If you live in a sunny climate, getting enough light may not be a big deal. In fact, some afternoon shade can be a big advantage in places with hot summers. If you’re in a rainier environment, such as the Pacific Northwest, getting adequate light can be a challenge. You may want to locate your vegetable garden in the sunniest spot, even if that’s your front yard.
If you can’t move your garden, work with what you have and choose your crops accordingly. Most salad greens, like spinach and lettuce, will grow happily in partial shade but can really suffer under hot sun. Good soil can help compensate for a less than perfectly located garden.
Slope can also affect how you site your garden. Is your space mostly flat or does it have a variety of heights? In dry climates, take advantage of slope by planting in a low-lying area, which can better retain water. In a wet or shaded environment, planting on a south-facing slope, or in a raised area, can help increase drainage and sun exposure. Keep in mind that raised beds should always be level.
Take your lifestyle into consideration. If you like to travel, have a busy schedule without much free time or are planning home renovations in the next year, consider building a smaller, less permanent container garden. An irrigation system with timers is a worthwhile investment if you don’t think you’ll be able to water your garden regularly.
Determine a goal for your garden and use it as a guiding principle. Your goal may be to have lots of fresh herbs available right outside your kitchen window, to provide a full plate of produce for your family or to teach your children where food comes from. Each of these goals will result in a different garden plan.
If you’re starting a new garden or redesigning an existing one, your to-do list will likely involve building raised beds or obtaining containers, testing your existing soil for contaminants such as heavy metals and ordering a delivery of high-quality topsoil or potting mix.
Even if you’ve been growing in the same space year after year, take a moment to determine what maintenance is needed at this time. There’s a good chance that you’ll need to add compost (either homemade or purchased from a reputable supplier) to refresh tired soil and repair damaged structures.
Ask yourself what you can add that will take your garden to the next level. Trellises, row covers, cold frames, greenhouses and irrigation systems can make a huge difference when it comes to how much food you can grow.
Deciding where your plants are going, and when they’ll be planted, is where the true artistry and challenge of gardening comes in. Keep your plan simple. Allocate a space for each of your crops, taking into consideration that some plants, like salad greens, need very little room, while others, like pumpkins, can get enormous. If you’re growing in raised beds, consider dividing each bed into tidy sections using string and nails, a method known as square-foot gardening. This technique is especially helpful with salad greens, which do best when planted in small amounts every week or two.
Keep in mind that it’s best to avoid planting the same crop (or a close relative) in the same place year after year. Rotating crops helps prevent soil-borne plant diseases and nutrient deficiencies.