Vegetable Garden Layout – Rows, Square Foot Or Wild?

You may have noticed I don’t usually plant in straight rows.

I prefer a much wilder garden:

Phil's wild vegetable garden layout

But when it comes to vegetable garden layout, I don’t have a problem with straight rows per se – they certainly can make weeding and harvesting a lot easier.

I’m just not a fan of rows that have big walking paths on either side of them, because that’s a lot of wasted space.

The reason for doing that on a farm is so tractors can drive through the field during the growing season, cultivating the soil and spraying poisons to control weeds and pests.

But most of us don’t use tractors in our gardens, so we don’t need to give up half of our growing space for walking, as is the case here:

Straight row vegetable garden layout
Photo Source

The reasons I like to design my vegetable garden layout plans more informally – in curving swaths of plants and polycultures (many different plants mixed together) – are because it:

  • Looks more natural
  • Can make better use of space
  • Confuses pests
  • Decreases weeds

Phil's wild vegetable garden layout plans

But other than the ‘looks more natural’ part, all of the above can be accomplished with straight rows if you keep them tight together and combine several types of plants within those rows.

If you put a walking row every 3-5 feet, you can still reach into the middle of the rows for pull weeds and harvesting vegetables.

If I wanted to maximize use of space I would use the biointensive method of positioning seeds and seedlings. That involves making your own special hexagon measurement instruments to place everything very precisely, which can be worthwhile if you’re tight on space:

Grow biointensive vegetable garden layoutPhoto Source

Yet a simpler strategy is the square foot method: create a garden bed that’s 4 feet by 4 feet, divide it into 16 square feet, and plant 1 or several plants into each square foot:

Square foot vegetable garden layoutPhoto Source

The only change I would suggest for the square foot method is to make the bed much longer to decrease unneeded pathways, say 4 feet by 25 feet.

In the end, what’s most important is getting your plants into a healthy soil and making reasonable use of your space, regardless of whether you’re planting wild or in squares or rows, whether you’re measuring everything to the inch or eyeballing it.

Which strategy do you prefer? Or what are you considering for this year? I’d be interested to hear your vegetable garden layout ideas and thoughts down below…

22 Comments

  1. Russ Klettke on April 4, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    My urban kitchen garden is also my summer entertainment space. A wild, haphazard look takes the pressure off of some hoped-for symmetry and instead creates this enormous bouquet of texture and color that in fact is also the source of salads and herbs used in the meals I serve.

  2. mensamom on April 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    I have been using traditional rows in my garden forever. This year I plan to use a fashion of the square foot plan to eliminate the wasted paths space Phil mentioned. I have an idea in my head so now to put it on paper then into action. Hope it works!

  3. Dkwrites on April 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Very interested in geometric farming. What is the length of the hexagon’s sides?

    • JJM123 on April 4, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Too detailed of a layout for me. IMO the sides would be determined by the expected size of the mature plant and attention to the recommended spacing, whereas carrot would be tiny sides and tomato would be LARGE size.

      • Phil on April 7, 2015 at 2:41 pm

        Indeed, that’s why different hexagons need to be built for different plant spacings.

  4. JJM123 on April 4, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    I still have difficulty identifying what many seedlings and young plants are, for instance is that a broccoli or cauliflower, in which case I try to plant and mark rows. Climbers are planted near the perimeter where they can climb a trellised fence being aware of potential shading issues. Otherwise the tiny seeds (lettuce radish, carrot, etc are just scattered in a patch &/or amongst the rows. As my patches are along the privacy fence and not walk-around, 3′ is the optimum width.

  5. MrBugs on April 4, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    I have raised beds and use the square foot method for a couple of them. I rotate beds, so three of the beds have only plants of their own families, though I use onions, dill, marigolds, nasturtiums, and herbs as companion plants.I have tried to plant some brussels sprouts and eggplant as decorative plants, using onions as a border plant, with petunias, and so on. It’s never really worked the way I had hoped.

    • kathy on April 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      I use containers for petunias and other colorful flowers around my raised beds. I think this adds some beauty and also calls the bees.

  6. driftergal on April 4, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    We’ve tried beds that were 4’X 8′ but the middle was too far away for us to comfortably reach the vegetables and the weeds. I don’t like having to step on plants and compact the soil when walking in the bed. I understand the point of wasted space for walkways but I’m so OCD that I just can’t do it any other way. We’re not pressed for space by any stretch of imagination so we’re making 2′ X 8′ beds with 18″ or 2′ walk ways between and covered with mulch so we don’t need to mow. We live in south Louisiana where it’s hot and humid for months on end so the weeds and grass can take over very quickly and has caused us to lose our desire to garden at all. Then spring comes and here we go again. I’m trying your methods this time. I know 2′ x 8′ seems awfully narrow but as we get older it gets more difficult to do any reaching past actual arm length without leaning too much. I tell all the young people I know that they should never get old because it sucks. We have a 6′ X 16′ square foot citrus garden with satsumas on one end and kumquats on the other end. There is 19′ between that and the carport. We have decided instead of planting our gardens in the back of our property we will fill that space with several 2′ X 8′ sf gardens. I plan on planting the plants that can’t take as much heat closer to the house going north to south parallel to our house so they only get morning and early afternoon sun and more hardy plants between those and citrus garden going east to west to break up the straight walkways which takes me out of my comfort zone. Besides for the shade in the afternoon is there any benefit in planting one direction or the other? Thanks for being there to help us.

    • Phil on April 7, 2015 at 2:51 pm

      Bed orientation doesn’t matter too much. Shade is the most important consideration, and often drainage is worth considering too. North-south orientation is traditional and makes slightly more sense to me for optimal sun exposure, but I would design for what makes sense on the overall site rather than forcing north-south beds.

  7. Jamie Black on April 4, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    I have just moved onto a farm where the fence around is about 8 feet high to prevent deer, with rabbit fencing on the lower half, so the space is square, but the area where the plants are, are many different long bean shapes, with high and low beds for different types of plants, fit to the space that is available to us. There is even a heart shaped bed. I like this better than the square foot method because it is more organic and the veggies mingle 🙂

  8. Bill on April 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    I have a 20′ by 20′ garden. yes, it looks like a jungle in there. Every year my dad and neighbors say I plant to close together, but I get a bundle of produce. I guess some people can’t grasp the concept of not growing in rows. I tried to row garden and didn’t get the results as I did while just putting my plants, flowers and herbs here and there. Great article and good info for those not used to seeing a more natural effect of gardening.

  9. Lars Karlsson on April 4, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    I do a mix of wild and orderd garden. They are best at different things – potatoes – straight lines, tomatoes. garlic, nasturtium – mix it up… I don´t think there is an ultimate rule for everything. I do short rows in the middle of a mixed plot.

  10. Krystal Everett on April 4, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    I did classic, space gobbling rows in my 17′ x 30′ raised beds that had hard hard, heavy clay. After months of work , more hours than I can count, I first added 5 of the MASSIVE hard packed sphagnum moss, lime, compost, composted steer manure, fluffing and breaking up the soil. Then topped with several inches of leaves then another few inches of cut alfalfa. And let it sit over winter. Then a few weeks ago I incorporated most all of the hay and leaves. I FINALLY got the crumbly light soil I’ve been striving and dreaming of. I have now added a keyhole pathway that will be permenent right down the center so every inch can be reached either thru the path or outside. I am also not really planting in rows. I have the same plants mixed together but other than where I planted seeds outside, I have planted all over.

  11. Brian Michael Shea on April 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

    I have a 4 x 7 plot in a raised bed, so I do a ‘very’ loosely based square foot gardening style. my planting style is a little more haphazard; i don’t stick strictly to the squares. Of course my flower and foliage gardens are more naturalistic looking.

  12. WayneSch on April 5, 2015 at 10:09 am

    I started out with traditional rows then I tried a version of Square Foot Gardening by making my rows 4′ wide and about 20 to 25 feet long. Not using a grid I ended up with just wide rows. This year I’ve planted six 4’x4′ raised beds and use 1’x1′ templates to mark where to plant depending on number of plants. The space between the beds is 18″ to 24″. I’m considering rebuilding the raised beds and making them 4′ x 25′ but using a narrow divider every 4′ to 8′ and a grid to keep things in order. I’ll keep the paths about the way they are now.

  13. driftergal on April 11, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    We got our 2’X 8’X 12″ deep beds made. The thing I’m concerned about is that my husband dumped a bunch of pine needles in the bottom before we put the dirt in. I know that pine needles make soil acidic, is this going to destroy my chances of a good harvest because of the soil being too acidic? He’s not quite on board with the methods I’m reading on your site as I am. He grew up gardening but using, shall we say, less than organic methods. I’m going to try to prove to him that the produce we get will be better if we do it right. I’m such a newbie that I’m constantly reading and re-reading your articles to get the information to stick in my head. I put lime, calcium nitrate, and the products I ordered from you and used the fertilizer application rate calculator on your site in applying it. I’m going to let the beds rest for a while before planting in them. The lattice on the beds are to keep the chickens from digging around in them until we can get the fence built around them.

    • Phil on April 14, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      No worries on the pine needles. It’s actually a myth that they make the soil acidic.It can take a few years to get the hang of doing things organically, but it’s a very worthwhile journey.

  14. Ellen Erickson on April 12, 2015 at 2:00 am

    have community garden plots so not many choices, square ft one with 4×16 ft is 6 beds total. I started with 4 tomatoes in each small row but it is a bit too close so now I am doing something similar to hexagonal with only 2 in a row and then 1 then 2 etc. I am a crammer though and stick everything together tightly

  15. rtj1211 on April 13, 2015 at 10:18 am

    I currently use four 5m*1.5m no-dig beds, with a 3m*1.5m and a 3m*1m making up a fith 7.5sqm area. In addition, there is a dedicated asparagus bed (5m*1m) and boundary beds at the northern end where the most sun is to be found. Beds have 0.5m wide paths between which allows a wheelbarrow along to put compost on beds when appropriate.There are a few other usable areas, notably a small 2m*1m area for growing kale and chard in an area where other things do less well; and a 1m*2m bed right by the house which only gets 4 -5hrs a day sunshine but can be used successfully for either shallots or lettuces.I’m actually finding that planting right in the middle of a 1.5m wide bed is challenging, particularly for transplanting, but overall it works well.I tend to plant crops across the beds, as that gives you greater flexibility to sow successionally and I’ve tended to use planting densities a bit higher than those recommended by commercial growers.My mother, however, grows broad beans very successfully amongst her daffodils!

  16. mdouble on June 6, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Biochar raises some interesting points and a good deal of controversy among gardeners. As you know, experiments conducted under controlled circumstances do no support claims that it improves growth or yield. These experiments done by different gardeners in widely varied locations all seem to point to the benefits of biochar being more mythical than real. However, you mentioned that biochar is acidic.Given this fact I would be curious to know if it has been tested specifically for use in amending soil which is to basic or perhaps even alkaline? At this point in time, I’m not convinced that biochar is all that useful as a general purpose soil amendment. I think seaweed mixtures are a better option, when combined with good quality humus, compost and mulch.I really do like the idea of using cover crops where possible. This idea is very consistent with the principles of natural farming in the famous book, “one straw revolution”. The use of green manure makes the most sense ecologically.

    • Phil on June 8, 2015 at 4:25 pm

      Funny, I would have thought your comment would be left on the article where I discuss biochar instead of here. Maybe there was a glitch with the commenting system.Anyhow, biochar is alkaline, not acidic, so yes, good thinking, it might make the most sense to use it on acidic soils. But actually, to be more accurate, since I imagine the alkalinity from biochar is probably largely from potassium (although I’m still not entirely clear on this), it makes the most sense to use it on soils that are low in potassium (it’s possible to have an acidic soil that already has plenty of potassium, so a potassium-rich biochar wouldn’t be called for there).Yes, cover crops are arguably the best source of organic matter in many ways. Thanks for sharing.

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