Creating a Beautiful Garden: Step 1

beautifulediblegarden1After you’ve assessed soil, food safety, light, and water conditions, you’re ready to start creating your garden. To achieve a space that is both beautiful and productive, plan your garden layout methodically. This way you can add elements to your garden purposefully and meet your goal of creating a garden that really works for you. The step-by-step process that follows is meant to be an introduction to the planning process; in later chapters, we’ll explain how to apply these steps to specific garden spaces.

Step One: Arrange Permanent Elements

The location of permanent garden elements such as patios, sitting areas, pathways, fencing, planting beds, and lawns should be decided first. Once you have determined how you want to arrange them, they will be constant, unchanging parts of your garden space and the foundation of your garden’s utility and style.

These permanent elements will define the space and how you move around in it. They are also heavy and more expensive than plants, and, if you move them around after plants are already growing in your garden, you’ll risk damaging or killing your plants. For all these reasons, it’s important to place everything in the right spot from the start, so make sure you are pleased with how they fit into and support your overall garden style and food-growing goals before moving on to other steps in your garden design process.

Planting Beds

These are the garden spaces where your plants will grow. Planting beds are defined and contained by hardscaping materials and pathways. We refer to planting beds as ornamental, mixed ornamental and edible, and annual vegetable, with each describing the type of planting found within the planting bed. If you have the luxury of starting from scratch, the first permanent elements to place are your planting beds. If you are working with an existing layout, make any decisions about adding or modifying planting beds your first step.

Patios and Pathways

Patios and pathways define the garden, creating different destinations and leading you to them. If you are starting from scratch, think about how many people may be using the patio and pathways, what purpose they each serve, and what material you’d like to use. A patio can be a communal gathering space or secluded destination. A pathway can take you to a patio, garden bench, or garden gate -or can even just be a circular path with a defined start and finish. Choose one pathway material throughout, then either continue it as a basis for your patio or select a different material that complements the first. This will give your garden an overall cohesive look.

Patios and pathways can be made out of a variety of materials, but it is best to use permeable surfaces in the garden so that rain and other water can infiltrate through the surface to the soil below. This way, you can keep water on-site instead of having it run off into storm drains. Your fruit trees and other deep-rooted plants can access this groundwater, reducing your need for irrigation. For these reasons, permeable options such as gravel, decomposed granite, and pavers with unmortared spaces between them are usually better choices than concrete. Use gravel or pavers for main access pathways because they drain more quickly and will not get mucky during winter rains. Groundcover herbs are often grown i the spaces between pathway pavers. Although this looks great and we encourage you to plant them here, it’s best to cook with herbs harvested from your planting beds, which are less likely to be contaminated by foot traffic, and reserve the herbs planted in your pathway for decorative and pollinator-attracting purposes. Johnson’s note: Another great planting option for the spaces between pavers is Stepables, which are perennial plants that tolerate foot traffic. 

You need a way to get from point A to point B in your garden without tromping all over your freshly turned soil and delicate plants. Ideally, main pathways should be about three feet wide, a comfortable size for a wheelbarrow and strolling side by side with a friend. A secondary pathway through a planting bed can be as simple as a piece of stone or brick to step on. Make secondary paths a minimum of eighteen inches wide. In a perennial planting area, you’ll be using the secondary pathway to pick flowers, fruits, and berries, and also to fertilize and mulch. Annual-vegetable planting beds require more frequent access to harvest, plant, fertilize, and turn your soil. So, while an eighteen-inch pathway is fine between your vegetable beds, you’ll need to have a wider main pathway nearby so that you can use your wheelbarrow to bring fresh compost to your beds a couple times each year.


Deciding whether or not to grow a lawn in your garden is an important decision. Lawns take up a lot of sunny space that could otherwise be used for growing food; most traditional lawn grasses are water-thirsty, and many require a lot of fertilizer and herbicide to stay green and lush.

There are ways to reconceptualize your lawn as a more productive space. First, consider how large your lawn really needs to be. A straightforward option for gaining more edible space is to simply reduce the size of your lawn. If you expand the planting beds that border it, you can cultivate them with edibles and pollinator-attracting perennials. When growing edibles along-side a lawn area, it is important to switch your lawn care to organic methods so as not to introduce toxic chemicals into the food you will be eating.

There are also alternatives to a traditional lawn that still provide an open look and space for family recreation. New “eco” and “no-mow” lawn options require less water, less gas-powered mowing energy, and fewer fertilizers. Or, consider a “lawn” of low-growing herbs, such as Roman chamomile, groundcover yarrow, or thyme. All of these attract pollinators such as bees, so they are not good choices for a recreational lawn, especially if you have young kids running around barefoot. However, if the lawn is more visual impact, these herb alternatives are a great way to achieve an open look while also creating more habitat for beneficial insects and increasing the productivity of your garden.

Step 2 | Step 3 | Step 4 | Step 5

Find the book at Johnson’s for more information

Bennett, Leslie and Stefani Bittner. (2013). The Beautiful Edible Garden. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Creating a Beautiful Garden: Step 1

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