How to Build a Garden
Your home garden is a better source of produce than commercial agriculture. When it comes to the large corporations that control most of our food supply and farmland, the concern is profit, not human health. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides might give quick results but they do nothing to maintain the balance of nature, actually killing the life in the soil over time.
Know Your Local Environment
First understand your natural surroundings. What you can plant and harvest depends on when your specific planting and growing season begins and ends and how long it lasts. You must attune yourself to the annual and seasonal weather patterns in your area. Note when seeds germinate and when insects (and which ones) begin to appear. Invest in good quality soil and air thermometers to give yourself an edge in living with the elements.
Your garden is likely to have small yet important microclimates. Shadows can cause a cold pocket, and a hard surface facing the sun can reflect too much heat. These areas will not only change daily but also with the seasons. Summer might be too hot for lettuce but great for tomatoes. Anticipate these changes when you decide where to grow your garden. Position your raised beds, rows or plots to run north and south so plants will receive more sunlight in winter and not shade each other. In winter, keep tall trellised plants against the north wall and the shorter plants to the south. In the summer, do the opposite.
Plant Zones: What To Grow Where
Your geographic climate zone will determine which plants can thrive in your garden. The USDA publishes the most commonly used hardiness zone map, which divides the continental U.S. into 11 zones derived from the average annual minimum temperatures. You can find a copy of this map online, at a local library or university, or in gardening books. You can also just visit your neighborhood nursery: your success is also their success, so they are unlikely to even carry plants that won’t do well in your zone.
Sun & Shade – A Defining Factor
Plants that produce fruits require plenty of sun. Allow at least 6 hours daily for tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans, corn, eggplant, summer squash and cabbage. In general, the bigger the fruit, the more sunlight it must have. Vegetables and herbs do well in shaded areas, needing only about four hours of sun per day. Try carrots, beets, chard, cauliflower, chives, lettuce, chicories, radicchio, arugula, basil, mint, parsley, spinach or winter squash in these shadier areas. For leafy green vegetables, even less sunlight is fine.
Drainage – Getting the Wet Out
Sandy soils drain too quickly, and clay soils too slowly. Adding organic materials helps to correct and balance both types of soil. If you have a good balance between sand, silt, clay and organic materials, you have a solid foundation for good drainage as well as moisture retention in the space between soil particles. When you improve your soil’s drainage, you reduce the level of fungal pathogens. You also improve root development and nutrient availability in a healthy aerobic environment. Do a simple test to see how your soil drains and whether you need to make changes to correct your drainage. Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and 6 inches wide. Fill the hole with water and let it drain completely. When the hole is empty, fill it again with water to the very top. If it takes more than 10 hours to empty again, you have a drainage problem. The good news is that this problem can easily be solved by adding organic materials or drainage pipes. You can also grow plants in raised beds, which give you total control of soil composition, and more controllable drainage options.