Where to plot a plot?

Garden 101 looking overgrown, covered in gravel and generally quite sad when I inherited it
Garden 101 had a full collection of challenges at the start

I was recently asked by a friend to make some suggestions on where I thought was a good place for a new vegetable garden. At first, I thought, “easy” and then I ended up completely down the rabbit hole having some kind of crisis about what to tell her first. What’s important? What sorts itself out over time (as a surprising number of things seem to in the garden)? How could I tell her everything without overwhelming her completely?

I’ve never been in a fortunate enough position to be able to choose my plot; in fact, Garden 101 is the first vegetable garden that’s truly been mine, although I’ve been fortunate enough to work on quite a few. If you are lucky enough to have a range of sites to select from, there are a few things to consider – some more important than others. The most important thing to keep in mind though is that gardening shouldn’t be stressful, so remember it will never be absolutely perfect and there’s plenty you can do to mitigate the negatives!

The one thing you can’t make up for is sunshine, so if you choose just one item on this list on which to base your choice, make it this. Most vegetables are going to be looking for around six hours of sun per day, though something like eight would be better, but that doesn’t need to be six to eight uninterrupted sunlight hours.

Go for a walk around your potential plots. Think about where the sun rises and sets, and its path across the sky, particularly in the summer when most of your plants will be growing. Will your plot get as much sunshine as you need? Even if you don’t have anywhere sunny enough, don’t despair – there will be vegetables you can grow with less sunshine, it’s just that your choice will be a little more limited.

At this point you’re probably going to be ruling out areas next to trees and hedges and if you aren’t ruling them out, do that now (if you can)! The tree in my neighbour’s garden not only blocks some of my light, but is a nutrient and water-sucking monster. In two years, I haven’t once managed to grow anything successfully where I imagine the bulk of the roots lie.

While you’re thinking about water, how far will you need to go from your plot to the nearest water source? Are you able to get a hose to the furthest point in the plot? Not only will this help you in the future if you want to install an irrigation system, but I promise (from current experience) that carrying watering cans to and from the far reaches of your vegetable plot will become tiresome. On the other hand, it’s an excellent work out for the shoulders.

In terms of distance, you should also think about how far it is from your kitchen for when you want to harvest something or how quickly you can get to it. It’s easy to believe that you’re always going to be as excited about your vegetables as you are right now (and I know you’re excited), but I promise that there are going to be some days when you just can’t raise the enthusiasm. If it’s not too far to go, at least you might be able to muster a watering trip to keep it alive until you can be bothered with it tomorrow. Equally, how many peas do you think will make it back to the house if you have a 15-minute walk to eat them on?

There are just a few more things to think about; I hope you’re not feeling overwhelmed yet!

While you want somewhere airy – a gentle breeze keeps the air moving, which helps your plants and reduces disease – being exposed to the wind is going to be frustrating when your sweetcorn snaps and your leaves are windscorched. If everything else is aligned though, there are some things you can do to protect your plants from the wind. A solid structure is not the answer – the wind drops over the top like a wave and can be worse – but a slatted fence or a trellis could help.

This might seem obvious, but somewhere flat is better than a hll. When you water the top of the hill, the water runs down to the bottom, so you end up with very dry and very wet areas. Sure, you could be clever about that and have some success; however, when you realise all your seeds have been washed down the hill in the rain, that’s going to be quite a disappointing moment, so plan to avoid that.

Last, but certainly not least, the soil. If you know you have excellent soil in one spot, that’s going to help. Drench the soil with water – does it drain away or sit on the surface for a long time? Come back tomorrow and squeeze the soil in your hand – does it mold together (clay) or disintegrate (sand)? You’re looking for well draining soil that is somewhere between clay and sand – it should fall a part a little when you squeeze it, but not into dust. The good news is that with hard work, you can improve your soil, but it’s good to know your starting point.

I know this seems a lot (really, a lot!) to think about, but as I said, gardening should be something you enjoy, so don’t sweat the small stuff (especially the stuff you can work on later). If nothing else, prioritise sunshine and flat ground, followed by proximity to water and work from there. Remember, things want to grow, so sometimes you have to take a ‘close enough’ attidude, but if you have a ‘perfect’ plot (or anything close to it), appreciate that you’re ahead of the game!


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