Would you grow vegetables next to a leaky (and very stinky!) septic tank, or plant fruit trees in a small patch of damp ground between tall conifers? Probably not, but others have – as I can attest having worked in these gardens! These two gardens had one thing in common – a complete lack of planning.
It's not usually necessary to perform an in-depth survey of your garden when starting a new vegetable plot or expanding an existing one, but it really is worthwhile spending some time thinking about where best to site it – it can make the difference between a bountiful harvest and a poor one.
Working with what you have is much easier than trying to change it, so the first thing to do is to carry out a simple soil test to find out your soil type and its pH.
It's a good idea to take soil samples from several areas of the garden as soil can vary quite considerably from one spot to the next, and this may help you decide what to grow where – for instance, if you have a pocket of acidic soil it would be a good idea to plant acid-loving blueberries there to save having to add costly soil amendments, or if there is an area where water pools after heavy rain you could choose to grow a gorgeous bog garden in that spot instead of vegetables.
Thankfully, most soils fall somewhere in between the extremes of sandy or clay, and all benefit from the addition of organic matter to help retain moisture and nutrients. If your soil is really unworkable, raised beds are the saviour of many a gardener with impossibly heavy, stony, or shallow soil.
Sun and Shade
Most vegetables grow best with plenty of sun – some, such as tomatoes and peppers really need to sunbathe for a large part of the day, while leafy greens and soft fruit are often quite happy with a little shade (our Garden Planner has a handy Filter button at the top left of the plant selection bar that gives you the option to show just shade-tolerant plants). Shade loving crops grown in full sun will need to be kept well watered and may need protection in the form of shade netting, or they can be grown behind taller crops.
Track the sun over the course of a day and see where the shadows fall to help determine what you can grow where. Bear in mind that at different times of the year you will see longer, deeper shadows. If it is very shady, sun-loving veggies can be grown in containers and moved around to follow the sun.
If you garden on a hilltop, or on an open plain, you might despair of growing anything that will stand up against the wind. Wind can be extremely damaging – not just blowing plants over, but also drying them out to the extent that the leaves wither and the plants die. It's tempting to put up solid walls or fences to deflect the wind but this can have the effect of creating turbulence, where the air is forced upwards by the barrier only to
crash down with even more force on the other side, flattening whatever is growing there.
A better solution is a permeable barrier such as a hedge, slatted fence or windbreak netting to filter the wind and reduce its force. It goes without saying that plant supports need to be quite robust in windy areas – sturdy stakes for young or dwarf fruit trees, and well-anchored canes, stakes and other supports for climbers and top-heavy plants such as Brussels sprouts.
Convenience for Maintenance
Even in a small garden, it's a good idea to use a version of the 'zone' system favoured by permaculturists, growing plants close to or far from the house depending on the amount of maintenance they need. Greenhouses, nursery beds and regularly-harvested plants such as salads and herbs are best kept close by and, if your watering is done by hand, thirsty crops shouldn't be too far away. More self-reliant veggies can be situated a little further off, and perennial crops with a short harvesting season, such as fruit trees, at the bottom of your garden. Make sure all areas are easy to access with a loaded wheelbarrow.
Spending a little time planning the best spot in your garden to grow food saves time and helps to ensure you get the best harvest possible.
Oh, and the poorly-planned examples above? The first grew food quite successfully (perhaps due to the ready supply of fertiliser!) but I personally wouldn't eat it, and the second produced some stunted apple trees and a few small, scabby fruits – apart from the Bramley. Bramleys seem to yield well no matter what!
By Ann Marie Hendry.