Selecting a Site

This week I am going to talk about the things you look for when selecting a site for your edible garden.

The first thing you should do is get a lay of the land. The second thing you should do is figure out where south is.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere south is where the more direct sun is. This is important because most vegetable plants you will grow require direct and full sun.  Veggies like tomatoes, squash, peppers, and beans are all examples of full sun plants.  Full sun doesn’t mean these plants need sun all day long but about 6-8 hours of direct sun per day (and by direct I mean nothing blocking the sun's rays).

Once you figure out where south is, if you can, it’s preferable to place your garden opposite.  The picture of my garden here is on the northern side of the backyard and has no trees blocking it. This is the perfect spot to grow vegetables that need a lot of sun.  If you have to place your garden with an eastern or western exposure, that is ok too.  Perhaps this is the only place where you will have direct sun.  But even if both your east and west exposures have the same amount of sunlight they will not produce the same results.  During the summer the setting sun (in the west) is more powerful than the rising sun (in the east).  So if you’re growing plants that need full sun a western exposure is preferable.

Next, check your site for trees.  It is important to know how much shade a tree will create when it is full with leaves.  If its winter when you start planning and you’re not sure, try using the satellite function in Google Maps.  You might get an image of your site in the summer.  Shade is not necessarily bad if your garden is partially shaded during the day or you are growing plants that like shade.

All living things need water, so next you want to think about your water source for your garden. You need to think about where your water source is in relation to the garden, the elevation of the water source and where the water is coming from.  In my case the water source is on the same side of the house as the Growing Wall, is at a higher elevation than the Growing Wall, and is coming from a rain barrel that the District of Columbia installed for the homeowners.  Elevation can be important depending on whether you’re using a timer or not.  A timer can automate when you water your plants without you having to turn your water on.

This minimizes the maintenance you have to do and means, unlike walking your dog, you don’t have to be home!  However, if the water source is not elevated there will not be enough pressure to get the water to your garden (this is especially true the farther the garden is). In this case a regular ole spigot with a hose will do the trick. Rain barrels are a great source to water your garden because you're reducing stress on your municipality's water and sewage system.  Check out this great organization, DC Greenworks, to read more about the benefits of using a rain barrel in DC.

In addition, what kind of irrigation system will you use? As someone who is environmentally focused, I am using a drip irrigation system or a “soaker” hose to water my garden.  These hoses “sweat” water out in tiny drops that then seep directly into the soil.  Because they go right to the roots of the plants there is very little evaporation and this means you’re saving water! With timed drip irrigation from a rain barrel, you're growing your own food AND minimizing your impact on the environment.

Another site condition you want to be aware of is wind.  Wind can really impede plant growth and completely stop a young seedling in its tracks.  Fortunately there are ways to combat strong winds.  Once you figure out where the wind comes from you can plant trees to form a “shelter belt” that protects your crops.  We're also fortunate that in swampy, muggy D.C. strong winds are not a problem.  Wow...I never thought I'd say that.

The last and maybe most important site condition is soil.  Soil is everything.  The better your soil is the healthier your plants and the tastier your food will be.  Because soil can take up a whole dissertation (and it does in soil science circles) I will leave that topic for another day. But for now know that compost is good and chemicals are bad.
Next time, I am going to change gears a bit and go from “big picture” to the tiny...seeds!  Of course all plants start from seeds and you have a few different options on how you can start yours.  I will discuss how I am starting my seeds indoors in a simple “greenhouse” that you can buy from a nursery.  So until next time, you stay classy Washington, DC.

Randy Coleman
Director of Operations