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Becky Weeks - Jan 15 2021

Garden Planning: Where to Plant Your Garden

Reading Time:  7 min

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Outside it's a chilly 30 degrees and remnants of last night's snowfall still cover the ground on our Iowa farmstead, but inside I'm dreaming up warm gardening thoughts, my feet warmed by the glow of our woodstove. Sure, it's only January and many more chilly days must pass before the first seed is planted, but that doesn't mean I can't start preparing now. I've known gardeners who prefer to wing it-- and there's no shame in that-- but if you're reading this, I'm guessing that like me, you're the planning type. In this series of blog posts, I hope to help gardeners get a head start on planning their dream garden. I also hope that I can help answer some of those age-old questions that plague gardeners: Where is the best place to plant a garden? How big of a garden do I need? What should I plant and where? So, grab that box of leftover seeds, your favorite catalogs, maybe some graph paper (no judgement here) and let's get planning.

Where to plant a garden – Setting your sites

Will this be your first garden? Perhaps that old garden plot, which has served you well for decades, is getting a little tired and you're looking to relocate. Either way, if you are planning on cutting a new garden this spring, your diligence now in selecting the best garden location is sure to pay dividends in the years ahead.

Sunlight

It's no surprise that sun exposure is the single most important factor when choosing a garden location. Issues with fertility, wind exposure, and to some extent, even drainage can be addressed later if the gardener is motivated-- but with sunlight, what you see is what you get.  The ideal garden plot should receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily, the more the better. If possible, one should avoid gardening within six feet of the northern wall of a single-story structure, as this area is shaded most of the day. The south side of a structure, however, is an ideal location for a garden. South and west facing walls act as heat sinks, trapping heat from the afternoon sun and slowly releasing it during the night. Gardens planted against east-facing walls are less ideal because they miss out on the warming effects of the afternoon sun.

Wind, Snow, and Frost

For those who live in frost-prone regions, getting to know the lay of the land before cutting ground on your new garden is a worthwhile endeavor. Take some time to observe your prospective garden areas throughout the fall and winter months. Where does it seem the windiest? Where does the frost settle? Where do snow drifts accumulate? After all, few things are as frustrating to the winter-weary gardener as staring out the window at that persistent snow drift that has strung itself across your garden, delaying your first spring sowings.

If wind is a problem in your area, avoid planting a garden in the corridor between two buildings. Wind is concentrated as it moves between the structures, increasing its velocity. Tall plants like corn may lodge in high winds and tender, leafy vegetables may get damaged from thrashing in the wind.  

Leaning into challenges

When most of us picture our ideal garden, we think of a nice plot on level ground, but did you know that planting on a gentle slope can actually be preferable to planting on the flat? Besides having better drainage, gardens planted on a slope are often sheltered from the strongest winds. They also have the surprising benefit of being less frost-prone than even the hilltop. This effect is illustrated in the figure above. In general, air at night moves down a slope. Turbulent mixing of air moving downhill creates down-slope breeze that prevents frosting (USDA, 1977).  What's more, gardeners blessed with a south-facing slope can benefit from the warming effects of the sun. In his book, Four-Season Harvest, author Elliot Coleman estimates that along the 44th parallel, a garden on a 5 degree south-facing slope will have the same solar climate as flat land 300 miles further south. How cool is that!

Access to water

Having access to water is a necessity if you live in an area that receives little rainfall during the hot summer months. Your seeds will need ample moisture to get up and going and an average of one inch per week thereafter. Ideally, the garden should be located near a water source so that it can be watered during dry spells. If this is not an option, steps can be taken to minimize the amount of water needed to maintain plant productivity. For example, plants can be spaced farther apart between and within rows to allocate more root space to each plant. Furthermore, evaporative loss can be minimized by mulching or by using wide, double-dug or raised beds.

Garden Drainage

Having too much water can be as much of a problem as having too little. Excess soil moisture can cool the soil and cause seeds to dampen off prior to or during germination. Additionally, garden vegetables such as cucumbers, melons and squash dislike having wet feet. When selecting your site, try to avoid low-lying areas or waterways. During heavy rains, nutrients will be leached from the soil more quickly or worse yet, erosion may cause you to lose your soil altogether. Should you find yourself with no better option besides that soggy plot at the bottom of the hill, steps can be taken to improve the drainage of the soil.  Water can be diverted around the garden using a French drain, for example.   Drainage within the garden can also be improved by adding in loads of organic matter and building up the surface of the soil. A simple, but effective method for draining smaller puddles is to use your hoe to create a channel through which the water can escape. 

Take it from Noah

A flood is a powerful and damaging force. During our ceaseless conquest for garden space in our early years, we once tilled up a pumpkin patch on the back forty of a neighbor’s farm. Accessing this land required crossing a bridge, which wasn’t much of an issue until late spring rains washed the bridge out. Come fall, we were forced to haul out several hundred pounds of pumpkins by hand, loading them in to tubs and then carefully sliding the tubs across the remaining I-beams of the bridge. It’s a good thing we had a friend to help--and that we were all young. A year later, we were given access to what I thought was the perfect garden. Sure, it still required crossing a bridge, but this one was made of concrete, so it was safe, right? Wrong. Water from a strong storm broke the concrete drive in two, making it impassible by vehicle. This time, I had planted 200 hills of potatoes and in the rich riverside soil, they yielded a bumper crop—which once again, had to be hauled out by hand. Lesson learned, finally.

Photo by Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

Other considerations

In certain circumstances, the previous life of the land may make it inhospitable to garden plants. It is fairly common, for example, that new subdivisions will be stripped of much of the land’s native topsoil. With time, this can be corrected by bringing in purchased topsoil, compost, and other amendments--but it comes with a cost.  In urban areas, old rights of way that have been sprayed with long-lasting herbicides and/or have been accumulating road salts for a long period of time, will rarely prove worthwhile as gardens. Finally, in some cases the remnants of the land’s previous use will completely preclude it from use as a garden plot. Dumpsites, household burn piles, foundry sites, and old orchards (which were for decades sprayed with lead arsenate), for example, should never be planted with vegetables.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Divide and conquer

If you find it challenging to locate an area large enough to plant everything you want, you may find that planting several smaller plots has its advantages. First, it's usually easier to find small plots that escape the shade of trees and buildings. Secondly, isolated plots are preferable for crop rotations because the tiller cannot drag contaminated soil from one plot to another. Finally (speaking from personal experience here) there is a strange, psychological advantage to tending smaller plots, one at a time. Nothing is more frustrating than finishing weeding a bed, only to stand up and look across the rest of the weedy garden. Short of using garden blinders (which, I promise, is something I will someday invent) allocating crops into smaller, isolated beds is the best way to maintain one’s sanity during the height of weeding season.

In summary: Choosing your garden location

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a location for your new garden. Sun and wind exposure, the slope and drainage of the land, and any artifacts of its previous life, will all be important factors in determining how successful your garden can be. If your choices are limited, it may be best to try several smaller plots. However, one should never be discouraged because they don’t have the perfect garden location. Plants can grow quite contently under a variety of conditions, and they do in gardens of all sorts located all over the world. The best approach is to just get started. In time, you will learn how to work with the limitations of your plot and maybe even use them to your advantage.

Becky Weeks, Ph.D.

Geneticist, Gardener, Founder of Thresh Seed Co.

Becky is a geneticist with a passion for gardening. Prior to starting Thresh Seed Co., she spent fifteen years researching plant genetics and development, later applying those principles to aid in the breeding of commercial corn and soybean varieties. She lives on a farm in Iowa with her husband and two children, where she enjoys growing just about anything and experimenting with the breeding of new vegetable varieties.

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