How To Design A Vegetable Garden, According To Two Top Cultivators

In an extract from their new book, 'The Abundant Garden', Niva and Yotam Kay of Pakaraka Permaculture dish the dirt on home-rearing greens

Yotam Kay working in the garden. Photo / Niva Kay and Jane Ussher

Every garden is unique, because each garden is the coming together of a special landscape of people, land, history, microclimate and resources.

A regenerative gardening approach is holistic, and considers the long-term consequences of gardening on the soil and the garden’s ecosystem, aiming to improve soil biodiversity and the use of resources.

The process of designing your garden, in a way that reflects your needs and desires, includes examining what makes you tick.

Identifying your core values and designing your garden around them will make sure the garden meets your needs.

The better job you do at this, the happier you will be with the results.

KEEPING A GARDENING DIARY

Before we start, we’d like to recommend keeping a garden diary to record as much information as you can about your gardening journey.

It can be a physical notebook or an electronic folder on your computer with various documents in it.

A garden diary is the place to record any gardening activities you have undertaken during the season.

It is especially useful when trying something new, when something unusual happens, when recording your experiments and to keep track of where your main crops have been planted for crop-rotation purposes.

It is also a useful place to record weather data, such as the first and last frosts, which can help you plan next season’s planting schedule. As the saying goes, writing is the opposite of forgetting.

THE BEST PLACE FOR A GARDEN

Determining the location of your garden is probably the most significant decision you will need to make. Where you choose to establish your garden is going to determine its success and ease of maintenance.

Taking some time at this point for observation will lead to a better garden design. So, make yourself a cup of tea and spend some time observing your garden.

READ: How To Be A Good Plant Parent

The perfect garden location is hard to find, so most of us will need to make some compromises. Don’t be discouraged; on the contrary, you are learning to pay attention to your garden, and this habit will set you up for success throughout your gardening life.

If you have an already established garden, we hope this information will help you notice some positives about your garden’s location, and perhaps you will find you can tweak a few things to help your plants thrive even more.

Sun

Direct sunlight is the power supply for your garden. Although leafy greens can grow well in low-light conditions (as little as three to five hours a day), most vegetables require eight or more hours of direct sunlight to thrive.

Ideally, your garden will be north-facing (for gardens in the southern hemisphere; south-facing for the northern hemisphere), with only minor shaded areas throughout the year.

If you need to make a choice, morning light is more important than afternoon light, because the early-morning sun dries the leaves of the plants, and reduces the chance for fungal diseases to take hold.

If you do have shaded areas, you can use them to your advantage. For example, in the summer, leafy greens do better if they are partially shaded.

In urban areas especially, you can also use walls to your advantage. Walls can reflect light onto your plants, increasing the amount of sunlight they receive.

Shelter

As we want our plants to thrive, we are trying to create conditions that let them concentrate their energy on growing.

Wind protection is vital; plants will dedicate a significant amount of energy to developing a strong stem and general sturdiness to survive in the wind, at the expense of their potential yield.

Wind also steals the heat and moisture from the soil, cooling and drying it, which make growing conditions even tougher.

To shelter your plants, you can plant a perennial hedge, grow a bed of tall, hardy annuals or install a windbreak fabric. Or do all of these!

READ: How To Set Up Your Own Home Composting System

The idea is not to completely block the airflow, as it is essential for a healthy garden for air to move around and to avoid stagnant air pockets.

The best windbreaks allow 30–50 per cent of the air to pass through them.

Unlike solid walls, windbreaks are designed to absorb and slow down the wind, but not block it completely.

When choosing windbreak plants, look for fast-growing natives that do well in your area.

The guiding principle is that for every metre (3.3 feet) of hedge height, the wind effect is reduced for 10 metres (33 feet) of garden.

Distance from shrubs and trees

Trees and shrubs are significant in creating a healthy ecosystem, but they should be kept away from the veggie garden.

Tree roots that reach the garden will spread, taking away water and nutrients from your vegetables, making it harder from them to thrive. Most trees send roots out as far as twice their height.

Therefore a 4 metre (13 feet) high tree will send its roots as far as 8 metres (26 feet) away from its trunk.

With the temptation of moisture and nutrients in the vegetable garden, some tree roots will reach even further.

Access

The best fertiliser for a garden is the gardener’s feet’ is probably our favourite garden saying, because it highlights the close relationship between the gardener and the garden.

When you visit your garden often, you notice and observe what’s happening to your plants.

You learn how they look when they are thriving, and when they seem in need of watering or are under pressure from pests.

To make sure you stay connected to what’s happening in your garden, locate it in the most central place you can. In permaculture design, we call this ‘Zone 1’, the areas you visit at least once a day.

We recommend not to place your vegetable garden at the back of your section, because as the saying goes, ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Ideally, place the garden close to your main path so that it is easy and convenient to reach.

Slope

The sweet spot for a vegetable garden is on a moderate 5 per cent slope, to allow for good natural drainage and ease of gardening, and north-facing (south-facing in the northern hemisphere) so it can enjoy the most sunlight hours.

At our main gardens we have neither a gentle slope nor a north-facing garden, and it didn’t deter us at all.

Our Pakaraka gardens are a mixture of flat land and slope. If you are gardening on a slope greater than 10 per cent, which means a 10 cm height difference over a 1 metre length (4 inches over 3.3 feet), it is beneficial to terrace the slope or to level the platform.

Terracing helps to hold the soil and protect it from eroding, and also creates a flat garden bed that helps spread the water more evenly and is more convenient to work with.

READ: How To Grow A Winter Garden

Forming the beds along the contour of the land, perpendicular to the slope, is key when working with slopes.

When beds are positioned on the contour, the flow of the water is slowed down, which helps to capture more water as well as preventing soil erosion.

If garden beds are not planted on the contour of the land, water picks up speed and takes some of the topsoil with it, creating water channels and gullies on its way down the slope.

We like to do most of the work on terraced and contoured beds from the path below them, which makes it easier to reach and puts less stress on the back.

Careful bed placement and terracing are some of the best investments you can make in a sloping garden to retain your topsoil and for ease of work.

Topsoil

Each garden has its unique soil profile. When a site is developed, often the topsoil is disturbed. If your garden site is temporary, such as when renting, we recommend that your garden has a minimum of 20 cm (8 inches) of topsoil, preferably with no rocks.

If you don’t have much topsoil, don’t worry. You can either import new topsoil or build it up over time from scratch. It may not be ideal, but you absolutely can create a thriving garden regardless of the soil conditions you start with.

Drainage

The roots of your plants need air. To guarantee that, good drainage is critical because a waterlogged bed will create an anaerobic environment.

It is vital that your garden is in a place where water doesn’t pool, and there is no or very low risk of flooding.

Water access

Water is the most essential input to a garden, especially during the summer. Make it easy to water your garden by making sure there is a tap nearby. 

Toxicity

Although most places are safe to garden, some are not. See if you can learn about the history of your land, and if possible, ask around the neighbourhood about concerns regarding historic land pollution from mining, industry or horticulture.

Generally, chemical sprays and synthetic fertiliser used on paddocks won’t cause an ongoing problem, at least compared to land that has been used for orcharding or cropping, which would have been heavily sprayed.

If you are concerned, you can send a soil sample to a lab that specialises in soil toxicity tests.

Storing tools and supplies

Most gardens don’t need much extra room for storage and supplies, but still, it is handy to think about what supplies you will use and where you will keep them.

For example, whether you make your own compost or buy it in, it makes sense to place the compost heap as close as possible to the garden to avoid double handling and unnecessary work.

A few quality hand tools are all you need to grow an abundance of produce. High-quality tools are more pleasant to work with, though any tool will do the job.

Place your tools in an easily accessible spot, preferably under cover, so that they can last for many years.

Keep other supplies such as woodchips, mulch, organic fertilisers and liquid feeds away from the sun and rain. Hoops and cloches will also need a place to hang while not in use.

In our second year of commercial growing at Pakaraka, we grew $50,000 worth of vegetables using a fork, two hoes, a shovel, a rake, a trowel, a few buckets and a wheelbarrow. That’s it.

As our gardens are substantial in size, we now use a broad-fork and a wide rake, which covers double the area with the same action, making our bed preparation a little bit easier.

Room for a small tunnel house?

A tunnel house is by no means a necessity, but it can bring another level of joy and productivity to your gardening.

A tunnel house allows you to propagate all your own seedling transplants and have a few tomato plants that will keep on producing when the outdoor plants finish their season in the summer, as well as undercover lettuce and other greens in the winter.

EXERCISE: DESIGNING YOUR GARDEN

This set of questions can help you imagine what your dream garden might look like. If you are planning your garden with a partner or with your family, it’s a good idea for all of you to discuss what you value in a garden.

Start by letting each person write down their answers. You can include sketches or reference photos from other gardens that inspire you.

Aesthetics. What does a visually pleasing veggie garden look like for you?
Self-expression. What would make you see yourself in your garden?
Productivity. How much do you hope to grow? Are you looking for a diversity of crops and varieties or do you want to focus on a few favourites? Do you hope to be self-sufficient with your vegetables? Do you expect to grow many staples (such as potatoes and kumara) or do you mainly want the added flavours of homegrown herbs, fresh greens and salads? Do you want to grow seasonal crops or push the boundaries by investing more effort to extend the season?
Commitment. Would you visit your garden most days of the week or only occasionally?
Accessibility. Do you have any special needs in terms of accessibility that can affect the design of the garden, such as wider paths, raised beds, availability of resting places or ergonomics?
Kid-friendly. Do you want your garden to be kid-friendly?
Heritage. Is there something from your culture or ancestral heritage that you would like to incorporate in the garden? It could be a feature, such as a particular vegetable, flower or herb, or it might be an integral part of your garden layout and overall design.

This is an abridged extract from 'The Abundant Garden: A practical guide to growing a regenerative home garden' by Niva and Yotam Kay (Allen & Unwin NZ, RRP $45). Niva and Yotam Kay run the Pakaraka Permaculture Market Garden on the Coromandel Peninsula, and run courses on permaculture and regenerative gardening from the Pakaraka Permaculture Education Centre.

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