The first step in planning a new garden is deciding where to put it. Don't be discouraged if you lack an ideal spot. Few gardeners have the perfect location. Here are some think about when selecting the garden site and suggestions for ways of dealing with less-than-ideal conditions.
Your garden will do best if it gets full sun; 6 hours a day of direct sun is the minimum needed by most vegetable plants for optimum growth. However, if your site for a garden gets less than this, don't give up. Some crops, especially leafy ones like lettuce and spinach, produce reasonably well in a partly shaded location. Root crops such as carrots and beets need more light than leafy vegetables, but may do well in a garden that receives only morning sun. Fruiting plants such as peppers, tomatoes, and beans are sun worshipers and will yield poorly, if at all, with less than 6 hours of direct sun. If your garden is shaded, experiment with the more shade-tolerant vegetables to see which do best.
You don't have to plant all your vegetables together in one plot. If your only sunny spot is in the front yard, you might plant a border of tomatoes and peppers along the front walk and set lettuce plants in a shadier spot out back. If the shade in your garden comes from nearby trees and shrubs, your vegetable plants will be competing for water and nutrients as well as for light. Tree roots extend beyond their drip line, the outer edge of their leafy canopy. If possible, keep your garden out of the root zone surrounding plantings. If this isn't possible, just give everything extra water and fertilizer.
Plant roots need air as well as water. Water-logged soils are low in air, which is why soil drainage is an important consideration in choosing a garden site. Heavy clay soils are usually not as well drained as sandy ones. Puddles of water on the soil surface after a rain indicate poor drainage. One way to check your garden soil's drainage is to dig a hole about 10 inches deep and fill it with water. Let the water drain, then fill the hole again the following day and clock how long it takes for the water to drain away. If water remains in the hole more than 3 to 4 hours after the second filling, poor drainage is likely to become a problem.
The quickest way to improve soil drainage is to build raised garden beds and fill them with amended, loam soil. If your soil is really soggy, due perhaps to a high water table, drains buried in the ground may be the only solution. Consult a landscape contractor for information on this fairly expensive option.
Soil can also be too well drained. Very sandy soil dries out quickly and needs frequent watering during dry spells. Adding organic matter to sandy soil will gradually increase the amount of water it can hold.
A gentle slope to the south is ideal, especially in cold climates. Soil warms up faster in spring and the likelihood of frosts affecting plants is lessened. Cold air is like water; it runs downhill and settles in low spots. Frosty air will move past plants on a slope. In hot climates, a north slope may help keep plants cooler during the heat of midsummer.
Too great a slope can cause erosion problems, however. On any sloping site, it's a good idea to orient rows across rather than down the slope to catch runoff. On very steep slopes, you may need to build terraces to hold soil in place.
In some parts of the country, high winds can wreak havoc with tall crops like corn and pole beans and can make them dry out rapidly. If wind is a problem in your area, protect the garden from the prevailing winds with a windbreak (several rows of plants or a fence). You will get maximum wind protection for your crops if you plant them downwind at a distance three to five times the height of the windbreak.
While the average garden is about 400 to 600 square feet, your garden can be as large or as small as your space and time allow. Consider how much of each crop you would like to end up with. If you're a first-time gardener, 400 to 600 square feet is plenty of space to take care of. A busy person may want a smaller garden, say 10 by 20 feet. If the soil is in good condition, a novice gardener can keep up with a 400-square-foot garden by devoting about a half-hour each day at the beginning of the season. In late spring and through summer, a good half-hour of work every 2 or 3 days should keep the garden productive and looking good. Try to plan your garden so that it is close to water sources and to the house. If you plan on bringing in truckloads of soil amendments or additions such as manure, put your garden in a spot that can be easily reached by a vehicle.
Fortunately, drawing a garden plan doesn't require landscaping expertise. Once you have determined the location and dimensions of your garden, sketch the area to scale on a piece of graph paper. Take into account the space requirements of crops you want to grow, whether you want to plant in rows or beds, and how much of each fruit or vegetable you want at harvest, and fill in this space with your favorite crops. There are any number of possibilities for a garden design and just a few things to keep in mind: limitations--you can't plant everything, so choose carefully; the shade factor--tall crops such as corn should be placed where they won't deprive other crops of sun; and accessibility--plan your garden with walkways so you can get at your plants easily without damaging their roots.
With a plan, you won't buy more seeds than you need. Of course, this requires strength of character as well as an accurate plan. As you review your garden plan, complete with space budgeted for walkways and expanding crops, you may realize that you can't grow as much as you want to.
Planning on paper will also help you use garden space more efficiently. It's a good way to see the possibilities for succession planting (following one crop with another) and interplanting (planting a quick-maturing crop close to a slower-maturing one and harvesting the first before the two compete for space). For example, you may see that you can follow your peas with a crop of late broccoli, and you'll be ready with transplants in July. Or you may see that there is space to tuck a few lettuce plants among your tomatoes while the vines are still small. An important consideration in garden design is how you will sow seeds for most of your vegetables. There are three basic options: in single rows, in wide rows, or in beds.
Part of the fun of planning is choosing from a number of different vegetable varieties available. One important factor to consider is length of season. With tomatoes, peppers, and sweet corn, you can select varieties that mature at different times to have a steady harvest starting 60 days after planting and continuing for 5 or 6 weeks. Cooking characteristics come into play, too. Certain varieties of beans and peas, for example, freeze better than others. Peppers may have thin or thick walls or have flavor ranging from bland to fiery hot. Some squash and melon varieties grow in compact areas; these crops vary quite a bit in flavor as well. Vegetable varieties developed for commercial gardeners may mature uniformly--often during the same week--while other varieties yield the same size crop over a period of weeks.
As you look through seed catalogs or read seed packets, you may notice the phrase F-l hybrid (or simply hybrid) before or after the names of some varieties. Generally, these seeds are more expensive than others. Hybrid seeds are the result of a cross between selected groups of plants of the same kind, called inbred lines. To produce an inbred line, a variety is bred to itself for ten to twelve generations. The result is a group of plants that is almost identical genetically. Different inbred lines are then crossed to produce hybrids, or the F-l generation. If the breeder hits upon the right combination of inbred lines, the F-1s show what is called hybrid vigor--a significant increase in qualities such as early and uniform maturity and increased disease resistance. This increased vigor can make hybrids worth the extra cost. The added expense is mainly a product of the space and labor required to maintain the inbred lines that serve as the parents of the hybrid. Also, to make the actual cross the flowers of one inbred line must often be hand-pollinated with the pollen from the other inbred line.
If you choose hybrid seeds, you'll need to buy a new batch every season, rather than save your own. When hybrid plants cross with themselves and form seeds, these seeds lose the specific combination of genetic information that gave the hybrid its good qualities. If you plant seeds saved from hybrids, you'll end up with a very mixed bag of plants.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated so the seed can be saved year to year. These varieties have been in use for many years and many have desired regional adaptation or unusual characteristics. It's always good to try heirlooms in your garden to see how they grow under your conditions.
Watch for the letters V, F, or N after some tomato variety names in catalogs or on seed packets. These letters indicate that the variety is resistant to certain diseases: V stands for resistance to verticillium wilt; N for resistance to certain nematodes; and F for resistance to fusarium wilt. If the F is followed by 1 & 2, the variety is resistant to two races of fusarium wilt.
Tomatoes, spinach, peas, and cucumbers are just a few of the vegetables that have been bred to resist certain diseases. Building in resistance to disease is one of the major efforts of plant breeding, and the list of accomplishments in this area grows longer each year.