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Choosing a Garden Site

            Keep in mind that there's no such thing as a perfect garden site. But you can do yourself a big favor by choosing your spot wisely. There are three main things to think about when you decide where to put your garden:

Site

Sun

Soil

            Site.

§  Keep your garden's location convenient and close to where the club leader and students live. If you see it daily, you'll be much more likely to care for it and not slack off. Remember the adage, "out of sight, out of mind." A good garden needs to be nurtured and checked every day. If you place it where people are likely to walk and stand, it'll increase their enjoyment. People love to watch a garden grow, even if they aren't the ones doing the work.

§  Don't go crazy. Start with a smaller garden than you'd like, and master its maintenance before you go all out with a bigger garden. About 100 square feet is a nice, sustainable size.

§  A water source close by is a must. An outdoor faucet with an average length of garden hose is fine. You don't want to be hauling hundreds of feet of hose to get to your garden.

§  A flat piece of ground is better than a sloped piece of ground. You could have some erosion problems, or have to spend a lot of money on retaining bricks or wood to terrace.

§  Try not to locate your garden too near a tree or large shrubs; they'll compete for water and nutrients with your food plants and flowers.

§  Locate a garden at least 50 feet from a black walnut tree. Its roots give off juglone, a substance that inhibits the growth of other plants.

§  If you're going to bring in a lot of bags of soil or a pickup load of compost, it would be a good idea to have your garden easily reached by a vehicle.

§  Consider the "microclimate" where you'd like to put your garden. Does a big building or tree block the wind but not the sun? That can be good. You really want to avoid a windy spot for your garden, or you may have heartache after summer thunderstorms do a number on your sunflowers or knock your tomato cages over. On the other hand, if your garden is close to a light-colored building, you may block the wind, but the reflected heat from the building can wreak havoc on your plants, especially if it's on the hotter south side and the building blocks the cooler winds.

§  Don't over-garden if it's your first try. You might get overwhelmed with too many maintenance chores. For a first-time garden, try 100 square feet. It doesn't all have to be in a raised bed; you could have some in a permanent bed and some with no special border.

Sun.

§  Light is the engine of food and flower production. You need a minimum of six hours a day of full sun. It can be three hours in the morning, then midday shade, and another three hours in the late afternoon. But to produce at their best, these high-energy plants need a good chunk of the sun's full face, and eight or 10 or 12 hours per day is even better.

§  But consider the different light needs of different crops. Tomatoes and peppers need the most sun. When the part of the plant that you eat is the leaf, the plant generally needs a little shade during the day. Examples: lettuce, bok choy and spinach. So look for a spot with morning sun only for those plants. Being out in the sun all day in the early spring might be fine, but as the summer heats up, you will not want a salad garden to get more than about four hours of sun a day. Because salad plants are generally "cut and come again," the successive harvests are the ones that will need shade. If your garden site is sunny, you can create shade for your leaf crops with your growing tomato plants and beanpoles! Note that root crops, including potatoes, carrots and beets, need a little more sun than lettuce and spinach, but not as much as most other vegetables.

§  Keep in mind that when the sun is at its highest in June, your garden may be in full sun all day, but in August, changing shade patterns may bathe it in shade too much of the day. So note the position of trees and buildings, especially for early spring and late fall harvest plans.

Soil.

§  The best garden soil is rich, crumbly and well-drained, kind of like dark brownie mix. When you squeeze a clump of it in your hand, it stays together when you release your fingers, but it's not too sticky.

§  Most soils are probably too heavy, rather than being too light. That's because they tend to have clay in them. Clay soils don't drain very well. You can add compost and other organic matter to your soil and cultivate it to get it fluffier, or build a raised bed if your soil is particularly soggy.

§  The main reason garden soil causes problems is if it doesn't drain water off very well. Plant roots need air as well as water, so if the spot you're considering for your garden stays soggy for a while after a rain, avoid it. You can test several places with a garden hose, or look for puddles after a rain. Or dig a hole, fill it with water, stick in a ruler, and check how quickly the water level drops. If it drains slower than one inch per hour, the site is too soggy. Look elsewhere, or build raised beds, which drain faster.

§  On the other hand, soil that is too sandy might dry off too quickly after being watered, and then your plants will suffer from drought. Again, adding compost will help. And if you are a big fan of root crops like carrots, you will want lighter, sandy soil to help the carrots grow straight down more easily.

§  If you have a lot of rocks in the spot you're considering, move on. It's too much work to remove them!

§  Watch out for septic systems, underground utility lines, proximity to a playground where kids might accidentally fall or run into your plants, and other hazards.

By Susan Darst Williamswww.KidsGardenClub.org • Planning 06 © 2010

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