This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
In the pursuit of a bumper crop of vegetables, too often an edible garden’s aesthetics fall by the wayside. For Nicole Burke, founder of Rooted Garden, a company that designs, installs, and maintains edible gardens in and around Houston, the backbone of the modern kitchen garden is a series of raised beds, fitted with trellises and gravel pathways, which add to both its beauty and utility.
Inspired by the classic French potager, which weaves edibles with ornamentals in a design that complements the house, she wants her gardens to invite walking over for a better look. After all, the more inviting the garden, the likelier you are to spend time harvesting and maintaining it. Burke is on a mission to make gardening easier and more appealing, so more people will get growing. To that end, she also teaches online courses (gardenary.com) and recently distilled what she’s learned from nearly seven years of working with homeowners—and building more than 300 gardens—in a book, Kitchen Garden Revival.
“I realized there is this stigma around growing food,” she says of the step-by-step plan she lays out for creating an edible garden that’s as attractive as it is bountiful. “While all the other aspects of the landscape were pretty, many homeowners didn’t think food gardens were, so I set out to undo that and make it the most beautiful part of the landscape.”
The self-taught Burke’s accessible style comes in part from having learned from some of the same rookie mistakes she’s seen clients make—from filling beds with poor soil, which only leads to lots of time spent troubleshooting later, to not leveling garden beds beforehand, then watching a rainstorm wash just-planted seeds to the lowest corners.
What You Need to Know to Design a Kitchen Garden
Up ahead: key ingredients in Burke’s recipe for gardening success and lessons learned from her years in the trenches.
Step 1: Find the sun
From a convenient spot near the house to water access, a garden has a handful of site requirements; chief among them is sunlight. When Burke steps onto a property, she finds south on her smartphone compass (or the Sun Seeker app), then identifies structures between that spot and the sun’s path. The best site is one with few interruptions—trees, a house, a shed, even shrubs—between it and the southern sky.
Hours of sunlight required each day
- Leafy greens: 3 to 6 hours
- Most herbs: 5+ hours
- Beans, peas, root crops: 6 hours
- Peppers: 6+ hours
- Tomatoes: 8+ hours
Step 2: Determine the size
Understanding how much sun your garden site receives would likely lead you to wonder how big to make your vegetable patch. To determine the square footage, Burke usually asks homeowners how many people live in the house and plan to tend the garden, and if they like salads. Her rule of thumb is to harvest a salad’s worth of vegetables about every 30 to 45 days from each square foot of the garden.
If space allows, she likes to start most gardeners out with roughly 200 square feet of growing space, or six raised beds that are 4 by 8 feet each. Assume you’ll spend about 90 seconds to maintain each square foot of growing space per week, so those 200 square feet mean roughly 5 hours of weekly upkeep during the growing season. For quick gratification, herb plants can be harvested immediately, and greens and radishes 25 to 30 days after planting.
Kitchen garden specs
|DAILY FOOD HARVEST DURING THE GROWING SEASON
|25 square feet
|About 40 minutes
|About 2 servings of greens or 1-2 servings of vegetables or fruit per day (30-40 days after putting in starter plants)
|50 square feet
|About 75 minutes
|3 servings of greens or 2-4 servings of vegetables or fruit
|75 square feet
|About 2 hours
|4 servings of greens or 3-5 servings of vegetables or fruit
|100 square feet
|About 2.5 hours
|6 servings of greens or 4-8 servings of vegetables or fruit
|200 square feet
|About 5 hours
|12 servings of greens or 8-16 servings of vegetables or fruit
|DAILY FOOD HARVEST DURING THE GROWING SEASON
Step 3: Plot your plan
Sketching a garden on paper is a great first step; then Burke encourages homeowners to take the plan outside. Marking the size and location of the beds can help you make design tweaks before ordering bulk materials. Using spray paint, wood stakes, twine, and a measuring tape, mark out the proposed perimeter and each of the beds.
- Drive the stakes. With a mallet or hammer, sink a wood stake into each corner to represent the garden floor. Connect these stakes with spray paint or twine. Then step inside this boundary and measure off the perimeter to establish the first corner of the first raised bed with another stake.
- Mark the beds. Measure off the bed’s first corner to find the second. Drive another stake, and repeat the process for the two other corners of the bed.
- Connect corners with twine. Use twine to represent the footprint of each raised garden bed.
- Stake and repeat. With the first bed established, repeat the process for any remaining beds the same way—measure off the boundary line to establish the first corner. Pay particular attention to the space between the beds; try to keep pathways at least 3 feet wide for a wheelbarrow, and to ensure you have access to each side of the bed and can reach into the center.
Step 4: Pick your type
Just as what’s grown in a raised bed changes from yard to yard, so does the ideal garden shape. Having design flexibility means that almost any yard can host an edible garden. Here are just three of the types Burke turns to when evaluating a yard.
Named because the beds border existing lines on the property—along a back or side fence, next to a driveway, as a perimeter to preserve a lawn, or anchoring a gravel patio (as shown). The design is usually fitted with up to four raised beds that are at least 2 feet front to back. With one or two inaccessible sides, border gardens work as a corner L-shape or sitting parallel to each other in a narrow side yard.
Aesthetically, a grid of raised beds organizes the garden and allows space for carrots and potatoes, which Burke likes to plant alone. She suggests this style for square garden areas that are at least 15 feet wide and within the yard’s main lawn. With an even number of beds separated by pathways, it creates a natural entry point to top with an arched trellis that acts as a front door into a garden room.
Where space allows—usually 20 by 20 feet or larger—a formal potager is a big-budget splurge. Beyond the raised beds, which are often L-shaped to frame a central axis, a potager typically has a center bench, a fountain, an obelisk, or another ornamental focal point. The beds themselves tend to incorporate more flowering plants or trellises to support espaliered fruit trees, which reinforce a sense of enclosure.
Step 5: Beds above the rest
While it costs more to build and fill raised beds with amended soil, it saves time since you can garden right away. “With a raised bed you don’t have to wait years to have great soil,” Burke says.
She’s found that beds longer than 15 feet require lots of bracing; her sweet spot is between 6 and 8 feet long—which coincides with the typical length lumber is sold in. She keeps the width to about 41/2 feet when the bed is accessible on all sides, and 5 feet when a trellis runs down the center. While leafy greens and herbs can get by with a scant 6-inch-tall bed, Burke generally prefers at least 1 to 2 feet of soil to garden in.
Step 6: Make order out of chaos
When it comes to building a garden, accurate measurements and an installation plan are invaluable (a close third is having friends with strong backs). Here’s how Burke streamlines the process on installation day.
Plan to install the garden after all the components are on-site and the garden boxes built. Determine if having supplies delivered is worth the cost—it usually is.
- Clear the area. Following the twine border, dig a perimeter trench deep enough to hold the edging material, keeping about 3 inches of it above grade to contain the gravel. Then clear the interior.
- Begin irrigation. Dig trenches and bury lines that will tie your garden spigot or irrigation system to the garden beds’ drip system.
- Rake and level. Use a steel rake to smooth and level the garden floor. A diluted solution of 30 percent white vinegar helps suppress any weeds left behind.
- Lay the weed barrier. Cover the entire garden space with weed fabric, cardboard, or rosin paper. Burke prefers using rosin paper.
- Install your border edging. Take the time to measure and make sure the lines are straight and square to other structures, like the house, a patio, or a garage.
- Add pathway stones. With the border installed, place any large walkway stones on the weed fabric, using the string lines as guides.
- Fill the floor. Remove string lines and start dumping in gravel (Burke is partial to pea stone) to a depth of 3 inches, raking it level. Adjust pathway stones so that the gravel is just below their tops as well as the top of the edging.
- Add the boxes. Refer to your paper plan for the location of the garden beds, measuring off larger fixed elements, like the house or the border. Then drop in the garden boxes, squaring them up and leveling them by adding or removing gravel. Place trellises before filling up boxes with soil.
Step 7: Get some support
Trellises lend a hand to vining plants, adding height and visual interest. Burke plans one per 16 square feet of bed, placed in the middle or up against a wall of the bed. To install them, she adds about 1 foot of soil mix, then positions each trellis, pinning it to the gravel base when possible, before filling up the boxes.
She favors metal for its durability. Flat-panel styles suit beds inaccessible on one side (as shown), pyramid-shaped obelisks look good in a square bed or in a row down a large rectangular one, and arches gracefully connect paired beds or quadrant layouts.
Step 8: Recipe for soil success
Burke developed this sandy loam to provide a fast-draining, fluffy mix that is easy to put together just about anywhere in the country. To determine how much soil to order, multiply the length, width, and depth of the beds in feet.
Multiply the length, width, and depth of the beds in feet and divide by 27 to get the volume in cubic yards. Order 1/3 of the overall amount in sharp sand, in compost, and in topsoil. She recommends adding another 4 percent in the form of “bonus material,” like worm castings, composted chicken manure, bonemeal, feather meal, or fish emulsion.
This “103 percent” formula is her cheeky reminder of the four elements that help create a solid soil blend. She encourages gardeners to ask questions at the nursery, including how local the topsoil and compost are—with the idea that local materials will most closely resemble your native soil—and to consult a local nursery or university extension office on what to plant.
Burke admits gardening this way isn’t cheap, or particularly easy at first. But, she says, “it’s important for gardens to showcase the beauty of fresh food, and raised beds and trellises make it welcoming to the gardener who might otherwise be a bit intimidated. Any resources allocated to making a garden more welcoming is money well spent.”