Spring arrives and beginner vegetable gardeners start without doing any vegetable garden site preparation. Follow these simple steps for better results.
Note: this is an edited excerpt from my new eBook (available in March 2019) entitled “The Busy Family’s Guide to Setting up a Raised Bed Garden” – if you are interested in getting progress updates on the book and a special launch week discount, signup with your email address by clicking here.
When spring hits and the weather warms up, beginner vegetable gardeners everywhere get excited about the prospect of starting to grow their own vegetables. Even I as a seasoned veteran still get excited with my established garden!
So you are raring to go and just want to get growing. I’ve been there too and made mistakes along the way by rushing things.
There are a few steps you need to take to ensure success in setting up your first garden and have less frustration!
Note: I’m an advocate for raised beds instead of traditional in ground vegetable beds or row gardening as it is sometimes called. So you’ll notice below references mainly to raised bed gardening but most of this information can also be applied to traditional in-ground beds.
Location, Location, Location
Real estate agents say this to the point where it sounds like an old record.
But I’m going to say it as well with respect to the location of your vegetable garden beds. There is nothing more important than finding the right location. You can have the best soil and the best plants, but if your beds are in the wrong place, you won’t have much success.
Instead of saying location, location, location though I’m going to use the words sunlight, drainage and access. Let’s look at each one in detail.
The key to growing most vegetables is sunlight. Plants use sunlight to convert water and oxygen via photosynthesis literally into food (mainly glucose) to sustain them. Without adequate sunlight your plants will still grow but not well.
As the infographic shows, fruiting plants like tomatoes need lots of sunlight and heat to mature the fruits. Whereas leafy greens like lettuce can handle part shade and only a few hours of sunlight a day.
I would not try and grow anything in full shade, except in the heat of the summer and only those veggies that can manage just a few hours of sun.
In an urban backyard your vegetable garden is going to be competing with your house, your neighbours’ houses, established trees on your property and neighbouring properties, and those tall hedges that are great for screening off your neighbours but also good at blocking sunlight.
Not only do I grow vegetables in my backyard for my family to eat, but also I have 9 fruit trees! This is a similar setup to what my parents had when I was growing up.
It was always a bit of a compromise having these productive fruit trees when we need enough sunlight on our vegetable garden. And now I have the same problem.
So trees are great if they are in the right spot, not so great if they end up shading your garden. Ideally you want your trees to be north of the raised bed garden, so that any shade they cast misses the garden.
You’re likely never going to find the perfect sunny spot in a small urban backyard, so you’ll have to compromise and find the best spot you can.
The best way to find that choice spot where you’ll get the most sunlight is by monitoring the sun throughout the day. Pick a day in early to mid spring and literally set a timer to go out and check every hour or two hours.
Best is if you make a sequence of photos like I did here from my second floor deck that has a great view of my raised bed garden:
Then you can look at the photos later. Pick a few spots where you get enough sunlight during the day and note those down. Don’t worry so much about the early morning or late afternoon sun exposure.
Raised beds by their design are good at dealing with less than ideal drainage in your backyard. Elevating the growing surface helps with that and a few other preparation steps for the site will ensure that the beds will drain properly and the lowest parts will not sit in puddles or water.
But still the lowest area in your backyard is not the right location. Every time it rains you’ll get an accumulation of water in the low area and it won’t drain properly. Eventually it will cause issues with the beds shifting and sinking into the ground!
So the best thing you can do to avoid issues with drainage is pick a day where it has rained at least a day without stop.
Now I realize in some climates that is going to be tough as you might be at a time of year of drought. So try and think back to when it last rained a lot and hopefully you did at least look out a window at your backyard!
It’s beyond the scope of this post to provide advice on making significant changes to grading and putting in drainage pipes to deal with an excessively wet and muddy yard. My advice is to get a drainage specialist to come and have a look as too much water can to also affect your house if the water doesn’t flow away from the foundation.
It’ll be great to have a vegetable garden that produces lots of fresh vegetables. Not great if you can’t get to it though!
Your beds need to be accessible from all sides. You’ll need to prepare the soil in spring, plant seeds or transplants, water, fertilize and prune the plants and of course harvest.
The size of your beds will determine if you need access from all sides or just one or two sides. One thing you want to avoid is stepping into the beds. This results in compaction and affects your crops and soil health.
You also want your garden to have access to water and be relatively close to your kitchen door. In an average-sized urban backyard your vegetable garden will likely be less than a minute’s walk away so this is usually not an issue. However if you have to go through two gates, trudge through your kids sandbox, stumble over your lawn mower and battle the overgrown bush that you’ve been meaning to trim, you’ll be less likely to want to tend to your garden.
So find a location that is convenient to access.
Sizing and Number
In order to be able to access the full bed surface for planting, weeding and harvesting, beds should not be wider than 4 feet (120cm). This will depend also on your height and the height of the beds if you’re using raised beds. If you’re not sure, mock up a bed with some cardboard boxes and see if you can reach everywhere.
Length is more variable and you can have very long beds. I have beds that are up to 12 feet (365cm) long. However the standard size is 8 feet (245cm) long.
The longer you make the beds, the further you need to walk around them and that will get tiring quickly.
The number of beds is going to depend on your budget (if building raised beds), time and how much food you want to grow. I recommend starting off with just one or two beds.
You can then expand and add more beds as your interest, money and time allow. Just be sure to plan ahead for more beds when you do your site planning to leave enough room for the extra beds and paths.
So now you have found the perfect location. But you have your prized rhododendron or roses in that location.
Remember to keep your mindset focussed on solving problems: it’s a problem that does have a solution. You can move the plants in most cases.
The best time to move plants is when they are dormant in fall. In most climates you have cooler days, likely consistent rain and so moving the plant won’t be as much of a stress than doing so in the heat of the summer.
Prune the plant to make it a bit more compact and start to dig around the plant, being careful not to damage the major roots. You may have to dig a lot depending on how mature the plant is.
Before you remove the plant from the hole, prepare the new hole at the new location. Usual advice is to make the hole twice as big as the rootball.
Once you have loosed the soil around the roots sufficiently you’ll likely have to pry the plant up from underneath it. Get some burly friends to help and use boards to roll the rootball out of the hole.
Place the rootball into the new hole. It’s no longer advised to amend the hole with any fertilizers or amendments. You want the plant to extend it’s roots into the surrounding soil not just stay within the new hole you have dug.
Make sure the plant is at the same level as it was in the old hole – there should be a mark on the trunk at the old soil level.
Now backfill with the same soil you took out of the hole. You’ll like have a bit of extra that you can use elsewhere in the garden.
Water the plant well and mulch the surface of the soil, keep the mulch at least 6-8” (15-20cm) away from the base of the plant. Make sure to keep watering the plant until it’s established which can take up to a year or more. Hopefully since you’re planting in fall, you’ll get adequate rain.
Now a mature tree is another story. This is a case where you’ll likely have to shift your garden to avoid the tree or build beds around it. However consult with an arborist to make sure you don’t kill the tree as trees usually don’t like having soil piled on their root zone (which typically extends the same distance as the tree branch canopy.
You also will need to reach the tree for pruning and other maintenance or if it’s a fruit tree to pick the fruit. Be sure you can access the branches from outside the garden beds as you don’t want to have to step on the soil and compact it.
And there are some trees you simply don’t want to plant around. Black walnut is one as it secretes a nontoxic chemical called hydrojuglone. When exposed to air or soil it turns into juglone that inhibits plant growth. Not something you want close to your vegetable garden!
Cedar trees and bushes can also inhibit plant growth near them.
Dealing with Grass and Persistent Weeds
It’s quite common nowadays to replace lawns with planting beds, either flowers or food crops. The main reason is lack of space. Growing food becomes a higher priority than having a pristine green lawn that takes a lot of work and money to maintain.
Lawns can be planted on top of if you take a few extra steps to prepare the site.
If you know you have a pest problem in the lawn such as grubs, get some advice on how best to eradicate them from your local nursery or garden centre. Usually beneficial nematodes are used, which is an organic control method.
DO NOT use synthetic chemicals of any kind. There is a chance that those chemicals could end up in the soil of your raised beds and then end up in the food you’re growing. All of the growing methods I advocate are organic, so you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by using chemicals. But it’s your choice, you need to be educated enough to know the risks.
Once you have dealt with any pest problems, there are two ways to deal with the sod. You can cut it out and there are special tools you can buy or rent to make that backbreaking job easier. However you’ll have all this sod to get rid of. It can be composted although that can take some time to break down. Or you can use the sod elsewhere in the garden where you might have bare spots of lawn.
Or save yourself some time and effort and do sheet mulching. This also works if you have a persistent weed problem. Again you don’t want to spray any synthetic weedkillers or herbicides to get rid of the weeds.
Sheet mulching is taking some kind of impervious material and laying it down and then you build your beds on top of it. Commonly cardboard is used as it’s readily available (check with a furniture or appliance store for large pieces) and breaks down over time once it has done it’s job of killing the grass or weeds.
Newspaper or brown packing paper can be used instead but you’ll need a lot as you need to layer the newspaper several sheets thick.
Some people have used carpet or other materials that don’t break down quickly. Problem is some carpets have fire retardants or stain guards that may still be present. And if the carpet has any synthetic materials those will never breakdown into organic materials.
Dig out or cut down any tall weeds then start layering the cardboard or newspapers as thick as you can, making sure to overlap by at least 6 inches (15cm). Don’t make the mistake I made and remember to remove all packing tape as that plastic never breaks down. And avoid using cardboard that has glossy paper adhered to it.
You may be wondering why I don’t recommend using landscape cloth. It can work, but unless you get very heavy duty (read expensive!) cloth you’ll find that weeds still find a way through it. You want to save your money for setting up your beds and growing food in them.
One of the key advantages of well-designed raised bed gardens is the paths between beds. It’s critical to allow enough space between beds to access and tend to your vegetables without having to step inside the beds.
Stepping inside the beds will compact the soil, which is not good for drainage and the overall health of your soil and thus your plants.
I recommend 2 feet or 60cm between beds. This will allow you to roll a wheelbarrow between beds to amend them with compost. If you’re really tight on space, you can reduce this down to 18 inches (45cm).
Dealing with Slopes
Slopes are a design problem that can be overcome. But before I provide some suggestions, a caveat of what you should be cautious about.
Erosion is one of the main issues with slopes. Rainwater running down a slope will wash away earth and can cause slope instability. Any walls or other obstructions you build on a slope without adequate drainage will cause rainwater to accumulate and saturate the soil, making it unstable.
So when you’re dealing with a steep slope, don’t take any chances. Get some professional help from a landscape professional or an engineer. Show them what you plan to do and get their advice on anything special you need to do to ensure success.
There are two options for raised beds on a slope that you’ll want to discuss with the pro:
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: both require quite a bit of digging! I have indicated in both situations ground cover for the paths as that will help with erosion. Best is to pick ground cover that doesn’t need frequent mowing. Or you could do wood chips but those might be hard to keep from moving down the slope especially during heavier rains or snowmelt.
Picking the right site and preparing it for a vegetable garden takes a bit of effort. But once you have the right site and prepare it properly, you’ll benefit from having a successful, productive garden that produces quality, fresh abundant vegetables for your family!
You can print out this article if you wish. Just hit the print button ->
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below!
Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC