Whether you’re starting a new garden or extending an existing one, it’s important to give careful consideration to where you put it. The right location gives your crops the best chance of success. Here are several important factors to consider when selecting your gardening site!
No matter if it’s your first garden bed or your fifth, it’s key to consider the following factors when planning out your gardening site. These things should be taken into account no matter which method of gardening you’re employing—in containers on a balcony, in raised beds in your front yard, or elsewhere. For more advice on getting started with gardening, see our related article: Vegetable Gardening for Beginners.
1. Sunlight Exposure
One of the most important factors to consider—if not the most important factor—is sunlight exposure. Most vegetables do best in a location that receives “full sun,” which is defined as at least 6 hours of unobstructed sunlight per day. In most cases, more light than that is even better.
Some crops, such as broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and other greens, can tolerate less sunny spots (described as being “partial sun” or “partial shade”). In general, the more sunlight your garden receives, the greater the quantity and quality of your crops.
Tip: In cooler climates, a suntrap or cold frame is ideal for tender crops. In hot climates, growing under shade cloth or in the shadow of taller climbing plants, such as pole beans, helps to expand the choice of what you can grow in these conditions.
2. Water Accessibility
Be sure water is readily available near your gardening site. Nothing burns out a beginning gardener faster than having to lug water to thirsty plants during a heat wave. Extra water is likely to be necessary during dry weather, so locate new garden beds close to an outdoor water source. The soil near walls, fences, and under overhanging trees tends to be too dry for good plant growth, which is why an open area is best.
Water conservation should also be something that you take into account when planning out your garden. Read more about watering here.
3. Air Circulation
Good airflow will encourage sturdy growth in your plants and help keep fungal diseases at bay. It also makes the garden less hospitable to insect pests such as whitefly, which prefer a stagnant, humid environment. Bear in mind that solid walls or fences may provide shelter, but they can also cause the wind to form destructive turbulence on the sheltered side, so don’t plant too close to them. Hedges and open or woven fences are more effective, as they filter wind rather than deflect it.
4. Soil Structure
Soil health and structure can vary across your property, as measured by pH level (acidity vs. alkalinity), the percentage of clay, sand, and loam, and the availability of nutrients needed for plant growth.
The soil by a creek or river is different from soil in a meadow, which is itself unlike woodland soil. Sandy soil incurs more temperature variability than clay soil. Clay soil retains moisture longer than sandy soil, but also can become as hard as cement under drought conditions. There are quite a few considerations!
A major way in which soil health is altered is by soil disturbance. If your subdivision is on a former farm site, there may be minimal topsoil or nutrients left. One common location of poor soil health occurs around the house. The area around the foundation is backfilled during construction with debris and poor soil from the excavation process.
The best way to figure out the quality of your soil is to get a soil test done. Many university extension services will test your soil for a small fee (or for free), providing you insight into its structural quality (sandy, loamy, or clayey), its pH, and its nutritional make-up (such as nitrogen, potassium, and other necessary elements)
Of course, if you’re growing in containers, you may not have to worry as much about the soil under your gardening area. For raised beds, however, you should still consider getting your soil tested, as plants’ roots may eventually extend beyond the raised bed itself. This is especially important in urban and suburban areas, where lead and other harmful materials may be a concern.
Almost every yard has microclimates, which are areas with differing weather conditions brought about by natural or manmade factors. Examine your space and consider the following factors when deciding on your gardening site. Once you learn to identify and understand your microclimates, your garden will thrive!
- Topography: Notice the topography—the landscape—of your property. Cool air descends and warm air rises, so low spots are cooler than upper slopes. Frost pockets, where cold air is trapped, can occur in depressions and extend frost periods. North-facing slopes are shadier and cooler, whereas south-facing slopes are sunnier and warmer. Hillside soil is shallow, while valley soil is deep and rich due to erosion from above. Water runoff makes hillsides drier, whereas the bottom of the slope may be wetter. Also, higher elevations tend to be windier and drier, especially in winter.
- Nearby Structures: A structure such as a house, fence, shed, or high wall will cast shade and lower temperatures on its east-, north-, and west-facing sides at varying times of the day. Meanwhile, the area on its south side will be warmer. Frost pockets may occur on the windward (wind-facing) side of the object. In warm seasons, the ground in the shaded areas retains moisture longer. However, the leeward (downwind) side of the vertical object will limit rainfall, making the adjacent ground drier. Trees and hedges should also be taken into consideration.
Structures may help shelter plants from strong wind, but can also create wind tunnels where the wind is redirected, such as at the end of a fence. Walled courtyards offer warmer and wind-sheltered protection inside. Fences, walls, and hedges trap blowing snow into tall drifts on their windward side, potentially crushing plants located there.
- Shade: Deciduous trees act like structures, but they also have other impacts from three-season shading. The ground under a tree canopy is slightly warmer and less prone to frost, although a tree canopy traps rain, making the ground underneath drier. This is further magnified with shallow-rooted trees such as maples that will compete with other plants for moisture.
- Hard Surfaces: Rooftops and nonabsorbent materials—concrete, asphalt, and stone—are impervious surfaces that do not allow liquids to pass through. They can create water runoff issues, with water channeled to areas depending on the slope of the surface. This occurs not just at ground level; even roof runoff from clogged gutters can drench foundation plants and encourage deadly root rot.
Being dense and impenetrable, impervious surfaces also affect temperature. Sidewalks, driveways, roads, walls, or patios made of nonpermeable materials absorb and release heat. Even a house can absorb heat in the day and releases it at night, so adjacent areas, especially on the south side, will be warmer at night.
When considering the location of your garden, you should also take into account how much work it will take to create a garden bed in the space you choose. Keep in mind that you may need to …
- Tear up grass and topsoil
- Dig up large rocks or roots
- Amend the soil if it has too much sand or clay in it
- Erect a fence to keep deer and other critters out
- Build a raised bed
- Keep out weeds or encroaching invasives
Gardening can take a lot of work, so start with a small bed and focus your energy on it for the best chances of success!
Free Online Gardening Guides
We’ve gathered all of our best beginner gardening guides into a step-by-step series designed to help you learn how to garden! Visit our complete Gardening for Everyone hub, where you’ll find a series of guides—all free! From selecting the right gardening spot to choosing the best vegetables to grow, our Almanac gardening experts are excited to teach gardening to everyone—whether it’s your 1st or 40th garden.