Planning a Productive Garden

by: Sara on 02/27/2017

With March on the horizon many of our thoughts turn to the garden. Here on the west coast we would normally be planting our first seeds...but this snow will just not stop! So today's blog post is about planning where in your yard your garden should go, something we can do even with the snow falling.

The following is an excerpt from the much coveted book Backyard Bounty: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Master Gardener instructor  Linda Gilkeson. You can receive a 35% discount on this and all other New Society titles when you order at using the coupon code Spring17 until March 2nd.

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Figure 2.1. Vegetables and fruit need as much sun as they can get during the growing season.

Vegetables and fruit are all sun lovers: the less direct sunlight there is, the slower they grow. Sadly, the amount of sunshine is the factor that you may have the least power to change (especially if it is your neighbor’s house that is blocking the sun!). Happily, you can improve many other things — soil depth and quality, drainage, and irrigation — so before you pick your site, start with finding out where the sun shines the longest in your yard.

The ideal site for a garden is where it will receive full sun for 6–8 hours of the day from March through September, when plants are most actively growing. But also keep in mind that for plants harvested from November to February, the best location is where they also have the most protection from cold and wind.

Lettuce and salad greens can grow fairly well in gardens that offer about half a day (4 hours) of good sunshine during the summer, but tomatoes and other heat-loving crops must have more than that. The midday sun is the most important. Most gardens get direct sun in the middle of the day from May through July because the sun is so high in the sky at midday. Some fortunate people have gardens in open sites that receive sun all day, but most of us have to work around obstacles that block the light.

As the angle of the sun and the length of day changes over the year, the amount of sun reaching a garden depends on neighboring buildings, trees and other objects. With the sun low in the sky in December, even a low fence casts a long shadow (if the sun ever comes out, of course).

It is too cold for plant growth anyway, so exposure to direct sun isn’t that important in mid-winter. For example, my garden receives only about 1½ hours of direct sun in December due to a neighboring mountaintop, but my winter crops do fine.

Get to Know Your Garden


Figure 2.2. Late August peas happily growing at the shadier end of the garden in the summer.

Even in a small yard, there are microclimates that can make a difference in which crops will grow best there.

Light and shade: Some parts of the garden are more shaded than others, and this changes over the season as the angle of the sun changes. Tall crops eventually shade other plants once they reach their full height, so there may only be certain places where they can be grown (usually along the north side of a garden). The places that receive the most sun should be reserved for heat-loving crops.

Useful places might exist that you haven’t thought of as garden space. When the sun is low in the fall, it can reach under decks, porches and building overhangs that may have been shady in mid-summer. Such protected spots can make good places for hardy greens to spend the winter. (You can

transplant them from the main garden in late summer.) And don’t overlook the possibilities in your flower beds: many vegetables are beautiful and look lovely mixed with flowers or even by themselves in ornamental beds.

Soil drainage: While you can grow summer vegetables on low-lying, wet ground by planting late, after the soil has dried out, such sites are not good for growing winter vegetables. For these crops, either choose a site that is already well-drained or improve a poorly drained site — by installing a raised bed, for instance. 

Air circulation: The flow of cool air depends on the terrain. You may find “frost-pockets” in slightly lower spots where cold air settles on clear, cold nights in spring or fall. When there has been a light frost overnight, note where the frosty patches are in your garden. These won’t be good spots for the most frost-sensitive crops (such as cucumbers or squash). These are also likely to be the coldest areas of the garden in the winter, so avoid planting overwintering crops in these areas, or reserve these places for the hardiest plants (such as kale, corn salad or parsley).

Garden Bed Design


Figure 2.3. Permanent beds are very productive and save a lot of work.

Gardens are as personal and varied as the people who make them. Authors of garden books are an opinionated bunch, and we all swear by our own ways of designing gardens. But, really, plants don’t give a hoot about that; they seem to grow fine regardless of human opinion.

Personally, I’m glad I didn’t read a lot of gardening books when I started gardening because the amount of work some people go to would have stopped me in my tracks. Since this book is about my own intensively planted, organic, low-maintenance, year-round coastal garden, that’s what I am going to describe. But ultimately, the best design for your garden is the one that works for you.

Permanent Beds

Growing crops in permanent beds is popular in this region for good reason. Compared to a garden plot that is tilled from edge to edge every year, there are several advantages to permanent beds:

• Once beds are laid out, pathways and growing areas don’t change over the years.

• Only planted areas need be fertilized, watered and weeded, which saves work and resources.

• Soil in beds doesn’t become compacted, because you don’t have to walk on it.

• It can be easier to control weeds between beds when the pathways are permanent.

• Permanent pathways provide a refuge for beneficial insects that eat plant pests.

For many gardeners, the choice comes down to personal preference. You may find that raised beds suit some parts of your garden, but not necessarily the whole garden.



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