Pick the perfect garden spot

When establishing a new garden spot or making a move, choose wisely. Establishing a garden is a commitment, you’re not going to move it around every year so getting it right from the beginning is key for providing years of happy growing. Get it wrong, and the mounting frustrations could be enough to put a person off gardening all together. Richard Jauron, Iowa State University extension horticulture specialist offers some tips for making the right choice.

Soak up the sun

“It has to be a sunny location, which means it needs at least 6 hours of direct sun each day during the growing season,” Jauron says. This may be easy enough for many, but a yard shrouded in mature trees can certainly present a problem. Scouting a potential site throughout the day can keep any long shadows from surprising a potential gardener down the line. Look for a clear open space well out of reach of shadows cast by buildings or trees. 

Consider the history

The past use of the land can come back to haunt gardeners. Knowing the history of the space can help avoid problems.

“The biggest issue would be if the site was a corn or soybean field the previous year,” Jauron says. “Residuals from some herbicides may persist in the soil and prohibit the planting of certain vegetables for 12 to 18 months, sometimes longer.”

If the site was a lawn, he says, there shouldn’t be any problems.

A real drain

“You want a site that is well drained. If water tends to pond there after a heavy rain, that’s not a good location for a garden,” Jauron says.

Standing water will suffocate plants, so the first big storm would have a devastating impact on a gardener’s work. Poor water infiltration can also be an indicator of soils with very high clay content, are low in organic matter, or compacted, each of which can create challenges for growing.

Fresh Start

Once a sunny, well-drained plot has been selected it’s time to get to work. “You want a clean slate, so you need to destroy and remove the existing vegetation,” Jauron says. If it’s a grassy area, it may be best to get a sod cutter to remove the grass. Or, spray the area with a nonselective herbicide to destroy the grass, weeds, and any other vegetation. If there are particularly tough weeds in an area, spraying prior to any tillage or planting is recommended.

“Weeds are a constant battle in gardens. Annuals come up from seeds every year, but are fairly easy to destroy by regular hoeing and hand pulling. Perennial weeds like quackgrass and Canada thistle are much more difficult to destroy,” Jauron says. “Tilling will just cut up the rhizomes causing more plants to sprout. It may take repeated control efforts over 1 to 2 years to get them under control.”

Spraying the potential garden spot can help effectively remove even perennial weeds, though, so a spot doesn’t have to be abandoned. If perennial weeds continue to sprout after the garden is planted, Jauron recommends digging up the plants and physically removing all parts from the garden to prevent resprouting.

Start Early and Test

Spring is when our minds turn to gardening, but Jauron recommends getting a jump on establishing a new garden by doing the prep work in the fall if possible. Among other things, this strategy allows both a fall and spring opportunity for spraying to deal with potential problem weeds and getting a jump on other problems before it’s time to actually plant.

An important step is soil testing. A simple and affordable soil test will report nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels and give the soil’s pH. The optimum pH range for most vegetable crops is 6.0 to 7.0.  However, vegetables can be successfully grown in slightly alkaline soils (pH between 7.0 and 7.5).  If soil pH is below 6.0, a gardener can apply lime in the fall, work it in and give it all winter to react with the soil so the garden is ready to produce a bin-busting yields right out of the gate.

It’s also good to make the first tillage pass in the fall. Tilling the soil for the first time will reveal the composition of the soil. If there’s a lot of clay in the soil, it will be very heavy and hard to work. One way to determine clay content is to get the soil wet, take a small amount and roll it into a roughly quarter-sized ball. Press the soil between thumb and forefinger to try and flatten the ball into a ribbon. The longer and stronger the ribbon, the more clay content a soil has.

“Clay soils can be a big issue especially around newer homes,” Jauron says. “When constructing new houses, the soil gets mixed up and the poor subsoil can end up on top. If the soil has a lot of clay and is difficult to work, bring in some organic matter, such as compost, and work it in.”

Make a Plan

The first year of the garden it won’t matter where you choose to plant your various vegetables, but make note of where they were located to prepare for the second year.

“You should rotate where you plant things to help reduce disease pressure,” Jauron says.

He notes gardeners planning to mulch with lawn clippings need to be strategic, too.

“Lawn clippings should be allowed to dry before using them and if you’ve used a broadleaf herbicide on your lawn, mow it twice after the application and leave the clippings on the lawn.  Clippings collected during the third and succeeding mowings can be used in the garden,” he says.

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