The Leverage of Location: Planning Where to Plant your Garden

by Amy Scheuerman

In my last gardening article we picked out a lot of different plants to try out in your exciting new garden this spring, but before you plant them, some decisions need to be made.  You know what you want to grow, now where do you plant it?

Having an amazing garden is about more than just planting good seeds and then watering them.  Even if you’ve picked out the best seeds on earth and tend them with loving care, your garden may be less than successful if you plant your seeds or transplants haphazardly.  To make sure that you end up with a delicious bounty of fresh veggies, you need to learn about the type of soil you have as well as the microclimates in your garden plot.

Consider the soil

Soil comes in several varieties, which are named based on particle size.  Sand is the largest particle of soil and because of its size, it generally has lots of little pockets for water and air to hide in. Silt is in the middle and is a powdery-feeling soil. Clay is the smallest particle of soil and, because of its denseness, it tends to have trouble letting air and water through.  Different plants thrive in different types of soils, based on their needs for root growth and water availability. The terms humus and compost both refer to the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Most plants enjoy growing in soils that balance water and nutrient retention, so a good plan is to add sand to clay heavy soils, add clay to sandy soils, and mix humus or compost into pretty much any soil to increase the nitrogen content.  In the Boston area, soils tend to be on the clayey side, and would benefit from additions of compost and sand.  However, if you are going to add sand, make sure it is horticulture-grade; construction sand and similar materials are not suitable for horticulture or agriculture.

To get compost for your garden at a discount rate, contact the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) before you run off to the garden center. BNAN coordinates orders for community gardens that wish to receive free compost through Boston Public Works Recycling Program.  You may be able to get hooked up with local compost if you check with them first at 617-542-7696.  Another option for organic material is horse manure through the Boston Parks Rangers at Franklin Park, which can be reached at 617-635-7383.  This option can be tricky because you may need to age the manure yourself before using it.  Raw manure can actually “burn” plants with its high nitrogen content.

Other than soil type, there are a couple of things to check for before you dig up your yard and turn it into agarden.  These are lead and arsenic.  Lead was commonly used in high concentrations in paint up until the 1970s.  Because paint flakes can fall off the outside of a house and get into the soil, it’s a good idea to make sure your yard is lead-free before planting.

Arsenic was used as a treatment for railroad ties.  Since many Greater Boston Area neighborhoods lie near old rail tracks, arsenic testing is something consider as well.  Lead and arsenic, both heavy metals, can get soaked up by plants along with nutrients in the soil, potentially leading to poisoned vegetables.  You can take your own sample of soil and send it to a lab such as Scientific Analytical Institute in North Carolina for testing.  For more information on soil testing check out the U Mass website.

Microclimates

Once you have learned about the safety of your soil and you’ve prepped it to be balanced and full of organic material, it’s time to figure out the layout of your garden.  Different plant varieties will enjoy different temperatures and different amounts of sunlight.  To check the amount of sunlight your yard gets, you can either buy a fancy tool that will get you a precise readout of how many hours and minutes of full sun each part of your yard gets. or you can do it the old fashioned way: make a sketch of your yard and then check how much sun each part gets at 9:00am, noon, and 3:00pm.  Fill these in on your sketch and decide whether each section is full sun, partial sun, or low light exposure.

Sun is probably the biggest factor in how happy your various plants will be, but another factor is temperature.  Your yard probably has more microclimates than you are aware of.  Is there a stone wall somewhere?  It’s probably cooler next to it than it is in the center of the yard.  Spots next to your house will probably stay warmer in the spring and fall.  You can map out some of these trends just by sitting in your yard for brief periods of time, occasionally moving from spot to spot and seeing how warm or cool you feel.  When it comes time to planting, you can use these warmer and cooler spots to strategically choose what to plant where.

Planning the Planting

Now that you’ve mapped the sunniest and coolest parts of your yard, it’s time to start planting.  Your lettuces and other greens will like to be in a spot that’s sunny but cool.  Warm weather can make greens “bolt,” meaning they will begin to send up flowers and become tall, tough, and bitter tasting.  Radishes also do well in the cool parts of a yard.

Plants like beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes love the sun.  Plant them in the sunniest and warmest parts of your yard.  The sun will help the beans and cucumbers grow fast and strong while the heat is what really helps tomatoes to ripen.

If you have a very shady section of your yard you can consider planting ferns and potatoes there.  Ferns love cool shady spots and will grow slowly but well there.  Potatoes actually prefer the sun, but they are so hearty that they can really grow anywhere, so if you run out of sunny spots feel free to use the partial sun and low light parts of your yard for them.

I usually choose to plant herbs in pots near my kitchen door.  Some herbs, like thyme or mint, can take over a whole yard and squeeze out other plants if you don’t keep them confined to a pot.  The other herbs I choose to grow this way for convenience sake: when I’m cooking I love to have a fresh supply close at hand.

Keep tuned for information on when to plant and transplant your vegetables and herbs in my next article!

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