We typically use steel in our installations because it's sturdy but also discreet in its design, perfect for a more cohesive look with the garden space.

Before you start digging to install your border, I recommend using stakes and string to map out your area using straight lines. Taking the time for this step ensures your garden will look clean and professional.

Learn more about choosing a border material and installing it.

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Garden Pathways

A kitchen garden isn't a space that we create to be set up and then forgotten about—at least I hope it won't be! It's a space you'll be moving in and out of daily. Even a more ornamental garden is likely somewhere you'll want to visit quite often. Pathways are, therefore, essential because they allow you to get in and out of your garden and move between beds. They can even make it more pleasant to plant, tend, and harvest from your garden.

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Garden Design Principles to Keep in Mind for Pathways

Pathways give you easy access into and around the garden so you aren’t stepping on or breaking the plants you’ve worked so hard to grow. They can also—believe it or not—become a focal point in your landscape. We've found that simply by changing the color of the stone we select from white to black or multi-colored can make a big difference in the way a garden looks and feels.

Pathway Width

The first thing to consider for your pathway is the width that will look and feel nice for you as you walk through the kitchen garden. If your garden is up against another structure, you may not need a formal pathway since you'll likely be approaching from just one direction.

Even so, we recommend planning some space to create unique pathways that you'll set apart from your general landscape using materials that make it easier and cleaner to get to and maintain your garden. For example, if you were to install a raised bed up against your home, adding a border of stone or mulch that's a minimum of 6 inches to 1 foot wide will define the space and help protect your bed from damage.

If you have several raised beds in a row, you'll want to carefully consider how much space you'll need between them. As a rule, I plan for a minimum of 2 feet between each bed and a maximum of 3 feet, unless it's a really large garden space. A wheelbarrow is usually between 2 and 3 feet wide, and you might want to be able to push a wheelbarrow through your garden space.

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Pathway Material

You'll want to use something natural, durable, and beautiful. I often use gravel pathways because it's one of the simplest and cleanest materials. This type of pathway even increases the durability of your raised beds by preventing them from staying next to wet materials for prolonged periods of time. Make sure to match the gravel to your home or any stones in your landscape.

Another common material is mulch, like shredded wood, bark, leaf matter, or similar. Mulch is easy to use and affordable. The downside to using natural mulch is that it quickly degrades, making it much less durable than gravel. It's also pretty attractive to pests and gives them a nice place to hide.

If you opt for mulch, I still recommend using gravel around the edges of your raised beds to help with drainage and keep your beds as dry as possible.

My favorite mulch is pine straw. It lasts much longer than shredded bark or wood and doesn't seem to attract pests as much, either.

Learn more about creating a garden pathway.

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Native Plant & Pollinator Garden Space

Even if you just planned to set up a kitchen garden, I highly recommend dedicating some space to growing native plants, wildflowers, and pollinator-friendly flowers. My entire kitchen garden here in Nashville is surrounded by space that's intended to be a little haven for bees and butterflies and other wildlife. Having this area actually improves the health of my kitchen garden. So don't overlook this type of space in your plans for your dream garden!

Let's talk about why this element is a critical component of your garden. First of all, native plants are super easy to grow. They're literally from wherever you live, and that means they can resist disease, protect themselves from local pests, and thrive pretty much on their own without a lot of help from you.

When you add native plants to your garden space, you bring biological balance. You'll want to welcome in birds and beneficial insects to keep things running smoothly in your vegetable garden, especially if you're gardening organically and growing fruits and vegetables that are susceptible to pests and disease. If you want those animals to come into your garden, you have to give them places to live and raise their young, plus food. And that's what native plant garden spaces do.

Research native plants for your area. Many native plants are pollinator-friendly, but you'll also want to grow flowers to welcome bees, ladybugs, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When pollinators pop into your space to drink flower nectar, they move pollen around for your fruiting plants. That means the more pollinators you bring to your garden, the healthier and more productive your garden will be.

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Design Principles to Keep in Mind for Your Native Plant & Pollinator Garden

You can grow native plants, wildflowers, and pollinator-friendly plants directly in your native soil. These plants are either used to growing in the type of soil you have in your area, or they're just not that picky about their soil.

When it came time to design my own garden space, I figured out where my raised beds belonged, and then I simply added a 3-foot-wide in-ground garden space around the entire perimeter, excluding pathways, of course, for native plants and pollinator-friendly flowers.

You want to have these plants growing as close to your edible annual plants as possible. If the space was previously growing grass, I recommend using a sheet mulching process to set up your new beds. You'll lay down some cardboard and then cover it with a soil and compost mix.

Once your in-ground space is set up, you can head to your local nursery and grab some of the plants you've researched, plus a couple packets of wildflower seeds. I like to buy plants in groups of three so I can create little clusters throughout the space.

As you think about the design of your dream garden space, make sure to sketch out ways you can fit as many native plants and flowers as possible. You won't regret it when you're sharing your dream garden with butterflies and bees and birds!

Read the step by step to set up your own native plant and pollinator garden space.

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How to Tie Your Garden Space into Your Home & Landscape

Over the years, these five structures have become the standard for every Gardenary design. No matter the space or layout, these five structureswork together to create a complete and practical setup. Trust me: it works.

But before you gather the structures for your garden, it’s important to establish an overall style for your space. Aim to createa garden that looks like it’s been part of your home and landscape from the very beginning.

To accomplish this in your garden, it’s important to, first,recognize the established style of your home and landscape.Pick a word that an architect might use to describe the style of your home, apartment, orcondominium. Maybe it's traditional, modern farmhouse, ranch, colonial, Victorian, French, etc. If you're not sure, google certain features of your home like the year it was built and the location, even elements like the roofline, porches, window style, and more. When I first started designing kitchen gardens, I had to do a lot of googling because I didn’t have a background in architecture or design like this, and I wasn’t sure how to describe all the beautiful architecture in my area.

Once you’ve defined your home’s style, you’ll use that word to guide yourselection of each kitchen garden element. In a few months, when your friends come for a walk through your gardenand tell you it looks like it’s always been there, you’ll know you’ve done it right.

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6 Classic Garden Layouts

Now that you know the different elements you can (and should!) include in your garden, let's look at your different options for laying out your space. These layouts work for in-ground beds, but they're really designed for raised garden beds.

It can be tough to figure out which layout will work best in your space. When I first started "designing" kitchen gardens, I would just plop a wooden box in the middle of the yard and call it a day. But I soon realized that there are dozens of ways to lay out your garden space to maximize beauty, growing space, and efficiency. So before you design your garden, keep these garden layouts in mind. Here are 6 of our most classic and tested designs.

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Border Gardens

The border garden is Gardenary's most popular layout, most likely because it fits naturally into so many spaces, including apartment balconies and patios. It also makes the most of areas of the yard that werepreviously underutilized.

A border garden layout works well if you’re limited in space,or you’d like to preserve most of your lawn or landscape for other uses. We’ve designedborder gardens to sit right up next to a house, in a side yard, along fences and driveways, and along thebackyard’s perimeter.

You’ll need a minimum of 2 feet of width and at least 6 feet in lengthavailable to make the most of a kitchen garden using this layout. Border gardens are generally 1.5 to 2.5 feet wide. Three sides of the garden are typically accessible, while at least one side is up against your home, a fence, or another structure that blocks access.

If you have a sunny corner, consider an L-shaped border garden (though making the raised bed, if you're doing the work yourself, will be just a bit trickier).

Learn more about border gardens.

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Twin Gardens

If you’ve got space to dedicate some of your central lawn to a kitchen garden, twin gardens can be a perfect match. This symmetrical design works well in your landscape. I typically feel that if you're not going to have a border garden, it's not a great idea to have a single garden bed all by itself in the middle of your yard. I almost always go with a minimum of two garden beds unless the landscape just doesn't allow it.

Twin gardens make the most of available spaces that are deeper than they are wide (or wider than they are deep). Twin gardens also allow you to maximize the growing space inside this larger garden area while creating more interest and appeal than a single garden can provide.

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Garden Trio

There's a reason interior designers always put things in groups of threes. If you have a space that's very long or more circular or curved overall, then creating a garden in a group of three is a great option.

I've created a garden trio twice for myself, first in my driveway garden in Houston and then again in Chicago along the side of my home. (The latter was 6 raised beds in two rows, essentially two garden trios.)

Learn more about designing your own garden trio.

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Elevate your backyard veggie patch into a sophisticated and stylish work of art

Consider this your modern guide to setting up and planting an edible garden that's not only productive, but beautiful, too. Kitchen Garden Revival will forever change the way you think about growing a little bit of your own food.

Four-Garden Classic

If you have a space that’s square, or nearly square, in shape and at least 15 feet wide, a four-garden classic is my favorite option. Aesthetically speaking, four gardens are absolute perfection in terms of kitchen garden design. The feeling you’ll have inside your four-garden classic is magical and truly an escape from reality (which is not a bad thing in the middle of a busy work week).

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Keyhole Garden

Keyhole gardens are a unique design with an outer bed in the shape of a U around a smaller central bed. This garden layout maximizes the amount of space available for growing because the design uses nearly all of the available space while also creating an enclosed setup that's fun and easy to tend.

The traditional keyhole garden is round with one "piece of the pie" removed for access to the bed and the possibility of compost collection in the center. We made some modifications to fit the more squared-off urban areas many of us are gardening in today.

You can use this layout for your space if you've got at least a 10ft x 15ft area to work with.

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Formal Potager

If your landscape allows for a total garden area that’s more than 20 feet wide and long, you have space to create a formal potager. These designs are so large and ornate we had to call in the French language to help us describe them.

Potagers go well beyond a few raised gardens and include additional features such as fountains, fruit trees, seating areas, and more. The L-shaped or curved garden beds in this layout work together to create something of a maze or enclosure. I’ve had the opportunity to design a handful of formal potagers, and it always felt like such a privilege.

If your space is ready for a formal potager, hiring a garden consultant to help you is a great idea.

Learn more about this grand garden design layout.

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Time to Design Your Dream Garden

Now it’s your turn to create a layout that maximizes your growing space and suits your landscape. Use the layout you've selected to pencil your new garden into the map you created in Part 1. After you’ve completed this process, it may be a little more obvious why companies like Gardenary exist. The process of kitchen garden design can be daunting. But now that you’ve learned more about your property and its needs and characteristics, you’re well on your way to that kitchen garden you desire. And, if you need a little more clarity, you can always get direction and find a Gardenary consultant in your area to help you.

After drawing your garden design on the map, it’s time to stake the entiregarden area—including all borders and pathways, not just the raised beds—using stakes and twine. Staking the garden will help you better envisionwhat the finished project will look and feellike once it comes off your paper and turns into reality. It'll also help you make sure you've chosen the right spot. You can walk around and really get a sense of the space.

In Part 3, we'll gather materials for your new dream garden!

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How to Start a Garden Part 2: Creating a Garden Design • Gardenary (2024)
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