A Formal Vegetable Garden

vegetable garden layout

Every now and then I have a call for a formal vegetable garden.  By this I mean a garden with a formal layout and structure.  These clients wanted raised beds for their vegetables for several reasons.  They liked the idea that they could tend the garden easily.  They liked the idea that the soil mix would be especially tailored for growing vegetables.  They have children; their lives very much revolve around the dinner table.  They have strong ideas about good food, and where it comes from.  Their soil is very heavy clay, and the site chosen for the garden does not drain particularly well.  I designed the garden, and laid it out with stakes and strings for them to see. 

Once they approved the plan, we stripped away the existing sod. We excavated the area, as the garden would have a decomposed granite floor.  This is a great surface on which to push a wheelbarrow.  It is a surface that requires little to no maintenance. 

vegetable garden boxes

Steve and his crew built the boxes on site.  Several courses of lumber were installed below grade, and set level.  When the garden is finished, we will reconfigure the edge of the driveway to run parallel to it.  There will be some regrading involved as well.  But at this point in the project, we are a long ways away from the finishing touches. 

A 3″ base of 22AA road gravel levelled the floor of the garden.  The sloping lawn will be regraded to meet the finished floor of the garden.  The poor drainage became very clear after a rain!  The raised beds will insure that water drains away speedily.  Vegetables attract no end of disease and insects.  A clean growing, well draining site is a good natural defense against trouble. 

growing vegetables at home

Once the bases of all of the boxes took shape, it was easier to see the overall plan.  Four boxes were simple rectangles.  The four center boxes were L-shaped.  A three tiered theatre for the center will hold pots of herbs, and culinary flowers.  At this point in the construction, we were going over lists of vegetables and herbs.  Like most families, they have vegetables that appear on their dinner table frequently.  Others-not so much.   

worm castings

Steve is an expert with soil.  He spent 16 years as superintendent of grounds at Grand Hotel, on Mackinac Island.  The island has very little in the way of soil.  A thin layer of compost covers layers of big rocks, and little rocks.  The cost of transporting soil from the mainland was considerable.  He composted thousands of yards of soil for their 165 acres of golf courses, employee housing, and hotel grounds.  He knows how to cook up great soil.

growing vegetables in boxes

This soil is compost of his own making, to which he added sand, and lots of worm castings.  It is rich, and friable.  The the idea of worm castings raises eyebrows, but vegetables thrive in it.  Decomposed organic matter is an essential element of good soil. 

drip irrigation

Each box has its own drip irrigation lines.  Water from drip hoses does not migrate very far away from the hose.  The drip is so so slow that the water sinks straight down-gravity, this.  Thus there is a need for multiple drip hoses, so the plants are evenly watered.  A drip irrigation system is not perfect.  A person needs to be in charge.  A person who can pick up a hose, if there is a need.  This spigot was run off the irrigation system.

vegetable garden fencing

My client has 7 acres of property.  This means they have all manner of wildlife.  Deer, raccoons, mice, rabbits and woodchucks, just for starters.  The garden had to be fenced.  The mainstay of this fence is a very sturdy galvanized steel mesh. A vegetable garden has to be sited and planted to take advantage of the sun.  A privacy fence might shade the garden.  The steel mesh does not impede the sunlight.     

Each panel of steel mesh is enclosed in a cedar frame.  A horizontal bar of cedar midway up the panel adds a good bit of reinforcement to the mesh.  As much as you love your home grown vegetables, all of God’s creatures love them too.  This fence says keep out in a very simple way.   

The fence is 6 feet tall.  The 6 feet wide gates are just 3/4 of an inch shorter, to permit the gates to be opened wide.  The decomposed granite finished floor has yet to be installed.  A second short round of steel mesh will be buried below grade.  This will deter the crafty diggers and the little creatures.

vegetable gardening

We are a ways from the finish here.  The tomato towers and herb theatre will be done shortly.  7 espaliered fruit trees are yet to be planted.  The drive needs to be reconfigured.  A cutting garden will be planted ouside the fence on the gate side.  Roses for cutting will be planted on the far side.  As for the planting of the vegetables and herbs-Steve is in charge of that part.   

This is a big garden. Not like a field of corn in Iowa, or a grove of cherry trees.  This is by no means a farm.  But it is as big a garden as they will ever need.  It is a working garden.  Sturdy, simple, plain-and organized.  I hope within a few weeks it will be a good looking working garden.   



Much of what keeps a community, or a landscape workable is about transport.  These vegetables need to get to market before they go bad.  Those M and M peanuts-bags of this candy get shipped all over the country. You and I need to get to work; we require transportation from one place to another. A drivecourt can be a very utilitarian landscape feature-but that does not mean it needs to be an endless expanse of hard surface like the parking lot of a gorcery store.  A drivecourt facilitates transport-but it can have its own 15mph zones.  This drivecourt-I designed and built a water feature with three jets-as big as an SUV. This takes one attention away from the floor and provides some interest at eye level. The cistern is placed in the drivecourt such that it directs both physical and visual traffic.  Only days away from having the water lines hooked up, the soil brought up to grade, a boxwood skirt and flowers to finish, I only hope the music of the water running will transport them, the moment they get home.   

Establishing some structure in a garden has much to do with traffic.  How will you get from one place to another. This river front property is owned by clients with older parents and family.  A motorized cart provides transportation from the front of the house to the water.  Gravel walks large enough to accomodate that vehicle were essential to everyone being able to enjoy the outdoors. 

A fenced vegetable garden with raised beds was  high on the list of their requests.  They entertain family and friends, and cook-passionately.  The ability to grow their own summer vegetables and fruits was important.  Much of their family life and tradition revolves around the exchange and community of the dinner table.  This is an old world attitude that I like and respect.  The south side of this new addition had the best sun.  The design issue-how to combine a working vegetable garden, a means by which materials, people and tools could be transported in a beautiful way.  I designed this garden immediately adjacent to a covered porch, home to seating, and an outdoor kitchen. The best part of designing is that occasion when you have a client keenly interested in that process.  The deisgn of this garden gate, an exact replica of my client’s grandfather’s vegetable garden gate in Italy.  I will say this gate is my most favorite detail in the entire landscape.   

Six raised beds provide lots of space to grow.  I have yet to meet a passionate grower of food who thought they had plenty of space to cultivate.  The curved end boxes provide visual relief from the expected rectangular boxes one usually sees.  A series of wood tables that have been in the family a long time can be set up for a dinner party-in the garden.  I heard a party last weekend resulted in an impromptu bocce game.  Though by no means does this space approach a regulation court, it has the advantage of not looking like a regulation court.  Company on the porch and in the garden-a pleasure.  The center space is large enough to permit the acrt to pass through, without looking like a road.

My clients have to deal with a considerable deer population.  When they are not entertaining, portable screens sheild the garden from the porch.  Lacking this, deer would use the porch as their roadway to the garden. Hardware cloth set below garde and up to the bottom of the Belgian fencing keeps out smaller intruders.

Curving a section of 4″ by 6″ lumber is no mean feat.  Each of the bottom four boards have 90 parallel cuts perpendicular to their length, side by side.  The cuts-each the width of the saw blades, is called a kerf. The saw removes small parallel slices of wood from the board.  After soaking the boards overnight, Steve, my landscape superintendent, was able to bend their 4 foot sections into place. 360 cuts all together.  The top section, comprised of a series of smaller chunks of wood perfectly fitted together to form the curve-made my Steve’s brother-a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and shop teacher.  This painstakingly contructed detail makes a world of  visual difference to the end result.   

There are times when lawn is suffient to permit traffic, and gathering. traffic  The firebowl, set on the opposite side of the porch from the vegetable garden, is set at seat height so guests can congregate without the need for additonal seating.  All the these spaces in proximity and easily accessible to one another makes entertaining easy.  There are places to be, and places to move to.

The large lawn plane which spans both the old property and the new one, is finally finished; we have planted the boxwood buttons. A large party which is planned for late June-tables will be set over top of the boxwood-what fun.  This very long rectagular space can easily accomodate a tent if need be-with a dressy floor already in place.  The view from the upstairs balcony is lovely.  

The decomposed granite walk traverses the entire back of the property.  Its strong shape helps to knit the old house and propert yto the addition and new property. There is a strong sense that every architectural and landscape element has always been there.  There is no evidence of spaces being stitched together.   

This was a long and large project; I am on the verge of finishing.  I think my clients are pleased to have spaces that will be completed by friends, family, dinners, bocce-and growing tomatoes.  I like landscapes that invite people to partake of them.