How to Plan a Garden Step-by-Step

It’s time to plan a garden! In some ways, this is my favorite part.

One good reason to do this in autumn is that the ending of things is easier to cope with when you have something to look forward to. I like to leave some of the planning for the Winter Checklist, just to stretch out the joy of anticipation that planning evokes, and also because Winter’s Checklist tends to be considerably shorter, so there’s more time for enjoying it.

I’m going to approach this on the assumption that this is your first garden, and you don’t know a lot about what you’re doing. I’ve found, though, that however experienced I am, I always learn something from other gardeners. Gardeners are an independent and flexible bunch—we wouldn’t be gardeners if we weren’t. We’re pretty creative and love to experiment, too–so naturally, there are things we do differently from the way others do them. We’re constantly learning. I’m always hoping that someone else has found a fantastic solution to some problem I’m puzzling over. So there’s probably something here for everyone.

What kind of garden shall you have? It’s limited only by your imagination—or your ability to look up other people’s ideas, pick one and/or mix and match pieces. There are formal, manicured, well-behaved gardens (don’t ask me how they do it), and there are informal, and even wild and woolly gardens. There are gardens planted in geometric designs (usually rectangular, but sometimes spiral or labyrinthine–or literally any shape at all) in a single, specific area of the yard. But I’ve also seen edible plants intermingled throughout the landscape, so instead of a garden plot, tomatoes formed a backdrop along a fence behind a bed of wild flowers while greens made a lacy border around some azaleas.*

(*Be very careful, however, what you plant together. For instance, I wouldn’t plant narcissus among onions and garlic. Narcissus that are not blooming closely resemble onions and garlic, but are quite poisonous. So do some research, or make sure there’s no way to mistake a non-edible plant for the edible one next to it.)

There are urban gardens and country gardens. And don’t forget community gardens—a terrific choice for someone with no space at all. There are rooftop gardens, patio gardens, kitchen window gardens. There are vertical gardens and terraced gardens and container gardens and raised gardens and gardens that use no soil at all. Pick one. But before you pick one, there’s something else you must do.

You must analyze your space. What kind of garden will fit? Do you have no yard, but you have a kitchen window? Do you have a tiny yard and want to grow some veggies, but don’t want to give up your flower beds? Your garden doesn’t have to conform to anyone else’s idea of what a garden is. Express yourself. What feels natural to you in your space?

How much space do you have? Is it horizontal or vertical or both? How are the light and drainage? Poor light and/or drainage may but don’t necessarily mean you can’t have a garden there. You can get around some negatives, but you have to know what factors you’re going to have to accommodate. If it’s not very sunny, then you’re going to need to focus on plants that like or don’t mind the shade—like greens, for instance, or use a grow light. Where we live, the summer sun gets too intense even for sun-lovers, so a little shade in the afternoon is a plus. If your sun is also intense but you have no shade, create some by building a pergola, maybe even growing some vines on it, or by stretching cheesecloth over a frame. If your area is a swamp, you still have some choices: raised beds, containers, a hanging garden, a different spot, or maybe grow some rice. 🙂

Now, map out your space on a sheet of graph paper or with one of the many apps available especially for this purpose. AND GET THE MEASUREMENTS! Sorry about yelling like that, but it’s that important. DO NOT do this step without actual measurements. Don’t go on what you think it is. I know, I know. It’s a lot of trouble to go to, it’s not part of the fun stuff, but do it anyway.

If you don’t want to “rough it” with graph paper and pencils, here are some garden planning apps you can check out. Some of them are free, but none of them are expensive. Some of them are quite simple and basic, while others get down and dirty (gardener-style) with features you aren’t going to believe. Check them out and see if one or more of them suits your needs and personality. These are the best I could find:

If you’re new to gardening, please start small. You can always expand next year–or even next season. If you’re like me, you’ll want to go all out right out of the gate—but don’t. Be realistic in determining what you can reasonably handle.

TIP: Don’t make the farthest point from the edge of any bed farther than your arm is long. Otherwise, harvesting those things in the center or at the back is going to be a lot more interesting. Personally, I have kind of short arms (I’m kind of a short person), so I don’t make island beds more than three feet across, and beds lining fences, etc., more than eighteen inches deep. They can be however long you want and have room for. Just make sure you’ll be able to reach everything without resorting to extreme measures.

Keep access to water in mind. Can you reach it with whatever watering system you plan to use? If you want to plant in an area where watering is going to be a challenge, that would be the place to plant… can you guess? Plants that don’t need a lot of water, of course!

If you’re laying out rows, have the long side facing south so that more of the plants get some sun.

Leave at least three feet between beds. You need room for things like wheelbarrows, carts, and walking, and bending over. If you have mobility issues, you will need enough room for your wheelchair or scooter.

Here are some more decisions you need to make:

What kind of beds will you create? Will you plant everything directly into the ground? If you’re young and agile, or very healthy and flexible, this could be great. But if you’re dealing with physical limitations that will make getting on the ground painful and/or getting back up the challenge of the day, then go for vertical gardening, raised beds, hanging plants, and/or containers. You can make these whatever height you need. You can also stack raised beds, creating a pyramid. In general, raised beds give you greater control over your garden.


  • If you live downhill from any livestock pasture, barns, buildings, etc., you should very seriously consider raised beds. Run-off from livestock areas can carry pathogens like e coli right into your garden and contaminate any crops which are on or near the ground, like greens. tomatoes, etc. Crops like corn shouldn’t be effected. Raised beds should keep your produce out of harm’s way–and you and yours healthy.
  • If your soil is really bad and/or rocky, it will be much easier to get good soil when you build it from scratch. Raised beds let you get above it all and start off right. You can build good soil without raised beds, but it will take longer if what you’re starting with is very poor. We did it without raised beds, starting with very rocky clay that wouldn’t even grow weeds (really–I’m not exaggerating). It worked, but it took a LOT of work and a couple of years. By the third year, we had fantastic soil in our garden beds at a decent depth for the plants. But if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have started with raised beds, even if I’d had to start smaller due to it being more expensive.
  • Raised beds also:
    • Help keep the weeds down.
    • Are easier to access for planting, harvesting–everything. Especially if you have a hard time bending over, getting down on the ground, or getting back up, or if you get around in a wheelchair or via scooter.
    • Can solve drainage problems.
    • Prevent soil compaction, because they’re less likely to get walked on.
    • Create a barrier for certain pests.
    • Prevent your garden soil from being washed away due to erosion.
    • Allow for deeper root growth.
    • Better drought resistance.
    • Fewer disease problems.
    • Can bring larger crop yields thanks to all the other benefits, and in some areas, can extend the growing season because the soil tends to warm up earlier in the spring. 

If you’re going to use raised beds, autumn is a good time to get started on them. Depending on your climate, working conditions (do you have a cozy shop to work in?) and available time, this can be done during the winter season or early in the spring. But if you have time in the autumn, go ahead and build the frames and start filling them with dirt.

  • Carefully choose the materials you plan to use for the frames, especially if you’re an organic gardener (which I STRONGLY promote).
    • Don’t use cinder blocks, treated wood, anything that’s been painted, or anything treated with creosote. The toxic chemicals will leech into your garden soil and contaminate your crops. Untreated wood is advisable only if you want to rebuild your beds every few years, because the wood will rot rather quickly–although thicker boards will last longer. You can also use a more durable, untreated wood, such as redwood or cedar.
    • Bricks are good and quite attractive, but will be expensive. Concrete blocks are great and much less expensive than bricks. They’ll last a lifetime and can easily be wide enough to sit on. You can also plant greens, radishes, carrots, or flowers in the holes in the top row, expanding your garden space and making it even more beautiful! Just make sure you get concrete and not cinder–there’s a difference. Cinder blocks are much lighter in weight than concrete, but their aggregate (what they’re made of) includes coal cinders or ash (the reason they aren’t so heavy), which is poisonous and will leech into your soil. If you use bricks or concrete, keep an eye on your soil pH, as it can be effected–but it’s easy to correct, so don’t let it keep you from using them if you’re so inclined.
    • You can use straw bales, rocks (free, if you want to go out and collect them in the wild), metal sheeting, plastic fencing planks, chicken wire lined with black plastic (clip the plastic to the wire at the top to hold it in place–but leave the bottom open for drainage)
    • Or you can practice  hugelkultur, or hill culture, which requires no frame at all.
    • You can purchase kits which you just have to assemble.
    • An idea: talk to a fencing company about getting discarded fence panels from them. [copied from October 19, 2017 post Autumn’s Garden Checklist–Looking Forward to Spring]
  • If these are very deep or large beds, it’s going to take a lot to fill them. If that much dirt is going to be a problem, you have a couple of options. You can put a layer of gravel in the bottom, which will also be good for drainage, and/or add a layer of mulch (straw or wood chips are good), which will break down and become healthy, organic soil. You can also hollow out your paths, putting the dirt from the paths into the raised beds (on top of the gravel, etc., if you went that route). It may not be enough to fill the beds, but it will certainly help! Then fill in the hollowed out paths with gravel, straw, or wood chips. You can also add compost and other amendments to finish filling the beds, but I usually do that in the spring. Or you can build elevated raised beds—which, to me, are really containers. Basically, you build raised beds that don’t sit on the ground. They’re on legs or a base or have a false bottom.
  • Here’s more info about raised beds, including ideas, plans, instructions for building, etc.:

Something else you can do either in the fall or during the winter season (or very, very early in the spring), is decide what you’re going to plant, and where you’re going to plant it. Here are a few common sense tips:

  • Don’t plant anything you don’t like and won’t eat unless you’re going to trade veggies with someone who will eat it.
  • Don’t plant more than you can realistically take care of.
  • Figure out how much of each food you’ll eat in the course of the year to estimate how much you should plant, if you’re trying to grow all of your own food. Some of the above apps have a feature which, once you enter the number of family members, will calculate that for you.
  • When deciding what to plant where:
    • Consider companion planting. At least one of the above-listed apps helps with this. There’s also a lot of info on the internet, of course.
    • Keep mature plant sizes in mind, as well as sun/shade and water needs. Don’t put plants that hate having their feet wet next to thirsty little things. Don’t plant sun-lovers too close to one another. Planting corn in front of tomatoes isn’t a good idea. The corn will grow taller than the tomatoes and shade them. Instead, plant something that prefers some shade and cooler temps, like greens or peas, behind the corn. Likewise, don’t plant heavy-eaters together unless you’re going to give them extra feedings. The common advice is that you shouldn’t plant heavy-eaters in the same bed next year that you do this year–but I’ve gotten away with it by enriching the bed with gusto after harvest. If you ever hear about “The Three Sisters,” it refers to the age-old practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together. Their growing needs compliment one another quite well. This is what you’re after.
    • Plan succession plantings in order to get the most produce from the space you have. Some of the above-mentioned apps have features that help with this task.
    • Remember the birds, the bees, and the butterflies! Include something for them, too. 

Also, remember to follow Color Us Empowered on Facebook where I share the best articles, videos, and other information about all aspects of gardening (among other things) that I can find.

So there you are–enough for you to get a fabulous start. Have fun dreaming up that garden you’re going to be enjoying soon!