Getting Started: Planning Your Garden Space
Spring has sprung! The birds are chirping and the daffodils and tulips are in bloom.
In 2020, many people started growing their own vegetables, providing a steady supply of fresh produce right at home. Others, after spending much more time at home, considered enhancing their outdoor spaces with more flowers. Whether you are new to gardening or have been growing for years, a little planning before you start can help ensure a successful season.
Location, Location, Location
As the saying (by English gardener Beth Chatto) goes, “right plant, right place.” So, let’s start with the place!
Where you’ll be gardening is important in guiding the decisions you’ll make about what plants to grow. “Right plant, right place” is all about placing something in the conditions for which it was intended by nature. So, before you sow any seeds or run off to the garden center, there are a few things to consider about your potential location. Is it hot, dry, windy, wet, shady?
When choosing a location, consider convenience: if the area is somewhere you’re likely to walk by every day, not only will it be enjoyable to view, it will be much easier to keep on top of weeds or pests and remember to water. Also, if your herbs are growing close to your kitchen, you’re more likely to grab a handful for your dinner recipe.
Speaking of water, do you have access to a water source to be able to connect your hose? If you won’t be setting up formal irrigation or sprinklers, watering an entire garden with a watering can is quite a chore. If possible, also try to choose a location that has some protection from wind, which can dry out plants more quickly and require supporting them to stay upright.
In addition to water, all of our garden plants need the right amount of light to grow well. Observe the amount of direct sunlight that the space you’d like to grow in receives each day by checking in every hour or so and noting whether or not it’s getting sunlight. Then, how do you know what the plant tag is really asking for?
- Full Sun is defined as 6 or more hours of direct sunlight each day. Ideally, vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, melon, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, and squash would receive 8 or more hours of direct sun.
- Part Sun is sometimes used interchangeably with Part Shade. Both terms are used for areas that receive about 4-6 hours of sun, with Part Sun receiving afternoon sun and Part Shade receiving morning sun. The sunlight that reaches plants early in the day tends to be less intense while temperatures are cooler.
- Shade is a little trickier to define, and can vary. In general, “shade” is an area that receives less than four hours of direct sun. Full Shade typically means up to an hour of sun each day, or light only filtered through a tree canopy, for example. You may also see Dense Shade, which would be similar to what you might encounter under an evergreen tree or under a deck.
Laying It Out
Once you’ve chosen your location, it’s time to plan the garden space.
First – what type of planting area do you have? Maybe you want a place to grow veggies near your kitchen, or you want to plant a border along your house or walkway. Do you want to plant in the ground or in a raised bed? You could also choose to grow only in containers, which is a great option for renters. If you’re wondering whether a raised bed or planting in the ground might be better for you, here are some things to think about.
- Help you avoid constraints like rocky or soggy soil by allowing you to lift plants up above the problems. They can even be constructed over pavement!
- You can control the soil texture and quality – you bring it all in.
- Being raised above the surrounding surface helps promote good drainage.
- Minimize foot traffic and soil compaction, as you aren’t likely to walk within it.
- Provide a longer growing season (raised beds tend to warm up faster in spring).
- Prevent some pests and weeds (pests are less likely to climb in, and weeds can’t spread along the ground). Starting with fresh soil helps keep weeds down, as does having a defined area up above ground level.
- Give you a contained space to water, which may be more efficient, especially for drip irrigation.
- Raising plants up makes them easier to reach (less kneeling or leaning). They can also be easier to reach for gardeners with physical limitations.
- Allow creativity with edging materials, or a space to add a pop of color by painting the wood, etc.
In-ground beds and borders
- Lower cost to get started – no construction materials, and likely less soil to add.
- Less maintenance (materials used for a raised bed may eventually need repair or replacement).
- Less prep: If you have healthy soil, it’s easier to start right away!
- Able to take advantage of oddly shaped areas, vs the typical rectangular raised beds.
- Easier for large scale growing and using equipment or machinery to work on the ground.
- Less permanent: if you may need to move, or change your mind about the location, it’s easier to put a lawn back or change the shape of the bed, or relocate it somewhere else.
- Not usually suited for large plants — shrubs, trees, or items with large root systems.
When designing your layout or testing ideas, start by planning it out on paper, then test it outside with string and stakes or a garden hose before building or digging. If you have a windy location, consider orienting for beds so that the wind blows parallel to them, rather than right into your plants. For example, if you get wind from the west, you might orient a rectangular bed so that it runs east-west, rather than north south, limiting the plants exposed to big gusts. If you are planning to create multiple beds, such as for a vegetable garden, be sure to plan for pathways that are about 3’-4’ wide as well. This width will allow you to get through with a wheelbarrow, or a lawnmower. If you don’t want grass pathways, consider adding a thick layer of straw, wood mulch, or pebbles to help minimize weeds. These materials can be placed on top of a layer of cardboard or landscape fabric to further help keep weeds at bay.
Building Raised Beds
If you’d like to create a raised bed, you could use rocks, concrete blocks, landscape timbers, or other materials to form the edges; just be sure to choose something rot-resistant. You can also mound soil to a height of 4-8” to create a planting space without formal edges. Often, the most economical choice to use for a raised bed is lumber. The height of a bed can vary, from as little as 6-8” to a height of 12-18” or more. Raising the bed higher will make the plants easy to reach while also providing a generous space for roots. Keep in mind, though, that the higher you go, the more soil you will need to bring in to fill the bed. A width of 3-4’ is convenient, as it will enable you to reach the center of the bed without having to step into it. If using lumber, you can let the length of the boards guide your decisions for the dimensions. For example, if purchasing 12’ long boards, creating 4’ x 8’ beds means each board will only need to be cut once and minimize waste. Often, the home center will make these cuts for you for free. For added stability, consider placing 4”x4” pieces inside the corners (which also makes it easier to assemble the beds, giving you a large area to attach to). Adding another piece (this can be a smaller piece of the lumber you’ve used for your sides) to the center will help keep the boards aligned and prevent them from bowing over time.
When choosing soil for a raised bed, a ratio of 10-20% compost (which provides organic matter) mixed with a good quality topsoil will provide a good foundation for your plants. To calculate how much you will need, multiply the length x width x height of your bed. For example, a 4’ x 8’ bed that is 12” high would require a total of 32 cubic feet of soil. If purchasing soil in bags, they will often be marked in cubic feet (CF). If you’re creating a large garden area and ordering in bulk (such as a truckload from a landscape supplier), they will likely calculate in cubic yards (CY). To convert from cubic feet to cubic yards, divide the cubic feet by 27.
When you’re preparing your planting space, it can be a good idea to check your existing soil conditions, especially if you’ve never gardened in the area before. For more information about soil, texture, pH, testing, and amending, check out this post.
Once you’ve created your garden bed and brought in any soil and amendments, make sure to break up any large soil clumps and rake the soil to create a level surface. Next, you’ll be ready to select your plants!