Interested in building a new vegetable garden this year or expanding your existing one?
Now is a great time to start planning. The first thing you need to decide is where the garden is going to located. Thinking through the entire process and taking the time to make a plan in advance will prevent you from making mistakes that could affect the productivity and beauty of your garden.
Here are a few site selection criteria that we consider every time we build a new garden.
The most important factor to consider when exploring potential garden sites is exposure to direct sunlight. Nearly every fruit and vegetable plant will benefit from getting as much sunlight as possible. It is essential that your garden receives at least 6 hours of sunlight at the height of summer. If a site gets less than 6 hours of sun per day during the growing season, consider planting shade-tolerant, perennial edibles instead of vegetables. For example, evergreen huckleberries are great for heavily-shaded areas and alpine strawberries do well in semi-shaded spaces.
Remember that the sun is much higher in the sky in the summer than it is in the winter, so objects that are casting lots of shade in March may not be casting any shadows in another month or two. Sunseeker is a very useful app for your smartphone that can help calculate hours of sun exposure in a potential garden site.
Access & Visibility
Set yourself up for success by setting up your garden so that it's easy to get to and work in. You're much more likely to take care of your garden if you walk by it frequently or see it everyday from the kitchen window.
Annual vegetables require different soil management, irrigation, and fertility than established perennial landscaping plants. Making a separate space for your vegetables will ensure that they get the care they need and won't be outcompeted by aggressive perennial roots.
An even grade is important for a successful vegetable garden. A slight slope is not a problem, but if you have a steeply-sloped area that you want to use for food production, build terraces to prevent erosion and make the space easier to work in.
Access to Water
Consistent water is vital for your vegetable crops. Make sure you can run a supply line for irrigation from your outdoor hose bib to your garden site, or consult a specialist if you need to connect irrigation pipes to your water main.
Initial Soil Quality
If you have poor quality soil, don't worry! It's easy to get soil in shape using high-quality compost, mineral amendments, and organic fertilizer. If your garden site is adjacent to an older house (built before the mid-1970's) or structure containing treated lumber, consider testing for lead and arsenic before proceeding with building a food garden.
If you have multiple spaces to work with, consider the required work to get the space ready for production. If the initial site clearing requires a prohibitive amount of labor or monetary expense, go with the site that needs less work to get into shape. If you do have the resources, there's nothing more satisfying than renovating a neglected area and repurposing it to grow food. Make a plan before starting a site clearing project and ensure you have all the tools you need on hand for an efficient and easy work party.
If you have deer, rabbits (or an excitable dog) in the area, plan to fence your garden. This step will save you many future garden management headaches.
I hope these suggestions will help you with choosing a site for your vegetable garden! A little planning will go a long way in making your vegetable garden the best that it can be.
Brad Halm is co-owner of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, a business that specializes in design, installation, and maintenance of urban farms and edible landscapes for residents, businesses, and institutions in the Puget Sound region.
Editor's Note: Swansons is excited to carry Brad's book, Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard, the essential handbook for beginning home food gardeners!