Planning a Food Garden Comes Down to Connections
About a 3 minute read | Updated 20th Jan, 2025
Plan a food garden that’s easy to maintain and use, by paying attention to the connections between the plants in the garden and the gardener's needs.
When you're thinking about how to plan out a food garden, think in terms of maximizing the useful connections between your needs and the plants' needs, and also between the plants' needs and their ability to meet each others needs. For example:
- What do you need from the plants in your garden? What needs of yours can a particular plant meet? And, where do you need to put a particular plant to make it as easy as possible to access it when you want it, without having to develop new habits or find too much more more time in your already busy day?
- What does a given plant need from you, and what other plants have similar needs ("like-minded" plants)?
- What other plants might be able to help meet this plant's needs ("complimentary" plants)?
Let me expand on each of those a bit...
1. Your needs...
My definition of a real food garden is that it's a garden that meets real, every day needs. When it becomes a garden you don't just harvest from when you feel like it, but one that you actually RELY on from day to day and from week to week, that's when the magic happens. Now it's a garden that you'll commit to take care of, because it's taking care of you.
So, plan your food garden with your needs in mind, first and foremost. The better you can come to rely on it, the more likely you are to visit it often -- and as the saying goes,
For example, I need greens at least once per day; I need ginger to make cough medicine much less often. So I have greens by the kitchen door and the ginger is a bit further away.
... your existing habits...
The other thing to keep in mind when you're planning where to put things is your existing habits. Things you need daily should be right beside the paths you already use often. This way they'll catch your eye without any extra effort on your part -- you won't have to form new habits in order to take care of them or make use of them.
If your only regular pathway through the garden is the one to the driveway and your garden is a few pots beside that path, start there. Don't go sprawling out into areas you're not already in the habit of visiting regularly, and that you don't have time to maintain properly.
... and your available time and energy for gardening
For the same reasons, plan a small good garden to start with. If you're a beginner, or you've ever been known to not finish what you start (I'm looking at me), start your food garden off VERY small. Even as as small as just. One. Plant.
Really. Build a mutually beneficial relationship with a pot of parsley by the kitchen door or a patch of dandelion near the driveway. Let your food garden "grow"--figuratively and literally--from there. Build your food garden bigger only when you are successfully gathering at least one small serve of homegrown food from your existing garden CONSISTENTLY, and you find yourself with not enough to occupy your available gardening time.
A big, bountiful veggie garden might impress your friends and neighbors but if you can't sustain it, it will just become a drain on your time, resources, energy, and morale.
You need a garden that FEEDS you, not one that depletes you. So plan it to be manageable.
2. The plant's needs (and what other plants have similar needs)
What I call “like-minded” plants are those that have similar needs in terms of sunlight, moisture, soil fertility, and so on. Grouping plants together with their needs in mind makes them easier to look after and leverages the gardener's time and effort.
3. Plants that can meet this plant's needs
What I call a "complimentary" plant is one that can help to meet the needs of another plant. An example is arrowroot providing shade for ginger (while also having similar needs for moisture, temperature, etc). Or a legume like pigeon pea providing dappled shade for plants beneath it, as well as providing nitrogen in the soil.
Learn about 7 easy, nutritious food plants that you can harvest from for years without replanting
Growing and processing your own food is a huge task. In One Small Serve, I show you a smaller, simpler approach to fit into a busy life. Establish a "one-serve-at-a-time" home-grown food habit you can maintain.
Mutually beneficial relationships
I subscribe to the idea that humans have "relationships" or "sacred contracts" with other life-forms on earth. This is related to the idea that each life-form, humans included, has an essential role to play in caring for the whole that is Gaia.
Our relationships with domesticated animals and plants, and with much older wild food and medicine plants, go WAY back. We've been looking after the plants, and they've been looking after us, for a mind-bogglingly long time.
These are relationships of deep inter-dependence in which need begets abundance, and abundance meets need. And the weakening or loss of these relationships is one result of how we've learned to do food and medicine in the age of Big Food and Big Pharma.
Re-weaving the web of life
The more we return to using and relying on the plants in our gardens, the better we will care for them and the better they will meet our needs. When you plan a useful, reliable food garden, you're not just planning a food garden. You're also re-weaving our interdependence with a web of life that we can bring together, thread by thread, right here on our porches, by our driveways, and in our backyards. One plant and one small serve of homegrown food at a time.
Bit by bit, this food web--woven by local hands with the unique attributes of this place--can help us reduce our dependence on the globalized industrial food system of monoculture farms, wasteful distribution, and homogenized supermarkets, which are all depressingly similar across the globe.
Real Food gardens for food sovereignty
To borrow words from the US Food Sovereignty Alliance:
Food sovereignty goes ... beyond ensuring that people have enough food ... [It's also about] rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat."
We plan food gardens for a lot of different reasons. One of them is something called "food sovereignty" -- having more control over the source of our food.
Food sovereignty is not just being able to go to the supermarket whenever we want. What I think of as true food sovereignty requires Real Food. That's not the stuff in packets on supermarket shelves that are suddenly empty when the global supply-chain hiccups.
Real food gardens that actually work--on any scale, from one pot of herbs to an entire kitchen garden--are gardens we rely on in a relationship of mutual inter-dependence with the plants we grow. The reliance part is important, because that's what keeps the connections strong.
A real food garden--filled with well-placed, well-connected plants that we rely on for food and medicine--is a piece in the puzzle of how to re-build food and health-care sovereignty for our families and communities.
And in a world where all forms of sovereignty are under increasing threat, I think that’s important.
One Small Serve
Growing and processing your own food is a huge task. In One Small Serve, I show you a smaller, simpler approach. Learn how to grow and use 7 food plants that are
- easy and very low-maintenance
- productive for two or more years without replanting
- deeply nutritious
Establish a "one-serve-at-a-time" home-grown food habit that's easy to maintain
Includes a series of free extra tips + free email support