Planning Your Garden, Part II: Where?
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
As spring approaches, it is time to plan this year's garden. Before buying seed, it's important to understand the purpose, placement, and plants in this year's garden. Knowing your goals will focus your choices and purchases as you prepare. If you haven't analyzed why you're growing your garden yet, here are some tips to get you started: Planning Your Garden, Part I: "Why?". If you've already completed this step, it's time to move on to thinking about where your garden will grow.
What is my zone?
The first thing to understand about your garden's location is the zone in which you live. The USDA has created maps of the United States reflecting the climate zones for each area. These zones help you understand the extremes of your temperature range and make decisions about which plants will be able to grow in your area. For example, we are in zone 6b (or 6a, or 7, depending upon which map is used). Because we are in the foothills of the mountains, it is safer for us to bet on 6b than 7. This number and letter designation indicates the potential minimum temperature extremes that we can expect. For example, zone 6a can expect lows from -10 to -5, zone 6b can expect -5 to 0, and so on. The lower the number, the colder the minimum temperatures will be. If you don't know your zone yet, there are many temperature zone maps available online. Temperature trends are fluid, so there is value in looking at a recently updated map. This information will give you insight about what plants--especially long-term plantings like trees and shrubs--will suit your area.
Where does the sun shine?
One of the greatest challenges in allocating garden space is figuring out how to maximize the hours of sun that plants will get. While many ornamental plants can grow in part sun or shade conditions, almost all garden crops need significant daylight hours to thrive. Watch the path of the sunlight throughout your day and take advantage of any sunny spaces that can be used for growing. Morning sun is especially important for day-length sensitive crops like onions, and it is very beneficial to many others as well. If you have a garden space chosen, watch when the sun rises and sets on it. (Remember to account for the difference in the sun's position later in the year.)
What is my soil situation?
Your property may have a variety of soil types depending upon the layout. On our homestead, the ground ranges from sticky clay and packed rock to rich humus-laden deposits. Long before we lived here, part of our land was a streambed. It dried up and left behind paths of rock and deposits of organic matter. Where another stream still flows on the property, it deposits silt and exposes clumps of heavy clay. No matter what the soil in your garden is like, it can either be used or improved to the point of being a fruitful space. If your soil is shallow or rocky, begin planning how you will add organic material to build it up. This may mean thinking a couple of years ahead so that you can layer compost, leaves, etc. in the areas you want to become future gardens. As a general rule, if your soil becomes heavy and sticky when wet, it has too much clay. It will need organic material (finished compost, leaf mold, etc.) added to break it up, and it may even need a small amount of sand. If your soil drains very quickly and is impossible to keep moist, it is too sandy. Again, it needs organic material to help it retain its moisture. Look for garden space that has deep, loose, organically rich soil. If you can't find one, build it!
Where are my microclimates?
If you already have found your garden space and invested in building up rich, healthy soil, the next step is to learn the microclimates of your property. There are areas of our garden that always frost first and thaw last because of how the air flows and the ground slopes. Other portions of the garden get extra heat because of solar bounce off the greenhouse walls. Some garden beds benefit from the lingering solar warmth of rocks around plantings. Others require afternoon shade provided by taller perennial plantings.
Over time you will learn your land and come to know its intricacies. As you discover them, think about how you can use them to your advantage as you build up your fruitful garden.