5 Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Your Edible Garden

I absolutely love helping homeowners create the edible landscape of their dreams.  As a landscape designer, I've had the pleasure of visiting tons of gardens.  Over the years I have seen common mistakes that leave homeowners feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and simply at a loss on how to move forward.  Here are five challenges I see most often, with tips on how you can can avoid making the same mistakes.

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1 - Planting without a plan

It's so easy to get excited about planting an edible landscape that you immediately run out to buy plants.  I can completely relate (and yes, I've been using every bit of willpower to prevent myself from ordering all my favorite plants before I finish my design at our new house!).  I've seen the long term effects of this no-plan gardening, and it's not pretty (nor is it functional, easy to harvest anything, good for the plants, or a relaxing place to spend time).

Here's why you need a plan.  With a plan, you will put your vision on paper and in doing so, you'll be spending a lot of time making sure it's exactly what you want before you ever purchase plants.  You will create your roadmap for the garden of your dreams.  You'll know exactly what goes where, understand how to tackle your entire project, and you'll create an outdoor space that is so functional that you won't be cursing the raspberry thorns as you run outside try to harvest your herbs while dinner is on the stove.

A really good design will organize your entire space so that each piece of your design has a place and a purpose.  Without that, your yard will be high maintenance, lack cohesion, and make harvesting some things nearly impossible. 

Aside from witnessing this in many yards over the year, I now have the direct experience of purchasing a home (in the dead of winter in Wisconsin) that advertised an edible landscape.  The list of plants was impressive, but wow do I have my work cut out for me!  The back of the house is surrounded by so many raspberries, blackberries, and gooseberries that my young daughter lifts her arms in the air and walks sideways down the overgrown path to so she doesn't get scratched by all the thorns.  To me, this is a prime example of what happens when you plant without a plan. 

 

2 - Plant spacing

The next mistake to avoid is improper plant spacing.  I wrote a blog post on this in the past, but it's worth repeating here.  Those cute little shrubs and trees at the nursery will eventually grow to their mature height and width.  Make sure to give every plant enough space in all directions so that they may reach their full potential without being crowded by other plants or rubbing against a building or fence.  

Here's a quick lesson in figuring out plant spacing.  Find the plant's width, either on the tag or by doing some research.  Let's say you want to plant two shrubs that will each be 6' wide at maturity.  These two shrubs will be located on the side of your house.  

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Divide the width of the shrub by two (6' / 2 = 3').  You need 3' of space from the center in all directions.  Since you are planting two 6' wide shrubs, each shrub will need a 3' buffer between itself and the mature width of the adjacent plant.  So, planted side by side, the plant centers will need to be 6' apart (3' + 3'). 

These plants will be on the side of a house, so we also need to account for the 3' between the planting location and the house.  I always like to add another 1' to the space between a plant and the house so you can easily move between the house and mature plant for home and garden maintenance.  That additional 1' also helps prevent plants from growing into and scraping the side of the house.

 

3 - Permaculture zones (or lack thereof)

Permaculture design is new to many people, but it's worth a super quick lesson as it relates to edible gardening.  Permaculture design, in a nutshell, is really smart design that creates super functional and efficient spaces. 

One technique in permaculture design is to organize your space into zones. 

  • Zone 1 is the area you use several times a day: herbs, greens, and other veggies you harvest daily, patio or deck, worm bin, etc. This is where the most intensive gardening happens.

  • Zone 2 is semi-cultivated and often where barns, and tools are located. Staple crops, fruit trees, rabbits and poultry, greywater tanks, and ponds are also in this area.

  • Zone 3 is a low intensity area, often with pastures, feed storage, cash crops, firewood, and larger farm animals.

  • Zone 4 is a minimally cared for area and is great for foraging, hunting, gathering, and grazing animals.

  • Zone 5 is unmanaged wilderness that's perfect for foraging, native plants, mushrooms, some wildcrafting, and native animals.

Depending on the size and location of your yard, you may only have space for zones 1 and 2.  Larger pieces of land may have all five zones. 

Using zones in creating edible landscape designs helps you identify the areas you visit most and what you should plant there.  For example, I always locate herb gardens as close to the kitchen as possible.  That way, you can quickly harvest your herbs while your dinner is on the stove. 

As I mentioned in mistake #1, my new yard has an overgrown raspberry patch directly off the back deck.  This is the future home of my herb garden.  Locating the herbs there is not only tremendously convenient, it also saves us from fighting past the raspberries every time we go out the back door.  

 

4 - Limited vision

One of my favorite designs was for a family of four (and one dog) near Portland, OR.  During my initial visit to their home, they said they wanted raised garden beds because that was the only way their dog wouldn't walk through the veggie beds.  They also said they wanted about half of their yard to be vegetable production.  Their yard wasn't very large, but after trying out some ideas with raised beds, it was clear that the price for the raised beds alone was going to push them over their budget.  The plethora of raised beds was also stifling my typical design process and I created a very poor quality design.  

I decided to ditch their limiting vision of raised beds and start over completely.  The idea that emerged afterwards was so simple, beautiful, and functional that I knew the homeowners were going to love it.  I simply divided the yard with an L-shaped fence.  One side of the fence was their veggie garden, the other side was lawn surrounded by flowering shrubs and perennials.  The veggie garden was accessed by a gate near their back door and a path that looped through the L-shaped garden and exited another gate into the small lawn.  The lawn then led to their back patio, creating a pleasing loop through their yard that offered a variety of food and interest along the way.  The lawn also doubled as overflow entertaining space off their back patio.

By giving up on the limiting raised bed vision, I was able to put together a simple yet stunning plan for their small yard that kept the dog away from the veggies, gave them plenty of planting space (while staying within their budget), and extended the entertaining space from the patio to the lawn.  It was a win-win situation and all it took was an open mind.

 First rough draft with a limited vision. Notice the poorly shaped bed lines, custom size raised beds (expensive!), and awkward layout.

First rough draft with a limited vision. Notice the poorly shaped bed lines, custom size raised beds (expensive!), and awkward layout.

 Second rough draft without a limiting vision. Notice how the space flows more naturally, the lawn shape is really pleasing, and the odd formality of the two dwarf fruit trees is gone.

Second rough draft without a limiting vision. Notice how the space flows more naturally, the lawn shape is really pleasing, and the odd formality of the two dwarf fruit trees is gone.

 Final design with tons of in-ground veggie planting beds, space for the dog that's separate from the veggie garden, and entertaining space surrounded by beautiful plants.

Final design with tons of in-ground veggie planting beds, space for the dog that's separate from the veggie garden, and entertaining space surrounded by beautiful plants.

5 - Planting one of everything

All of the plants at the nursery are so enticing that you decide to buy one of each of your favorites.  You get home and start planting.  Your garden fills in and it looks messy.  It's cluttered and you feel overwhelmed instead of relaxed.  You feel disappointed.  What happened?  There are no groups and clusters of plants.

When it comes to designing an edible landscape that is gorgeous and functional, I'd recommend planting in odd-numbered groups of the same plant.  Odd numbered groups create an informal feel to your garden.  With groups of plants, your plants will make a larger visual statement and your garden will feel more organized and serene.  Picture one perennial plant blooming alone.  Now picture a sea of that same perennial creating a patch of color that weaves into another patch of color from another group of blooming plants.  It's a much different image, right?

Planting in groups also makes harvesting much easier.  Consider a strawberry patch.  When the strawberries begin to ripen, you'll easily notice a plethora of red berries throughout the patch.  You can easily harvesting as you move from one plant to another.  If your strawberry plants were scattered around your garden, you might not even notice they're producing fruit or you could easily miss berries while you try to find where the plants are located.  Harvesting that way would be an exhausting task!


Do you need more guidance to design the edible garden of your dreams? 

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