Written by: Matthew Romans, Program & Education Specialist – Garden Project
When selecting a location for a garden, there are 4 key considerations; (1) how much sun or shade a space receives, (2) water drainage, (3) soil quality and (4) proximity to water & home.
1. Sunlight Exposure
Most garden vegetables require direct sunlight (no shade) for several hours in order to provide a good yield. The minimum number of direct sunlight hours that many veggies desire is 6 hours every day, so you’ll want to site your growing space in a spot which receives at least that many hours shade-free sunshine.
To know how many hours of sunlight a potential garden site is receiving, make a map with the help of google satellite images and record the sunlight hours. Here’s a link to the Garden Fundamentals blog presenting an easy step by step guide for doing so – Sun Mapping Your Garden the Easy Way.
The soils hardness (or compaction) within that of an average lawn is just fine as a space for establishing a garden. However, if ground is so hard that it is difficult to break into it with a shovel or spade then that’s an area to avoid. Otherwise, the work of loosening the soil in vegetable beds happens over time in the well-maintained garden.
If a potential garden site is in an older residential area (built pre-1978) there may be pollutants within the soil. In such cases it is prudent to send a soil sample to a local laboratory such as MSU’s Soil Testing Lab. Just confirm the laboratory will test for soil contaminants and that they provide clear recommendations. Growing in raised beds is one way of getting around this concern in many urban areas, since they are effectively large containers of uncontaminated soil. However, don’t be afraid to grow in the ground either. Raised beds aren’t free, and most soils in urban, residential spaces are still healthy to grow within.
3. Drainage & Slope
In addition to needing sunlight, most common garden vegetables grow best in what is characterized as “well-drained soil”. So you want to avoid areas which often remain wet. This includes low-lying spots or areas where a downspout regularly pours large volumes of water. Observe, mark, and steer your vegetable garden away from such wet spots. One important point of observation is to note what’s currently growing there. Is it healthy, green grass? If so, this is probably a good space for vegetables. If current plants are mosses and swampy looking grasses, or worse yet… nothing but bare soil, then those are indicators of too much moisture or shade.
Most of mid-Michigan is relatively flat ground, but if you are looking to locate a garden on a hilly site then be sure to orient your growing beds perpendicular to the direction of the slope. This way your garden will catch water as it flows downhill rather than washing your soil downhill. Or for an area with more steeply sloped land, terracing the space (cutting out level steps in the landscape) is an option for avoiding soil erosion.
Site your garden close to your well-traveled routes. If you are gardening in a community garden, you’re much more likely to stop by the garden if it’s close to your home or on the way back from your workplace. Or if you’re gardening in your yard and all other factors are equal, you’ll be more likely to check on the garden if it is near the door you normally come in rather than hidden in the backyard. Remember the saying, “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow” – translation – “a garden flourishes when the gardener visits it regularly to care for it”.
Lastly, locate your garden tools and turn-on water valve, etc. close to your garden. Avoid hauling water buckets long distances by leading hoses to your garden. Make gardening easier and you’ll find yourself enjoying it more each year.
Greater Lansing Food Bank’s Garden Project supports a network of 95 community gardens and over 500 home gardens, helping to feed more than 8,000 people across mid-Michigan. Garden Notes is a series of garden tips and insights from the GLFB Garden Project team of educators.
Learn more about Greater Lansing Food Bank’s Garden Project!