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“A gardener’s best tool is the knowledge from previous seasons. And it can be recorded in a $2 notebook.” 

So says Andy Tomolonis, and he’s right. Every gardener relies upon what they learned in the previous seasons. But what if you don’t have a previous season? What if you’ve moved into a new area and need to start a garden from scratch? Or what if you’ve never planted a garden before at all? How to plan a garden then?

Well, you might not be able to predict exactly what will happen over the growing season. But it IS possible to look at your garden constraints, so you can plan the most productive garden possible this year.

Garden Planning Constraints: Soil

Your soil may be dirt, that doesn’t mean you should treat it like dirt! It is the foundation of your growing, and all good garden planning begins with soil preparation. 

What kind of soil do you have? To find out the high-tech way, buy a soil test kit and send it to a lab. (If you’re in close proximity to an ag college, you can find soil tests there.) To find out the low-tech way, observe what plants are already growing in your soil. Lots of moss means your soil is high in acid and missing other types of nutrients. Lots of grass means you probably have good soil already, though lime may need added. Notice what plants already grow there and research optimal soil conditions for those plants, because even weeds are key indicators of what the soil underneath them contains. 

What makes good soil? Well, sandy loam is ideal. (Loam is that dark, fluffy dirt, while sand helps it drain better.) If you have an especially difficult situation such as soil containing lots of clay or sand, you may want to use raised beds or import soil instead.

Garden Planning Constraints: Sunlight

Plants rely on soil, but they also rely on other conditions, such as how much sunlight they receive. More sunlight = soil that warms faster. In the Northern Hemisphere, this means that south- to southwest-facing slopes are the warmest, with steeper slopes warming fastest. (Usually, it is coldest right before or after sunrise.)

Also consider shade. Remember, the sun is highest in the sky during the summer, so shade spots change with the seasons. Generally, plant taller plants to the north, so they won’t shade another plants. If you do find yourself in a shady situation, realize that some plants do still grow in dappled sunlight or part shade. Though the yield may suffer, you can still grow greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, chard) and some root vegetables under these conditions. (See crops that can tolerate at least partial shade here.)

Garden Planning Constraints: Location & Space

Once you determine your soil and sunlight situation and how they will impact your garden, you can officially choose your growing location. Obviously, the amount of available space, and the shape of that space, will inform your layout type, including whether you use rows or a square foot gardening method. 

Your total space available is the sum of all plots’ area:

Plot = LxW of plot – total square foot of all internal paths

Space isn’t just about ground for growing, either. Consider your ability to irrigate and/or water your crops. How much water will you need, and do you have a source for that water? Where is your garden plot in relation to that water source? Also consider topographical considerations that may affect moisture conditions, such as ponds/creeks and sloped ground. Sloped ground drains water, while depressions in the ground will pool water.

Oh, and remember sunshine. If you have limited sun exposure, make sure all heat-loving plants get most sun, preferably afternoon sun that’s the warmest sunlight during the warmest part of the day.

Garden Planning Constraints: Climate

Now that you’ve considered your growing space, you should look at your climate in a much wider sense. Especially consider how much rainfall your climate receives, and when it receives it. If you live in a wet region of the country, your garden will require good drainage, because poor drainage results in muddy, waterlogged soil conditions that will hurt your plants. If you live in a dry region of the country, your garden will require water conservation using mulching and lots of organic matter. In addition, you may need to harvest water using rain barrels or graywater collection systems.

How to Plan a Garden: Conclusion

When you’re planning your garden, consider soil, sunlight, location, space, and climate to help you foresee possible problems and how to remedy them, so you can get to growing the best produce, faster! 

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