Once again it’s that wonderful time of year when plants begin to break dormancy, migrating birds return to their nesting sites, and every gardener is daydreaming about the possibilities of the upcoming growing season.
If you’re brand new to growing food and planning to start a vegetable garden this year, the following list of considerations will help set you up for success when selecting a spot for your garden. This is also a helpful list to review for any novice gardeners who are finding that their garden just isn’t performing as well as they want it to.
Sun Exposure When it comes to choosing a spot for your vegetable garden the first and last thing on your mind should be sunlight. Most vegetables require “full sun” to grow optimally. Full sun is defined as at least six hours of direct sunlight on the plants per day. Some vegetables do well in “partial sun” which is four to six hours per day, but they are the exception.
One of the best ways to determine the sunniest spot in your yard is to draw out a map broken up into the sections you’re considering and check each section every couple hours on a sunny day to note whether the sun is shining on the spot. If your yard is surrounded by tall trees or buildings that completely block out direct sunlight, growing the majority of vegetables is more or less futile so I would recommend changing gears and growing mushrooms instead.
Soil Type Good soil is the next critical ingredient for a healthy vegetable garden, but unlike sunlight you have some control over it. There are three primary soil types: clay, sand, and silt. Each soil type has benefits and drawbacks for your plants, but an ideal soil for a vegetable garden is a mixture of all three, commonly referred to as “loam.” In a loamy soil the clay provides excellent nutrient and water retention, the sand provides aeration while allowing good drainage, and the silt splits the difference by providing additional nutrient retention and aeration.
The best way to assess your soil type is to scoop some up and squeeze it between your thumb and index finger. If the soil feels sticky and clumps together in a solid chunk, you are likely on the clay side of the spectrum. If the soil crumbles and runs through your fingers, it’s on the sandy side of the spectrum. Most soils will fall somewhere in the middle, which is where you want to be. If your soil is primarily made up of just one of these soil types you will want to amend it before planting your vegetables. Generally, amending your soil will just involve adding a mixture of the other soil types to balance the ratio of clay, sand and silt. Compost is always an excellent addition to any garden and will also help balance the soil.
Potential Soil Contamination One of the primary motivations for many gardeners to grow their own food is to ensure that the produce they are feeding their family is of the highest quality. Low levels of lead occur naturally in most soils. But because of the ubiquitous use of lead paint until the 1970s, some urban areas have an unsafe concentration of lead in the soil—especially around deteriorating older homes. If you are concerned that your soil may be contaminated with lead you can send soil samples to a number of labs around the U.S. for a small fee.
If you test your soil and discover that you do have lead contaminated soil, all hope is not lost. Vegetables primarily concentrate lead in their roots and leaves. This means that you can still feel confident growing above-ground fruiting plants like tomatoes, beans, peppers, etc. Just make sure you rinse off any dust from the garden before eating them. Additionally, you can build deep raised beds on top of your contaminated soil and fill them with a healthy soil mixture to significantly reduce the amount of lead taken up by your plants. Lead is also less water soluble in soil containing a lot of organic matter (aka compost) and therefore less likely to be absorbed by the plants. For more information on addressing lead contamination visit the Penn State Extension portal.
Protection from Pests Pest protection is another major consideration for locating your garden. There’s really no point in spending so much time planning and working in your garden only to feed the neighborhood deer herd that could just as easily be munching acorns and crab apples in the woods. If you have the option to place your garden inside of a fence, I would highly recommend doing so. Bonus points if that fence contains a dog.
Distance from Water Source The final consideration is more of a convenience factor. Your vegetable garden should be a place of joy and a respite from the stressors in your life. I can tell you from experience that lugging jugs of water back and forth to a vegetable garden far from the spigot is not a joyous activity. If you have the option to locate your garden within hose distance from a water source you will save yourself a lot of heart (and back) ache once the weather heats up.
If starting a vegetable garden is something that has been on your mind for a while, now is the time to do it! The considerations above might seem daunting, but after having read this you are now miles ahead of where I was when I started my first vegetable garden. If you stick with it, you’ll be reaping the fruits of your labor in no time.