Starting A Garden

Starting A GardenWe’ve written a lot about planning your garden, which plants go where, crop rotation, companion planting, and the like. But what to do when you’re starting a garden or want to create a second (or a third) garden space?  Where is the best place for your new garden to go? What factors should you consider when starting it?

Often we don’t have a choice. Our yards are small. Everything is heavily shaded except for that one spot over there. If we put the new garden right in that sunny spot in the middle of the yard, where will we play badminton on the fourth of July? Choosing where to put a garden space is a problem a lot of us don’t have.

But if we’re lucky enough to have the space where a choice is in order then it’s important we choose wisely. It’s safe to say that we already know the principles. What’s best for the plants you want to grow? Here’s a brief and most likely incomplete list of principles to consider when starting a garden. Feel free to add things we may have overlooked and other suggestions that will assure you convenience and make your plants a growing success.

  • Soil conditions: This is probably the first thing to consider. As Eliot Coleman states in his now classic  The New Organic Grower, almost any soil can be made productive for growing crops. The difference is the amount of effort to make it so. You can turn sandy soil full of stones that carries a pH below 5 into a productive garden after a few years of adding compost and manure, lime and other minerals, and/or growing green manures. But why do that when there’s workable soil with a more reasonable pH reading on the other side of your acreage? All other things being equal, I know which spot I’d choose.
  • When considering soil don’t forget to consider its depth. That great looking top soil may only be an inch or two deep sitting atop gravel (not so bad, but still not deep enough) or bedrock (bad… and welcome to my New Mexico nightmare). Also consider the water table. What looks perfect in August could be soggy well into early summer after all that winter precipitation. It all depends on how high the water level is beneath the earth. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we saw this principle in action several times over. Tourist who admired the lush greenery of a building site in August would buy the real estate only to find out it was a swamp several months out of the year. If it’s soil conditions that keep water from being absorbed, that can be corrected. But of course it takes time.
  • Lay of the land:  Southern exposure is important for gardens, especially in the northern part of our country. Land with a southern exposure warms up more quickly in spring and avoids frost longer in the fall. A slope also encourages air circulation, something that’s important but not frequently considered when plotting gardens.  Garden with good air circulation also tend to avoid the earliest frosts. Hollows or low spots not only are more susceptible to freezing, they’re also more vulnerable to disease and fungus. Why? Because the air doesn’t circulate, allowing moisture to settle and stay on plants.
  • Sunlight: Here’s another one everybody knows. Nearly all vegetables worth their vitamins require full (or nearly so) sunlight. You want to plot your new garden in the sunniest spot possible. Of course, this isn’t always possible. Back in Montana, my one and only required that the garden be tucked away in a corner of the yard surrounded by lilac bushes. Even with careful trimming of the bushes each season, careful planning was required to keep the tomatoes, peppers and squash moving around on the garden’s north end to stay in full sun. Greens and cool-season crops tolerant of a little shade, went closer to the lilacs. Our converted front yard garden in coastal California, often shaded early in the day by fog, was shaded in the afternoon by a neighbor’s large tree. Once the tree was cut back, our tomatoes flourished. Of course, that only lasted a year or two. Trees are growing things, too.
  • Windbreaks: While air movement is a good thing, too much can be harmful. Strong winds can damage plants and cause soil erosion. Creating the perfect spot may require adding a windbreak such as shrubs or light-porous fencing. Windbreaks will also help conserve moisture by slowing evaporation after watering. Again, finding the sweet spot of air movement can be a rather fine balancing act.

What else? Proximity to a water source is a no-brainer. Consider access. Don’t place your garden where it’s hard to get to or difficult to cart or carry compost and other supplements. We’ve always liked to have our garden no more than a shovel’s throw away from the compost heap. One clever writer suggests that you put your garden where you can’t ignore it: near the back door, by the mail box or in view of the window behind which you wash your dishes. Out of sight, out of mind; like your children, you never want to overlook what your garden’s up to. You’ll be able to better monitor moisture conditions if it’s easily and regularly in view. Also, don’t be tempted to make your garden so large it becomes a chore. Start small. You can always make it bigger next year. Here are suggestions (PDF) from the Iowa Sate Extension service about starting a new garden. And here’s more from Michigan author and instructor Neil Moran. Don’t have a garden? Now’s the time to take the first step.

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