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Choosing a Garden Site

Garden site design with tools and tablet

Selecting the right garden site can mean the difference between a rewarding experience with healthy, productive plants or one that brings trouble with stressed plants, diseases and insect problems. Examine your site and assess your abilities in order to best place a garden. Think about how far you will travel to get to the garden and how much time you can invest in maintaining it. It is much more rewarding to have a small productive garden close by, than a large garden out of sight that gets away from you.

Start by sketching the property. Note locations of buildings, hose bibs, septic fields, sidewalks, trees and any other significant items. Think about how each of these things could impact your garden site. For example, sidewalks that are de-iced in the winter can cause toxic buildups of salts in nearby soils, damaging sensitive garden plants. Also, tree roots live in the top 6 to 10 inches of soil and tilling through them to install a garden may kill your tree.

On your sketch, mark shaded areas as seen at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Most plants grown for fruit or flower require six or more hours of sunlight. Any unshaded, full sun areas will provide the minimum sunlight needed. Once you have a general idea what spots get enough sunlight and are close enough to manage, it’s time to call 811, which is a free service that will come to your home and tell you where any buried utilities may be hiding. Calling 811 can mean the difference between shifting the garden 10 feet or damaging a gas line, which could be costly or deadly. This is especially important if you will be digging fence post holes.

Next, check out the soil. Visit the WVU Soil Testing Laboratory webpage to find out how to take a good soil sample. Using a soil map, your local WVU Extension Service agent can help you determine the soil type and its characteristics. If the site is in an urban area or the land use history is unknown, do an additional test for heavy metals for safety.

Drainage is the most important aspect of any garden. Shade-loving plants can be grown in the shade with amended pH. Waterlogged soils, on the other hand, will suffocate roots and produce sickly plants. Watch the ground after a heavy rain to see if there are areas where the water puddles. Dig a few spots; if it is difficult to get a shovel in, the soil is likely compacted and will need tilling or aerating. If the soil is greyish or has a rotting smell, there is a drainage problem. If the drainage cannot be fixed, use raised beds to keep the roots above the saturation line where they can breathe.

By taking the time to select the right site, your garden will be healthier and more enjoyable.

Karen Cox, WVU Extension Agent – Ohio County