Think Like Plants: 6 Functional Design Tips for Your Vegetable Garden

by on March 13, 2013


Every garden tells a story.

What we see as functional food-producing landscapes always begin with an idea…a seed, if you will. After all, a vegetable garden is a place we plan on spending countless hours, whether planting, harvesting or just being. It’s a pantry, a library, a zoo, a place of relaxation and connection. So how we design our garden not only makes it functional for growing food, but it’s also an expression of who we are, who we are becoming.

As you’re planning your garden, consider some of these tips to help you choose the garden plan that’s best for you.

1. Boldly grow: Slate magazine ran a great piece several years ago on planning a functional garden. There’s a quote in the story from garden designer Patrick Thevenard urging gardeners to be bold. “By being bold, you may go wrong, but by being cautious and hesitant, you will definitely go wrong.” It’s important advice. Food is currency. It’s sustenance and energy. It’s intention and commitment. Grow a lot of it. Grow it in odd corners and planters. Hang it. The more you have, the more you can enjoy, store and share. Don’t just kind of garden, boldly grow your garden.

2. Look for the lowest hanging fruit: Not literally…not yet, anyway, but figuratively as it relates to your garden design. No patch of dirt? Don’t dig up the concrete; do raised beds instead. Not a lot of room? Go vertical. Is your yard a sloping hill? Try vines or shrubs that will grow with your yard texture. Work first with what you have. It’s good for your garden and your garden-brain.

3. Think outside the row crop: While it may make the most sense for corn growers in Iowa, your garden doesn’t need to look like a mono-crop industrial farm. In fact, other shapes often work better in small spaces to help you maximize your garden area. Pie wedges, half moons, spirals ( a personal favorite) and octagons can make access for you easier as well as create an artistic design you’ll enjoy observing over and over.

4. Better beds: Garden beds can be a fruit and vegetable lover’s saving grace. They’re the solution to bad or no soil; and they can keep you organized in complicated spaces. They’re also a go-to choice for the disabled or people with physical limitations that make getting all the way down to the earth a challenge.

And make sure those beds are raised up. A bed that’s 12 to 18 inches up from the ground can give you enough room for a gorgeous topsoil and other nutritious additives. It makes it easier on your back and legs, too.

Keep the beds ideally 4 to 5 feet wide so you can stretch into the middle without having to climb into the bed to plant or harvest.

5. Embrace colors and smells: What looks and smells great will enhance your garden experience. You can color-and aroma-coordinate your garden. Whether that’s an area that’s all purple or minty, or layers of color and fragrance spread throughout, how your garden looks is as important to your appreciation of it as how well it functions. It’s a work of art if you want it to be.

6. Think like your garden: If you live anywhere there’s concrete, you’ve likely spotted something green pushing its way up through the tiniest of cracks. This planet is a garden, always seeking more room to grow. Your own garden is no different. Plants will grow up, down, left and right. View corners and cracks as opportunities—not limitations. Invite chaos, to a degree. The plants will know what to do. Repurpose your busted toilet, ragged guitar case or shipping pallet into planters. Use the non-plant world as generously as plants use cracks in the concrete; decorate with cracked plates and bowls, stake with bamboo or busted broom handles. Let your garden’s story come to life through you, not for you.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: hardworkinghippy





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