Food can be grown on fire escapes, roof tops, driveways, in trash cans, old pickup beds and wine barrels. If you’ve got the soil and the sun, you can grow vegetables in a million different venues.
What if you want to grow your veggies in the more conventional, earth-bound garden plot? Great! But first check the available locations for some key facts.
Does this location have a minimum of 6 hours sun each day? Eight hours is preferable. Watch for shadows from trees, fences, and buildings. Watch how those shadows grow as the season advances. What may have been adequate sun in June is not adequate in September because of the long shadows from the two-story home on the next lot. If you are checking for sun in February, remember that those deciduous trees will be covered with leaves come May.
If you are still wondering about your sunshine, try this: Stand facing south. Extend both your arms to the side, left arm pointing east and right arm point west. Lift your left arm, making an arc just in front of you as your left arm lowers to meet your right arm. Your left arm has just described the journey of the sun from sunrise to sunset. Do you see any structures, trees, etc in that journey that will cause shade? If not, your potential garden plot has passed its first test.
Watch your prospective location for standing water. After a rain, is it a bit boggy? This is not good. The problem can be fixed but takes time and work – it is not a good start for a new gardener. Find another spot. A good test of drainage is to take a handful of soil and give it a good squeeze. If moisture comes out, your soil is too moist. If the clump falls apart easily, you have found a fine spot with good drainage and probably fairly decent soil to work with. Add compost and mulch and you will probably be satisfied with your success.
Some plants require more moisture than others, but a water source for vegetables is essential. For most of us that is an outside water hydrant. Your new vegetable garden should be close enough to conveniently run a garden hose to it. As we have expanded our growing areas, we have laid more water pipe and put in several more hydrants. The extra pipe and hydrants are not necessary in the beginning, but realize this could be in your future. It is wise to consider your water needs from the beginning.
A Flat Slope
The flatter your garden plot, the easier it will be to manage. If you must plant on a slope, plant across it rather than up and down it. It’s amazing to see the avocado trees in San Diego county planted in rows that ring the hillsides, some very steep hillsides at that. Hillside plantings work, but if you have a chance to go flat, definitely go flat. In the movie The Mission there is a scene where the harvested banana clumps are hauled up the hill with a pulley system. I said, “That’s exactly what I want for Christmas!” Santa hasn’t come yet.
If you are not certain of the history of the ground you want to grow on, work it for a year. Add lots of compost and some manure. Mulch and turn the mulch under every couple of months. Mulch again. Water the plot as if you were growing something on it. Undesirable substances will leach out this way. Plant a cover crop about 2/3 through the year and then dig it in. Unless you’ve had a toxic spill or the like, your soil should be good to go. If you are suspect at all about your soil, then play it safe. Grow your food in barrels using your own home-made compost.
Easy access is especially relevant if you plan to develop a large planting area over time. Is there room to get a vehicle close to it? You will probably want to bring in a pickup load of mulch, manure, or other soil amendments. You may want to go with raised beds and need lumber and other building supplies. You may be growing enough to go to market. Can you get a pickup close to the garden plot for loading your precious market crop? These are all points to ponder in your site selection.
I visited a friend who had invested huge amounts of time and energy making compost and putting in a square-foot garden. A year went by and she was sorely disappointed in the results: she had little to harvest but lettuce and a few greens. She had planned to feed a family of five.
We walked back together to survey her gardening efforts. The soil was to die for! This gal knows how to make compost. But the garden plot was competing with roots from the 50-100 year-old trees in the neighborhood. The large tree in the yard next door was hogging most of the sunshine. The one really sunny spot of lawn was play area for the three children. The solution was to garden in containers on the cement patio that got sun all day. She kept making compost, put it in the containers and grew enough vegetables to feed themselves and many of the neighbors. Sometimes it takes a season or two to find the perfect location for your food production but it can be done!
Check out this Master Gardener site. You may not live in Santa Clara county, but much of the wisdom is relevant wherever you live. If you are considering container gardening, check out these videos by a woman who rents and cannot tear up the lawn. The videos are fun and encouraging: Part 5, Part 6.