As market demand shifts towards sustainability, architects and developers will have to rethink their approach as to what constitutes a green building. One method to stand out is designing the project to allow for local food production. Urban food gardens provide a variety of social, economic, and environmental benefits including improved access to healthy food, enhanced biodiversity, reduced heat island effects, and contributions to building marketability. Below are eight tips to help design an effective food garden.

  1. Conduct a Soil Survey – If planting a food garden in-ground, testing and analyzing the soil to determine its quality and composition can be an integral step. For example, shallow rooted plant species planted in silt or sandy soils will not receive the water they require, as the soil water holding capacity is low. Contrary, clay or loamy soils have a high soil water holding capacity, making it more difficult for plants with deep stretching roots to absorb the water they need. Soil acidity, total soluble salts, sodium, and percent organic matter should also be included in the survey. Soil pH, for instance, indicates the plant varieties that would thrive, as well as which weed species could pose as an issue. In addition, pH identifies potential soil amendments for the garden – for example, a low pH soil would not benefit from the addition of highly acidic compost.
  2. Plant More Herbs and Vegetables, Fewer Fruit – Because most fruit grows on trees, project teams may have difficulty designing for root depth in urban food garden settings. Rather, planting vegetables and herbs may better match the garden as these are fairly shallow rooted plants. In addition, vegetables have fewer days to maturity than most fruit plants, allowing for occupants to reap the benefits faster and more frequently.
  3. Educate Users – Consider using the food garden as a means of education, either through the use of signage, displays, or hands-on education. Gardening offers occupants an opportunity to gain skills in planning, food production, and business, as well as increase awareness of their global footprint when it comes to food consumption. Beyond educational benefits, participating in an urban food garden benefits the mental health, outlook, and wellbeing of occupants.
  4. Install Raised Beds – Designing raised beds rather than in-ground beds improves drainage – especially in non-ideal soils – helps prevent weeds, makes it easier to amend soil, allows plant growth in poor quality soil, and improves access for occupants or users with limited mobility. Raised beds with a depth between 6 and 12 inches are ideal for both shallow and deeper rooted plants. Projects may take the raised bed approach to another level by exploring vertical growing strategies. Edible walls or hanging planters use typically unused space and serve as aesthetic elements in a space.
  5. Design for Occupant Comfort – For both ground-level and rooftop gardens, design with occupant comfort and safety in mind. Providing stable, flat, and slip-resistant ground surfaces such as crushed fines or rubber mats between beds is an excellent way to ensure occupant safety, as well as ADA accessibility. Awnings or pergolas may also be designed to provide shade for gardens with full sun exposure, offering a comfortable environment for both occupants and shade-loving plants.
  6. Consider Space and Sizing for Storage Sheds – Designing a secure, weatherproof structure for garden tools and supplies near the space ensures occupants have the means to maintain and interact with the environment without bringing contaminants into the building. Sizing the structure to appropriately serve the garden space is imperative in making sure the space is properly maintained.
  7. Keep the Space Secure – Install lighting to improve nighttime security and occupant comfort. Fencing ground-level spaces off and providing a lockable gate helps ensure the garden is used only by occupants. Additionally, consider bringing a netting or mesh below-ground, directly below the garden fencing, to prevent subterranean pest intrusion.
  8. Use Drip Irrigation – Drip irrigation eliminates the need for hoses or sprinklers and serves as a more water efficient method of landscaping. Teams should consider the use of pre-punctured tubes with emitters, allowing operations staff to regulate drip quantity based on plant and soil type. A drip system also eliminates the risk of spray on structures and, because of its low flow, reducing the nutrient loss associated with over-watering. While overall water use will increase with a food garden, projects pursuing LEED may choose to exclude the garden from total water calculations, and CALGreen projects may use an ETAF of up to 1 in MWELO calculations, minimizing this area’s impact on the Maximum Allowed Water Allowance.

For more information on urban food garden design ideas, strategies, or consultation services, please contact Moe Fakih below:

Moe Fakih, Principal

VCA Green



Contributing Writer: Luca Costa, Assistant Project Manager