Getting Started

I often think about what advice I’d have for a friend who wanted to plant their first vegetable garden. In particular, what advice would I have if my friend was very busy, didn’t have a lot of cash to invest in a garden, had a relatively small yard but still wanted to produce plenty of fresh produce for their family. This question will be the focus of my beginning gardening series.

 Today we will focus on what factors to consider when determining the location of a vegetable garden. As a rule, it’s best to pick a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of direct sun a day. Fruiting crops, in particular, benefit from at least this much direct sun, while root and leafy vegetables better tolerate more partial shade. Full morning sun and some afternoon shade is a great combination for a vegetable garden. When you have free time over the course of a day I recommend observing how the sun falls on different areas of your yard and taking notes on how much sun each area gets. 

If you’re planning a summer garden, make sure to do this in late spring or early summer so that your observations will be as accurate as possible. In other words, don’t rely on observations made in winter when the sun is lower in the sky, and leaves are absent from deciduous trees. If you find that you don’t have an area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun there still may be hope for a vegetable garden. Most of our garden gets less than 6 hours of sun per day, but we still manage to grow quite a bit of food by growing a lot of leafy greens, root crops, and small fruiting crops like cherry tomatoes and jalapeno peppers. 

It’s also important to consider the quality of the soil and avoid areas where the soil might be contaminated especially if you’re planning on growing in native soil. For example, I’d be wary of sites that have a history of industrial or commercial use, or where a building was demolished, or pesticides have been used heavily. If in doubt about heavy metals it’s best to have the soil tested for contaminants before planting a garden in native soil. It’s also a good idea to have the soil tested for nutrients, pH, and organic matter. Here in the U.S. this particular test is inexpensive,and available through agricultural extension offices. A soil test can save you a lot of time, money, and guess work in the long run by identifying what the soil really needs, and doesn’t need. I suspect if we had tested our soil earlier we would have found that we already had nutrient surpluses years ago and we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and effort. Growing in raised beds is the best way to ensure your soil is safe to grow in (See our blog for information regarding raised garden beds). 

It’s also a good idea to locate the garden close to the house. Our yard is so small that this isn’t really a factor, but if you have a very large yard having the garden closer will make it easier to tend to the garden and harvest its bounty. It’s also a good idea to have the garden close to a water source. This is certainly true when hand watering, but it’s also true when using an irrigation system because the shorter water runs will be less vulnerable to problems.

 One thing I didn’t consider at all when I started gardening was a slope. Our yard has a slight north-facing slope which means it slopes away from the sun. The northern slope can result in the soil warming more slowly in the spring, and the garden getting off to a slower start in the spring. Because we were already at a disadvantage with limited sun I decided to correct the slope when I built our raised beds. Though the yard has a northern slope the beds have a slight southern slope, which helps the soil warm in the spring and gets the growing season off to an earlier start. So, if you live in a colder climate with a short growing season a south-facing slope can provide a significant advantage. However, if you live in a very sunny climate, say you live in Phoenix Arizona, you probably don’t want to have your summer garden on a south-facing slope. 

Another factor to consider is the presence of structures to protect your garden from elements and possible garden invaders. Are there trees, fences, or buildings, that won’t significantly shade the garden, but will provide protection from extreme winds? Is there fencing or some other barrier to keep deer out of the garden? Here in the suburbs, we don’t have to worry about deer, but the buildings, fences, and trees that surround the garden and protect it from harsh winds, and create a nice little microclimate that is friendlier to a vegetable garden than an unprotected area would be. 

Finally, before starting your garden, make sure to learn if your municipality or homeowner’s association places any limits on vegetable gardens. Bans on front yard gardens are especially common. We grow some edibles out front that pass as ornamentals, but if we wanted to grow a full-blown vegetable garden we’d have to get a permit. Backyard gardens are less often prohibited, but some homeowner associations may forbid them, so make sure to take these factors into account early in the planning process.