Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Starting a New Food Garden

A few months ago someone asked me in an email ‘I have recently moved to a new property and want to put in a little vegie garden. Where do I start?‘ This blog post describes what I would do if I had the opportunity to start a small food garden from scratch.

Imagine a typical suburban backyard with not much more than a washing line, lots of useless patchy grass and long-suffering bushes and trees along the fences. If I could start with such a ‘blank canvas’ today, I would not do what I did when I started my current food garden fifteen years ago. Some of the mistakes I made then are still with me today, and will continue to be annoying, until I finally correct them. Setting up a food garden that is efficient and good looking, right from the start, is the way to go.

Whole books have been written on the subject of food garden design, including some under the permaculture banner.

Using permaculture principles and other clever stuff I have seen in food gardens while on our group’s food garden visits, I am going to skip all the theory and go straight to answering the question .......

If you wanted to set up a small vegie garden in a ‘blank canvas’ garden, what would you do?

I would do the following:

In the sunniest part of the garden, not too far from the kitchen door and an outside tap, I would create four identical (raised) beds for vegetables.

I would make the beds perfectly level, 0.9 metres wide, and anywhere between 0.9 and 1.8 metres long. They would be positioned as much as possible with their long side West to East.

I would create a number of small areas for herbs near the four garden beds.

Another bed, on the Southern side of the food garden, again 0.9 metres wide, would be for berries.

Also on the Southern side of this food garden would be a shed for tools, pots, fertilisers, a wheelbarrow and bales of mulch, so they can be kept them out of the rain.

On the shady side of this shed there would be a compost bay and/or a worm farm and I would reserve space where I can create a heap of branches, weeds and cuttings that need to go on the compost heap.

All the paths along these beds and to the shed would be wide enough for my wheelbarrow. Pipes/hoses leading from my outside tap to a valve at each bed would be buried under the paths.

I would devote a narrow strip around all this to flowering ornamental plants. Around this I would put a mesh fence with a self-closing gate, that would allow my wheelbarrow through.

Here is a diagram of how all this might fit together:

Here is why I came up with this design:

I would have four vegetable beds (not 2 or 3) because I would want to rotate my crops (bed 1 = peas/beans, bed 2 = ‘big eaters’, bed 3 = roots, bed 4 = potatoes, tomatoes – see ‘crop rotation’ on this blog).

I would make all vegetable beds the same size and shape, because then anything I make for one bed, fits all beds. An example would be a cover against cabbage white butterflies or birds.

I would make all beds ‘two arm lengths’ wide (0.9 metres in my case) because I can then reach all parts of these beds without standing on them. Standing on beds compacts the soil and plants don’t grow well in compacted soil.

I would position each bed with their long side West – East in order to minimise the chance that tall plants in a bed shade other plants in the same bed, eg. corns (tall) shading cabbages (not tall).

Four not-too-wide equal-size beds surrounded by wide paths (thanks Loes)
I would put things that create shade (the shed, the berries) at the Southern end, and in their shade I would put a compost heap and worm farm that need shade.

I would try to minimise walking distances. At night in the dark you don’t want to walk a long way from your kitchen to pick a few extra herbs or to your worm farm to get rid of your kitchen scraps. In the design shown above, when you want to garden, you go out through the kitchen door, open the near-by gate, collect tools from the shed, and start food-gardening, in that order, because the layout is in that order.

All paths and the gate are wide enough for a wheelbarrow (and mower if you put grass on the paths).

I would dig in pipes/hoses leading from my water source, the outside tap, to each bed, so you don’t fall over them. I would then drip-irrigate all beds (see ‘irrigation’ on this blog).

I would surround the garden with low flowering plants to attract beneficial insects and because it looks great.

I would fence my food garden so rogue dogs, possums, wallabies don’t eat my precious produce (see ‘fencing’ on this blog). I would have a gate with a reliable spring, so it is never accidentally left open.

What if the design above is more than you want?
If you are new to food gardening, you could start with just two beds, or four, nothing else, but make them the right size and shape, and position them so that if you like to expand your food garden later on, you don’t have to move them. It is really frustrating to improve soil in a garden bed and then re-design your garden and that soil becomes part of a path. And moving a raised bed is a lot of work. So think ahead! What will you do if you want to expand your veggie garden?

What if you want more than the design above?
You could easily add more to this design:

Fruit trees - a good spot for them in this design would be the flowers1 bed, because it is on the South-side of the food garden, so you can let your fruit trees become as high as you like without them creating shading your veggies. I would train (espalier) them along wires so they become a flat shape parallel to the fence.

A passion fruit or grape - they require a warm sunny spot. An ideal spot for this might be the north facing wall of the shed. The shed would provide the warmth.

Chooks - a good area for them would be adjacent to your food garden on the right or left, so part of the food garden fence doubles up as chook fence. You could plant (more) fruit trees in the chook pen (initially protect them with mesh), if you don’t put them too close to the fence with the food garden (to prevent shade). The chooks will keep the soil below the fruit trees largely weed-free, eat bugs and fallen rotting fruit and the trees will love the manure. 

 Unusual looking chooks - you get the idea (thanks Rosalie)
More room for vegies – you could make the beds longer (not wider) than indicated in the diagram. If you have the space you could have 8 beds instead of 4 (don’t have 6 or 7 – too confusing when rotating crops). 

A work area – where the outside tap is in the diagram above you could add a sink-table for cleaning produce and potting up plants. A bucket under the sink instead of ‘proper plumbing’ would allow you to collect water for the garden (see photo below). 
student desk + old sink + tap = work area + water collection
A water tank – in the diagram, left of the shed, outside the fence, you could add a water tank that collects water off the roof of the shed, with a pipe and tap leading back to within the fence. 

How to go about a design that suits your garden?

Over a period of time observe ……

Shade - establish where North is, what parts of your garden are in shade for part of the day or all day, especially in winter when in sunny spots you can still grow vegetables. Would your garden benefit from the removal of a particular tree? Shade provided by a wall is a good spot for a compost heap and/or worm farm.

Wind - do you get strong winds? Might it help if you plant trees or bushes to soften the impact of wind on your garden? How will this affect shade on your garden? Berries and fruit trees on the wind side of your food garden may help soften winds. 

Invasive tree roots – Do not put beds or a compost heap near or under trees. The trees will love it, but take a lot of the goodness out of your soil and compost. 

Aspect - work with the contours of the land. Have beds and pathways that go with the slope, so it is easier to make beds level, pushing wheelbarrows up and down hill is minimized, and rainwater is encouraged to go sideways, rather than down hill.
Your kitchen – food gardens are sometimes called ‘kitchen gardens’. A food garden out of sight far away from the kitchen at the end of the garden, is far from ideal.
Wet and dry spots – are there spots in your garden that are always wet or dry? 

Soil – dig some test holes here and there. Are there spots with good, easy to dig soil? 

Water – do you need to get an outside tap installed in a convenient spot?
Your front garden – Don’t overlook it! In a Tasmanian suburb where pristine front gardens are the norm one family showed us how ornamental and productive a front-yard food garden can be. 

A front-yard food garden - on the left espaliered fruit trees along the street  (thanks Avril and Brett)
At the end of this I would combine all this info in a diagram on graph paper, similar to what I did. Then in your garden, set out with pegs where everything would be, and ‘walk through your design’.  Happy with that?  Then let the transformation begin! 

Autumn and winter are the ideal times to get started, as the sun is low in the sky, so any area that receives sun then, will receive it all year round.  It also means you will be ready for take-off in Spring.

In Kitchen Gardens of Australia by Kate Herd (Penguin Books) I found the sentence:

It is time for a new kind of suburban garden, one that feeds us body and soul, and is sustainable in these times of climate change, irregular rain and temperatures.

I hope this blog post will help that cause!


  1. From my experience, it can take a long while to slowly make compost and build up soil carbon and fertility. Ideally something like 50 percent compost is ideal, especially if the existing soil os in poor quality.

    Luckily here in Hobart the city tip makes compost and it's purchasable at about $35 a trailer load. I've used this quite a lot for rapidly building up veggie beds in places.

    Make sure you buy the compost not mulch. If the garden is for fruit trees or large plants it's fine as is. If for vegetables, use a garden screen to screen out the small bits of woody material that are still in the compost – because this material will absorb nitrogen from the soils it breaks down. The result is a very fine compost that feels good enough to eat.

  2. I'd like to know what people think of Swale gardening?

  3. Thanks Flavia. I will keep an eye out for someone who has adopted this method.

  4. Nice Procedure to make and design a beautiful garden. When deciding to plant in a vegetable garden, it's best to start small. Thanks FoodGardenGroup to provide this informative information.

  5. I get a local magazine called Tasmania 40 degrees South. It was great to see this specific post (and this blog in general) mentioned on page 76 of issue 85. It's listed as #9 in a section entitled "Sips & Nibbles".

    Well done!

  6. I get a local magazine called Tasmania 40 degrees South. It was great to see this specific post (and this blog in general) mentioned on page 76 of issue 85. It's listed as #9 in a section entitled "Sips & Nibbles".

    Well done!