Choosing a Garden
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:
§ 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.
§ 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
§ 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
§ 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
§ 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.