Garden Designs for Backyard Gardening

A few garden design basics to think about for the urban homesteader to think about it is what type of garden you want.  Do you want a food forest with plants intermingled and guilds of dozens of plants together?  Or do you want to have a small-scale farm that is easy to manage and grows large amounts of product consistently? What do you want your homestead to look like?  Many homesteaders have a vision of their perfect world, but the design choices for your homestead are endless so taking a few minutes to think about the pros and cons of different garden designs is worthwhile.

It will take trees years to fill into empty spaces, so it is helpful to take a walk through a few mature places before building to get a good grasp on the plants and animals you want on your property.

What Garden Design is Right for you?

  1. Food Forest Gardening
  2. Traditional Row Gardening
  3. Container Gardening

Urban homesteads face more space constraints than suburban or rural properties.  The need to maximize yield while maintaining pleasant aesthetics is the goal for many urban farmers.  We chose a blend of raised garden beds, row gardening, and permaculture food forest elements on our property.  When done intentionally a mix of styles can be highly productive and look amazing.

Food Forest Gardening

A food forest garden is something that most people think of if they have heard about permaculture gardening.  A food forest is a combination of edible and non-edible plants that occupy all 7 layers of the environment.  Most food forests will have an intentional design for the aesthetics and productivity of a diversity of crops.  Therefore, the planning and design of a food forest compared to a typical raised bed or row garden will vary greatly.

Pros of Food Forests

  • Aesthetically pleasing.  A mature food forest is both beautiful and abundant with a variety of harvests.
  • Plant Diversity. Planting with guilds as a gardening design naturally encourages you to experiment with new plants.  Use plants like comfrey that may serve as dynamic accumulators that can be chopped and dropped to feed the soil in a food forest.
  • Sustainability Goal. At some point, most food forests no longer require meaningful amounts of inputs from outside the property in order to generate a harvest each year.

Cons of Food Forests

  • Growing Specific Vegetables. Some crops require lots of tender care and attention the planting spread around a food forest makes it difficult to complete management tasks for plants.
  • Limited Tool Access.  Using some tools that make vegetable gardening in a row garden easy are very difficult to use around trees and other shrubs.  Not practical to use in a food forest garden design.

food forest design with blueberries

Garden Design Food Forest Layers

  1. Canopy / Overstory Layer – Large Fruit & Nut Trees
  2. The Low Tree or Understory Layer – Dwarf Fruit Trees
  3. The Shrub Layer – Berry Bushes and Other Userful Shrubs
  4. The Herbaceaous Layer – Flowers, Herbs, and Vegetables
  5. Ground Cover / Surface Soil Layer – Ground Cover Crops
  6. The Root Layer – Root Crops 
  7. The Vertical Layer – Climbers & Vines

Permaculture Zones for the Urban Homestead

Permaculture zones are a design element that incorporates the types of plants and your engagement with them based on the proximity to your home or base of operation.  In the urban setting, we need to look at permaculture zones a little differently to match our context.  

What are Permaculture Zones?

  • Zone 1 – Visit Daily – salad garden, herb garden
  • Zone 2 – Visit Frequently – vegetables, chickens, hedges, small fruit, ponds, 
  • Zone 3 – Visit Occasionally – orchards, bees, animals
  • Zone 4 – Visit Infrequently – woodland, foraging
  • Zone 5 – Natural, unmanaged areas

How I view permaculture zones in the context of the urban homestead.  Zones one, two, and three are all easily incorporated into your property.  We place our herbs and salad garden vegetables in a few raised beds right off the back of the house near the patio.  Our chickens and ducks reside in a run that is just past the salad garden to the rear of our garage.  In order to squeeze in additional fruit trees we utilized our side yard.  The primary backyard orchard is actually our front yard.  These areas all felt like they fell in line with the typical zones seen in permaculture design materials.

I view our community garden space in a similar fashion to a zone 3-type space.  We grow less intensive crops there and even though the space is actively managed it is rough around the edges and not kept manicured.  

Zones 4  is different for the urban homesteader.  However, this doesn’t mean they don’t exist, they just may be in a different form.  I would say our zone 4 is comprised of community resources that are available such as community orchards or groups coordinating backyard harvest sharing from individuals with fruit trees on their properties they wish to share.

Zone 5 the unmanaged natural areas that you may visit and enjoy exist for everyone they just might be a car ride away versus a long walk in the typical permaculture design map.

Garden Design Farm Style Rows 

Farm-style row gardening whether done in conventional in-ground garden beds or in wood-built raised beds is as traditional as it gets.  The reason that row gardens have existed for so long is that they simply work.  A well-organized traditional farm-style garden can feed a family with hand tools and not that much land.  There are many benefits to utilizing garden designs that are more akin to a small-scale farm versus a simple backyard salad garden.  

  • Space to Grow.  If you have the land to spread your gardens out then you can benefit from larger plant spacings.  This allows each plant more soil space to extract water and nutrients meaning less watering and fertilizing during the growing season.
  • Easier to Use Equipment.  Hand tools like a wheel hoe can make quick work of weeding large garden beds but are essentially useless in a wood-raised bed garden system.
  • Management & Harvest.  Compared to tending to vegetables intermingled in a food forest a row garden allows you to plan and harvest specific amounts of produce and have it ready at the same time.  All the plants should mature with each other.  This is helpful when processing large amounts of food or prepping them for winter storage.

traditional row garden beds

Intensive Gardening 

Individuals that are using row gardening techniques can benefit by leaning into intensive gardening methods designed to improve quality and yield.  Most urban homesteaders are limited on space and so maximizing every square inch of a raised garden bed is important.  We like the systems designed by Jean-Martin Fortier in the book Market Gardener: A successful growers handbook for small scale organic farming as a great place to start learning these techniques.  There are many other sources of great info out there on growing lots of crops in a small space.  Intensive gardening does require more soil amendment inputs and specific row sizes and planting spaces.  Furthermore, check out the Red Garden Project if you want to learn about several different methodologies to growing a lot of food in a small area.

We Chose Row Gardening & Food Forest Combo

Our garden design is a combination of traditional row gardening techniques to grow onions, garlic, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, corn, and potatoes.  Growing these crops in rows is very efficient for us.  In order to grow large quantities of crops that we like we choose to follow intensive gardening in raised hugelkultur garden beds and in-ground garden beds to maximize the harvest from our gardens.  

Our backyard orchard is a mix of fruit trees and shrubs like blueberries, raspberries, and trellises of grapes and marionberries.  Additionally, we intermingle squashes, melons, okra, strawberries, and other crops to maximize the available space around the fruit trees and shrubs.  While our garden design didn’t start as a permaculture-inspired backyard orchard over time it evolved.  For example, we incorporated plant guides by incorporating garlic, artichokes, comfrey, nasturtiums, and tons of other edible and beneficial plants.  We also have incorporated a plethora of native plants to help local pollinators and other critters all year long.

Container Gardening

Choosing container gardening is perfect for patio gardens and individuals that do not have a lot of space.  Lots of vegetables grow well in containers.  Have a luscious herb garden for adding flavor to anything you are cooking or grow a few special vegetables.  You can even grow a citrus tree like a lemon or lime in a ceramic pot.  When it comes to growing in containers the options are endless for what to grow in.  Even homesteaders that have large in ground garden beds enjoy putting plants in containers and tucking them into spots.  If you are one of those people that can always buy one more plant at the nursery than growing in pots is for you.