Kelly Smith-Trimble strays from traditional planting methods in her Tennessee backyard garden

By Grace Haynes
June 05, 2020
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“A lot of people envision a veggie garden as orderly. Mine isn’t, but it’s vibrant,” says Kelly Smith-Trimble.
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto

The Problem: rotten raised beds. That’s not the promising start to a spring growing season that a Master Gardener would expect—at least not Kelly Smith-Trimble, who discovered the wooden beds she had been using for years were crumbling against the naturally sloped grade of her Knoxville backyard. The solution: Rip out those old beds, and start experimenting. She’s an experienced grower who published an advice-packed book, Vegetable Gardening Wisdom, last year. However, class never goes out of session for gardeners, even the pros.

Inspired by free-flowing shapes of labyrinth, keyhole, and spiral gardens, Smith-Trimble dreamed up a modified design to fit her suburban backyard: a meditation-style plot tucked away in a sun-laden corner. She stuck to her tried-and-true growing principles, but this time, alongside the veggies, she added a wide assortment of flowers and herbs—over 30 kinds of plants growing together. “The goal was to create an ecosystem that does a lot of the work for itself,” Smith-Trimble says. The result: A hardworking space that’s positively buzzing with beneficial insects and overflowing with a bounty of summer crops. Read on to learn how her self-sufficient garden took shape.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Plot Your Garden Layout

“I plant in vertical layers,” says Smith-Trimble, who maps out her garden on paper beforehand. Low growers double as living mulches to shade the soil, and climbing plants grow vertically. “Consider the arc of the sun when planning your beds. Generally, placing taller plants on the north side means they won’t shade out the shorter ones,” she says.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Let Nature Do Its Thing 

Filling the garden with diverse plantings boosts its sustainability. Herbs mingle around tomato trellises, spiky veronicas bloom beside climbing cucumbers, and sunflowers neighbor beets. “In a healthy garden, many organisms support the work of growing the crop—from the microbes in the dirt to the earthworms tilling the soil to the beneficial insects attacking pests to the pollinators helping the plant make fruit,” Smith-Trimble says.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Add Pollinators and Protectors

Flowers attract good insects—like bees, ladybugs (natural predators of tomato-loving aphids), and wasps—that also pollinate vegetable crops. Tomatoes are paired with basil, the smell of which is known to confuse pests. Herbs like dill, thyme, rosemary, and sage safeguard cabbage-family crops. Their scents can fend off cabbage moths, which lay eggs that become cabbage worms. Members of the onion family deter harmful insects like aphids, ants, and flea beetles, while mint entices pollinating honeybees.

Think Like a Landscaper

Smith-Trimble took a cue from landscape design by repeating certain groups of plantings in different areas of the space, so the garden looks colorful and consistently beautiful throughout the growing season.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Blend Form and Function

By freeing herself from standard raised beds, Smith-Trimble has extra square footage where she can experiment with different plants—more than just vegetables. “When you have free-form shapes and can play a little bit, gardening is more fun,” she says. Positioning tall trellises along the outer bed helps the area feel secluded. “The garden is where I get out in nature every day. This design has a sense of wildness, and it also feels like a haven where I can retreat,” she says.

Plant in the Right Spots

Cool-weather vegetables can grow in the heat under certain conditions. Shade-loving lettuce hides underneath cucumber trellises, and beets avoid the sun beside tall tomato plants.

Smith-Trimble’s colorful, farmers’ market-worthy summer crops include heirloom tomatoes, okra, peppers, beets, corn,basil, and more.
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Six Summer-Loving Seeds

Follow Smith-Trimble’s lead. Plant these crops to produce a bountiful harvest throughout the season

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Detroit Dark Red’ Beet

Shade cool-weather-loving beets in summer by placing them next to taller growers.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Shishito’ Pepper

Provide full sun and plenty of water. Snip off at the stems when they’re a good size.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Jimmy T’s’ Okra

Harvest pods at 2 to 4 inches long. Continue picking so the plant will keep producing.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Straight Eight’ Cucumber

Let vines grow up a trellis so fruits are off the ground, which can prevent rot and bugs.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Tankuro’ Edamame

Growing this nitrogen-fixing legume is good for the soil (like other beans).

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

‘Brandywine’ Tomato

Pick at the breaker stage, when mature color starts spreading on the sides and bottom.