Garden Planning for Beginners with Fred Montague

Planning Your Garden

with Fred Montague

Planning your garden for spring is never an easy task, which is why Modern Gardener partnered with professor emeritus Fred Montague to ease your gardening woes. In this episode, we bring you a tried and true garden plan design, as well as the best tips and practices for gardeners of any experience level.

Dr. Fred Montague has paved the way for organic gardening and sustainability programs on the University of Utah campus, such as the Edible Campus Gardens, and shows us some quick and dirty methods to having a successful backyard garden.

The Materials:

  1. Untreated lumber (x1 12-foot in length for two 6-foot sides, x1 6-foot in length for 3-foot sides)
  2. Corner brackets
  3. Made from galvanized roof flashing cut into 6-inch length pieces
  4. 3-inch deck screws (x12)

  5. Truss screws (x24)

  6. Screen:  1) ¼ or ½ inch hardware cloth, 2) window/door screen, or 3) chicken wire (depending on your needs and preferences)

  7. Power drill

  8. Level

  9. Handheld trowel and 3-prong cultivator

  10. Topsoil/compost and seedlings for planting! (:


  1. Shade Cloth 7x6' (x1)

  2. Untreated lumber 1"x2"x7' (x2)

The Garden Plan

Although most dimensions tend to be 4x8', Fred recommends building a garden box that is 3x6' for the simple reason that two to three feet is the arm span of the average adult. Anything larger can be more work and more difficult to maintain. This design is also much easier to transport.

Building a garden box might sound daunting to those who aren’t exactly carpenters, but don’t be afraid! It’s actually very simple and once it’s built, it will last you for many years to come. If you don’t have power tools of your own, ask a neighbor or friend.

The Base

For the base, you will need enough 2x8' untreated lumber for a 3x6' bed. This means buying at least three boards and having them cut to the sizes you will need. (Two 6-foot long sides, and two 3-foot long sides.)

The corners are extremely important, not only aesthetically, so your box has nice, even lines, but functionally. You want your box to last a long time.

The corners are nailed together with three, 3-inch deck screws. The wood will expand and loosen over time from weather and wear, so the next step is to cover it with sturdy, corner brackets made of galvanized roof flashing. Fred cuts these from a large sheet, into four 6-inch corners. Secure these onto the corners with three truss screws on each side.

The Screen Frame (Side Panels)

For the side panels, you will need wood for the 3x6' frame and some sort of mesh or hardware cloth. The mesh side panels are an important component of your garden box. These function as additional protection for your plants from animals, harsh weather conditions, or even your neighbor’s incoming Frisbee or stray ball. Fred recommends that it be at least 2 feet in height. The dimensions will be the same as your base so that it sits perfectly on top.

There are several options for your screen material. The first option is a regular window or door screen. This excludes ALL insects. And we mean all, including beneficial pollinators like bees and butterflies.

If you simply want to keep out animals or backyard chickens, just use chicken wire. Be aware, this does not keep out any insects, including pests!

And finally, the third option is hardware cloth. Fred recommends spending using a ½ inch or ¼ inch hardware cloth. This allows bees to enter and leave but keeps out pests like the cabbage worm and cabbage butterfly.

Optional: The Shade Cloth Covering

You can further protect your bed from the elements by making a shade cloth covering. Fred recommends buying a 7x6' sheet of a 30-40% shade cloth. The percentage correlates to how much of the sun rays are being blocked.

You will also need two 1'x2'x7' lumber pieces to weight down each side of your covering.

Choosing Your Plants

There are many factors to consider when choosing what you want to plant. To simplify the process, here are three main questions to consider when planning: 1) What do you want to eat? 2) How much space do you have? 3) Where do you live?

Gardening and cooking are inherently connected, says Fred. It is important to plant fruits and vegetables that you actually want to cook with and eat. Do you want to make fresh salads with an assortment of leafy greens? Then you should consider kale, Swiss chard, and arugula, for example.

Next, determine how much you can plant within your 3x6' planter box. Fred divides up his planter box into two rows of 3 squares. Determine how much space your plant will need when fully-grown.

Garden Tip: Many people want to grow corn in their personal gardens and eat sweet corn in the summer. However, this is not feasible for smaller, garden boxes or those with limited space. Corn has a longer growing period, about 60 to 100 days, and needs a lot of space. Generally, it needs to grow in rows roughly 3-feet apart and each seed planted at least 12-inches apart. Fred recommends buying corn from your local farmer’s market and planting a more compact, feasible food source in your garden boxes.

Now, why does where you live matter?

The state of Utah has a wide range of Plant Hardiness Zones, ranging from four in the northern side of the state to eight in the southern. The first and last frost, soil quality, and many other factors depend on your elevation and location in the state. It can even vary from city to neighboring city. If you live in Rose Park, for example, your planting dates and soil conditions will be different from someone who is gardening in the higher, more mountainous East Bench neighborhoods of Salt Lake City.

As Fred says, “There are no garden experts, only garden problem solvers.” It can take many years, many gardening seasons, to become familiar with your land and all of the unique challenges and growing conditions that may present themselves. Start simple. See what works and doesn’t work in your space and find out why, and remember to be patient.

There are no garden experts, only garden problem solvers
~Fred Montague

So what are you waiting for? Go plan that garden! As always, we love to see your garden box projects, so tag us on Facebook and Instagram.

Happy Gardening!

Don’t forget to follow Modern Gardener on Instagram and Facebook to see more information about gardening, and chime in with your own tips or stories!

If you live in Utah and have a garden or garden project that you'd like to be featured on Modern Gardener, click here!

Alaynia Winter

KUED Production Intern

Alaynia Winter earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from University of Utah. A member of student media in college, she wrote for Wasatch Magazine, University of Utah's outdoor lifestyle magazine. When not gardening, Alaynia spends time with her very spoiled dog.Read more