Have you ever walked into your favorite store and blanked out because of all the possibilities? That’s happened to me countless times. The potential around me was so overwhelming that I didn’t know where to start. The same thing can happen when considering different garden layout ideas.
There are just so many different ideas to choose from, aren’t there?
Our goal with this article is to take some of the guesswork out of your garden planning. We’ll aim to help you choose which layout would work best for your space, as well as your growing goals.
1. Determine Your Goals
First things first: clarify your goals with this garden space. Is your highest priority growing as much food as possible to feed your family? Or are you more interested in flower gardening? Will this be a quiet multi-sensory retreat? Or an efficient, tidy space full of medicinal and culinary plants?
Once you’ve determined exactly what it is you’d like to grow, you can start dreaming about layout options.
2. Make a List
After you’ve decided what you’d like to grow, you’ll need to do some research.
Write down all the species you’d like to grow. Then, make a note of the sun, soil, and water requirements for each of them. I do this in an Excel spreadsheet, but you can use a notebook too.
By doing this, you’ll have a good idea of which species can be planted where. It’ll also inform your layout options. For example, let’s say that nearly all of the plants you want to grow need slightly acidic, well-draining soil. You then know that you can group these together (provided they’re good companion plants) without any of them suffering from improper soil needs.
On that same note, some of those plants will need more sunshine than others. You’ll now know which will need to be placed where they get at least 6 hours of direct light daily. In contrast, the others can likely tolerate dappled shade.
This brings us to our next tip:
3. Observe Your Space!
You’ll need to do this before you even think about potential garden layout ideas. This is because the factors you observe will dictate the types of layouts you can have.
For example, let’s say you have a postage stamp backyard that’s about 15×3 feet. You could potentially grow a lot of vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers in that space, depending on a few vital factors. These include (but are not limited to):
- Water movement
- Potential interlopers
This refers to how and where sunshine falls in your garden. The garden that might seem to be flooded with sunshine in wintertime might end up totally shaded out in the summer.
If you’re planning your garden in autumn or winter, look around to see if there are large trees nearby. Then grab a compass to figure out where their shade will potential fall.
Sunlight moves from east to west over the course of the day. As a result, tall plants on the east side of your property will shade out your garden until noon. Similarly, west-side plants will offer shade in the later part of the day.
Try to determine which areas get the most (and least) light during the hottest summer days. This will help to inform your layout designs with regard to which species are planted where.
Do you live in an area that gets a lot of snow or rainfall? Then you’ll need to keep an eye on where the water goes as it melts or flows elsewhere.
Water seeks out and moves towards the lowest-lying areas. As a result, it’ll show you where there are hollows and wetter microclimates on your property. These will be great for water-loving species, but not for all of them.
For example, stone fruits like Prunus species (plums, peaches, etc.) hate having wet feet. In fact, they can suffer severe illnesses if they’re planted in soil that gets soaked too often.
It’s devastating to pour a ton of time, labor, and money into a garden, only to have these factors undermine your efforts.
Do you live in an area that gets high winds? If so, you’ll either need to grow wind-hardy species, or create a screen for more delicate ones.
For instance, instead of trying to grow fruit tree saplings in the middle of your yard, cultivate them against walls. You can splay them out espalier style, thus avoiding wind damage and increasing yields.
Are squirrels, deer, or raccoons abundant in your area? How about cabbage white butterflies? Or do pesky neighbors like to cut across your property on a regular basis? All of these potential visitors can undermine your growing attempts.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with local pests and predators when you’re considering garden layout designs.
For instance, if human or animal trespassers are an issue, try a bramble perimeter. Consider planting blackberries all around the edge of your property. By doing so, you’ll be able to harvest tasty snacks, and keep trespassers away.
Sure, you’re undoubtedly eager to dive into growing your own food, and that’s understandable. That said, it’s better to start off growing in movable containers while you observe your space for a year.
This is just temporary, as you learn how to work with your land rather than against it. Knowing the ideal places to grow will save you a ton of heartache (and money) in the future.
9 Garden Layout Ideas
These are the most common garden layout ideas, but it’s up to you to bring them to life. Get creative with geometry and raised bed materials. Incorporate sculptures, water features, and your favorite colors.
Every garden is a living, evolving experiment that can always be adjusted and added to.
1. Square Foot Garden Layout
A square foot garden (SFG) is ideal if you only have a very small space to work with. I used this method when I had a 10′ x 12′ backyard space in downtown Toronto to great effect. Basically, you’re maximizing space with raised beds, interplanting, and vertical aspects.
You can use the SFG method for any kind of plants you like, but it’s ideal for kitchen gardens. For example, vegetables and culinary herbs that you’ll be using on a daily basis.
These are also efficient because you can orient the grid to suit your lightfall.
2. Keyhole Garden
Keyholes are effective for maximizing space and increasing yield. Furthermore, you can adapt them to suit whatever space you have available. If you have a tiny yard, create one keyhole to grow as much as possible. Alternatively, larger yards can accommodate linked keyholes.
By creating raised beds that you can walk into, you’re not limited to the soil type in your area. This is especially effective for urban gardens. If you can’t dig more than a few inches without coming across power lines or sewage pipes, aim for raised beds instead.
Many people also incorporate compost funnels into their keyhole beds. While these aren’t necessary, they can be beneficial. In particular, they’re helpful in hot, dry areas where drought conditions are common.
3. Mandala Garden
This is similar to a keyhole garden. You create a centerpiece garden bed, and then radiate other raised beds around it like spokes coming from a hub. It’s a method that maximizes space while also being amazingly aesthetically pleasing.
I’ve used this design for herbal medicine gardens to good effect. Grow tall species such as mullein, elecampane, and echinacea in the central garden, surrounded by lower companion species. Then interplant other companionable species in the nearby raised beds. Try to choose species that look incredible together, as well as working well together as good neighbors.
Place vining plants on the outer perimeter so they can spill down the sides. Additionally, be sure to position tall species in the northernmost section so they won’t shade out lower plants over the course of the day.
4. Forest Garden Layout Ideas
Food forest gardens are ideal for almost every space. This layout idea allows you to maximize space by emulating the interplanting effects found in nature. If you take a walk through the woods, you’ll likely notice that nature abhors a vacuum.
You won’t see many bare spots in amongst the trees. Instead, you’ll see a storied effect in which species of gradient height fill up gaps that are best suited to them.
For example, plant tall species like fruit or nut trees, amaranth, popcorn, sunflowers, etc. at the back. Then plant mid-height plants like berry bushes, tomatoes, peppers, and chard beside and around them.
Follow those with kale, lettuces, and culinary/medicinal herbs. Finally, have ground creepers such as strawberries, thyme, and purslane at the lowest level.
5. Perimeter Garden
This layout idea allows you to have your veg and play area too. Basically, you’ll be cultivating the perimeter around whatever space you have. Meanwhile, you’ll keep an area bare in the center for enjoying the space. It’s an ideal option if you have children or pets, or simply for lounging and sipping drinks in the summer sunshine.
If you have fences or walls around your garden, you can grow up or along them as well. Instead of just planting tall species along those walls, attach trellises or netting to them. You could grow peas, beans, cucumbers, grapes, and a myriad other climbing species all along your fences.
Use the forest garden idea and build upon it. Essentially, just ensure that there’s a staggered height effect from back to front.
6. Potager Garden
A “potager” garden is basically a classic kitchen garden. It’s full of culinary herbs and small-scale vegetables typically used on a daily basis. Mine has about 40 different herbs in it, along with green onions, purslane, claytonia, and other low-growing veg. I also flank mine with a tall pea tipi trellis on either side.
You can adapt yours to suit whatever space you have available to you. The best thing about a potager garden is that it’s quite adaptable. You can intersperse raised beds with in-ground plants, as well as potted plants. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to grow whatever you can, with what you have available to you.
One of my favorite potager garden layout ideas is a series of simple raised beds flanking a walkway of some sort. It’s perfect for an allotment or typical backyard, and can also accommodate different ideas on this list.
For example, you can incorporate perimeter plants and keyhole corners. Or espalier fruit trees and climbing vine veg along the fences.
7. Knotwork Garden Ideas
Have you ever seen a knotwork garden? Of all the garden layout ideas mentioned here, this is one of the most beautiful.
Plant box (Buxus sempervirens) to create the walls of your knot design. Then you’ll fill the open spaces between the “lines” with the herbs or flowers of your choice.
This is an ideal design for culinary or medicinal herbs, but also works beautifully for flowers or vegetables. When designing yours, remember to take soil and lightfall into consideration, but also play with height, texture, and color.
For example, kale looks amazing alongside sweet alyssum, dill, calendula, and nasturtiums. These just happen to also be great companion plants!
8. Vertical Garden
If you only have a small space to work with, but plenty of lightfall, then grow up! No, seriously: consider vertical gardening as a layout option. You’d be amazed at how much you can grow when you take advantage of the space all around you. I once grew about 30 lbs of peas and beans up the side of a house in a super narrow laneway!
Trellises, netting, and climbing or vining species are your best friends, here. Choose a few plants that you know you love to eat, then companion plant them accordingly.
For example, create a trellis for cucumbers out of metal fencing or bamboo. They’ll grow up and over the trellis, creating a shady spot beneath. Utilize this shady spot for lettuce, spinach, and other tender greens. Meanwhile, plant oregano, dill, calendula, and nasturtiums alongside the cukes.
You can use a similar approach for pole beans, climbing peas, and various vine fruits. When I lived in California, we had beautiful little Corinth grapes growing across the pergola, over the patio. They offered us great shade from the brutal midday sun, as well as snacks and juice.
9. Fruit or Nut Tree Guild
If you only have a small space to work with but you’d like to grow as much food as possible, consider a tree guild. It builds upon the forest garden idea mentioned above, but concentrates it all in a single area.
Choose a fruit or nut tree that you really love, and make that the central figure. Then place understory plants around it, such as fruit or nut bushes. Determine the drip line, which is the circle created by the tree’s outermost leaves, and plant alliums all around it.
Onions, chives, daffodils, etc. will discourage animals from devouring everything. Between the bushes and the drip line, plant various vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, and pollinator-attracting flowers.
Remember that if you’re low on space, you can create an espalier guild against a wall or fence. In a case like this, you’ll plant a semi-circular drip line rather than a full circle.
Just be sure to choose a self-fertile fruit or nut tree for your guild! Otherwise, you won’t get a harvest from it, and you’ll waste a huge amount of time and effort for no return.