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Garden Site Assessment & Preparation

Chuck Talbott shows a youth about square foot gardening.

West Virginia has a long history of planting backyard gardens and we lead the nation in small family farms. For many years these gardens were planted out of necessity and not as a hobby but as our food supply became more stable and people left the farms and moved to suburbia. This change has led many people to stop gardening all together and now people want to reconnect with our gardening roots.

The first step in gardening is determining where you will place the garden and the size of area required for your needs.

Rule #1: Start small. If you are new to gardening think about how much time YOU will be able to dedicate to the garden. If it is not much time, I recommend starting with containers and/or constructing a raised bed. Containers are ideal for people that do not have a lot of space but may have a patio or porch that will work wonderfully. Raised beds are ideal for people that may have some lawn space but do not have a tiller or other equipment to prepare the soil. Also, for those that may have mobility issues or a hard time standing, elevated raised beds are a great alternative. These allow for either a wheelchair or lawn chair to fit underneath and still tend to the plants.

Rule #2: Sun and water. The area needs between 8 and 10 hours of full sun each day, also make sure to read the package of your specific plants' sun and water requirements.

Questions to ask yourself about the sun:
  •   Is there sun in the early morning?
  •   Is the site in the shadow of trees, shrubs, fences or other obstacles?
  •   Is the entire area in full sun at noon?
  •   Is it shaded, partial sun or full sun between 2 and 4 p.m.?

To ensure our plants grow properly, we need think about our water source. What helps the most is planting near your reliable water source and within eye sight of your home. As the year progresses and summer looms with the hot days of July, August and September, we cannot depend on the rain to provide enough water. Also by planting within eye sights helps with motivation to get out and tend to it. If not, it becomes out of sight out of mind. 

Rule #3: Dig deeper. In order for our plants to prosper, the soil we plant in needs to be both well-drained and fertile. For those that are planting a traditional garden please follow these steps:

  1. Dig a bucket-sized hole.
  2. Fill the bucket with water and pour into the hole.
  3. Return in 24 hours to see if it has drained. If it has, your soil should drain well this growing season. If not, think about using raised beds. 

Many people have asked "just how accurate are those soil test kits I see at the local garden center?" The truth is they may show you are low in nitrogen but do not give you application recommendations. The WVU Soil Testing Lab offers free soil analysis for West Virginia residents with results normally returning within 10 days. This report will provide you with the information necessary to properly apply the right fertilizer and lime to your soil. For more information on soil testing, please visit

Evan Wilson, WVU Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources Program Coordinator
Last updated: March 2020

sewing seeds in soil