Thursday, February 21, 2013

FAQ: Where should I put my garden?

My garden covers the entire front and street-facing side yard of our corner lot, plus a little more of the back yard with each season. For those of you with actual restraint, deciding where to put your garden is mainly a matter of sunshine, followed by safety and convenience.

Maximum sunshine

Ideally, you want 6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day. If you have a lot of southern exposure, you're probably fine. If your tiny backyard is surrounded by buildings and fences and trees, this may be tough to find.

Remember that shadows move around, so a spot that's sunny in the morning may be in deep shade a few hours later. Likewise, areas that are shady now, when the sun is still fairly low in the south, might be sunny in summer, when it's more directly overhead.

It may help to look through photos you took last summer, and check the time-stamp. Or pick a day when you're around the house, and snap a digital photo of your yard every hour or two.

Tip: Raised beds can go anywhere, even over concrete. So if your back yard doesn't get enough sun, consider putting a small raised bed in your driveway or front yard.


Put the garden where you'll see it every day, and where it's easy to get to. If the garden is right next to the back door, you're more likely to pick some salad greens and carrots and a couple sprigs of basil when you're making dinner. If you walk past it on your way in and out of the house, you'll notice that perfectly ripe tomato, spot the hidden squash when they're young and tender, and and be able to grab a couple snap peas to eat right off the vine.

Test your soil (or build extra-deep beds)

If you're planting in the ground, you absolutely should test your soil for lead and other dangerous contaminants. (See my previous post on testing your garden soil for lead for resources.)

If your soil is contaminated, or if you just don't want to bother testing it, make sure to:

  • Make your bed extra deep (at least a foot deep; 2 feet or more is better)
  • Line the bottom of the bed with permeable landscaping fabric (or "weed cloth") — this will let water drain through, but will keep your vegetables from sending roots down into the contaminated soil.

Call 811 before you dig

This is really, really important. Even if you're only digging a few inches deep. There are all sorts of things buried under your yard: gas lines, sewer pipes, buried electrical and cable lines, water lines.... Things that are very expensive to repair. And things you really, really don't want to accidentally break through: especially your sewer lateral (eww) or your gas main (possible death).

And I know: you're smart, you're an engineer, you know how to draw a straight line between your gas meter and the utility access point by the street, and anyway those are supposed to be buried super deep. But houses get torn down and re-built, properties get divided, previous owners don't document their remodels, and you end up with lines making a couple of right angle turns, putting them who knows where or how deep.

811 is the national dig line. You call them, they contact all the agencies that might possibly have buried lines or pipes under your property, and over the next few days, everyone comes out and marks where their lines are.

Tip: Sometimes one of the agencies doesn't actually show up. In my case, this was the gas and electric utility. Double-check, and call them directly if you need to. It's a pain, but better than blowing up your house.

Small is beautiful

You don't need a lot of space to grow a lot of edibles. One or two 4'x4' beds will give you plenty of salads without a lot of work.

Tip: If your garden is going along a wall, make it narrower — 2 or 3 feet — so you can reach all the way to the back.