Garden Planning: Seasons, Sun and Soil – How to Choose a Garden Location

garden planning

garden planningGarden Planning – Getting Started

Preparation and Garden Planning: Season, Sunlight and Soil – The Foundations of Good Garden Location

Successful vegetable gardens take a little planning and preparation.  But it isn’t too difficult to do if you know the key elements that have to be considered.

Start with getting educated about your climate, and your specific location.

The USDA Climate Hardiness Zones Map will give you the big picture view of your climate area – although there are certainly micro climate areas (Sunny slopes and cooler wetter valleys, for instance). The planting zones map will give you a general sense of the length of your growing season and once you know your “zone number” it is easier to identify which plants will grow well in your area, as the hardiness zone numbers are often used in plant descriptions, seed catalogs and as reference information for many resources.

Once you know what planting zone you are in, it’s time to take a closer look at where you want to locate your vegetable garden.

Choosing the garden plot location

Simple observation is the gardener’s best friend, and site location is all about observation.  You may discover that the first idea you had in your head about where to locate your garden needs some revision – and it’s much better to figure this out before you plant than after the garden is already in.

Take a close look at the area you have to work with. Determine your four directions. In the Northern hemisphere, your Southern sky and its obstruction or lack thereof will determine the amount of sunlight your garden will receive. Note locations of trees, hedges, walls and fences.

Deciduous trees don’t cast much shadow when they are leafless in winter, but in summer their shade can be substantial, and if you failed to notice that large maple tree in your neighbor’s yard in January, in April  it will surely be casting a shadow you’ll see – and if it’s directly South of your chosen garden patch, you may be growing a shade garden, at least until June when the sun will be more directly overhead; and the shade will be back again by August and September when the sun will begin tracking toward the South once more.

Until you plant a garden, the angle of the sun may not be so noticeable to you; but once you have a garden in the ground you will suddenly be very aware of how the light changes over the course of the growing season. So go ahead and look carefully before you choose that location.

Fences and walls may be fine for climbing peas or other crops, and don’t necessarily mean a location is not suitable for gardening, but consider what is on the other side of the fence or wall – and what direction it lies. A perimeter that runs North to South will cast shadows East to West, a perimeter that runs East to West will cast shadows South to North. Generally, shadows East to West are fine in a garden as summer days are long and missing a little morning or afternoon sun is not a big problem, but shadows falling from South to North will stretch longer by July and August and could completely shade whole areas for large parts of the day.

As a rule of thumb, the more open and less obstructed the exposure to the southern sky, the better light the garden will have. Of course if you live in very hot or desert type climates, you will also have to consider if that much direct sunlight is really what you want, as you do not want to cook your vegetables in their garden beds.

Putting the Garden in Context

Once you have a good general idea of the sunlight and how it falls on your property, the next thing you’ll need to consider is what else goes on around the property.

Is there a play yard for the children or an area for pets?  Is there a back alley or other source of noise, dust or exhaust or potential problems? The garden is a wonderful asset to a backyard, but if there are other people and/or animals who also enjoy the space make sure the garden doesn’t land in their midst and create problems for everyone.  If there are pets and children then there may also need to be a fence around the garden, depending on the size, age and activity of the pets in particular. A large dog running at high speed can take out whole areas of the garden in one pass in hot pursuit of a squirrel or ball. Even a fairly low fence can often be enough to teach the dog to avoid the garden area with a little encouragement to stay out – and it sure beats losing that prize tomato bush just as it gets ripe.

The Foundation of the Garden – Soil

Once these considerations have been made and a good sense of where the garden needs to go is beginning to take shape, the final consideration is the soil at your chosen location.

Soil is the foundation of the vegetable garden, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the perfect garden soil type when you choose the location – because soil condition can be improved fairly easily. What is important and hard to change is drainage.  If your backyard is a swampy mess in wet winter it may not drain well in summer either.  Raised beds can help with his problem, and generally there are wetter and dryer areas in any backyard, so look for a spot that is not too boggy or is slightly higher elevation than the low lying wetter areas if possible.

Avoid Chemical Hazards

Perhaps the most important consideration is whether or not the location is free of potential toxins or chemical hazards before you select it.

Here are a few things to pay attention to:

1. Utility poles: it is said that the largest single source of ground pollution is telephone and utility poles across America. Luckily that toxic creosote gives off a very telltale odor. Don’t plant within 2 or 3 feet of any wooden utility poles.

2. Gasoline oil or automobile residue: avoid areas which can be identified as the places historically used for such activities as auto mechanic work. Used motor oil or spilled fuels, solvents and other toxic chemicals leach into soil and you do not want them taken up by your vegetables.

3. Millions of pounds of chemicals are purchased by American homeowners every year for ‘lawn and garden’ application. Perhaps the most common and heavily sold, both in agriculture and domestic gardens, is RoundUp. This is the product for which Monsanto has created genetically modified plants like corn and soy.  It is also the source of glyphosate, a deadly poisonous chemical that not only kills plants but has now been found in ‘alarmingly’ high concentrations in the urine of country and city dwellers around the western world.

Glyphosate is a poison, extremely deadly for most plants, and quite toxic for people, especially over time.  It also not only gets into our blood stream, but can cross the blood barrier and reach your unborn children.

If you are planning a vegetable garden, take the time to assess what chemical exposure has occurred on the plot you are considering for your garden. For many people the whole reason for a home veggie garden is to grow organic, and it would surely be pointless in that case to be growing your garden in an area contaminated by chemicals.  This is a particularly important caution to anyone who has moved recently to a new home where the history of the lawn care is unknown.

With these elements of garden planning and location taken into consideration before you begin putting in the garden, your chances of success will be immeasurably higher and the rewards will be a bountiful harvest in your first gardening season. That first success will go a long way to getting you hooked on vegetable gardening.

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