Garden planning step 1: Site assessment

Garden site assessment. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

It’s January. A new year, and a new chance to create your garden. If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve spent some quality time over the holidays nursing a hot cup of tea and daydreaming about spring. You want to make this year’s harvest as amazing as possible. We’re talking crisp sweet salads, crunchy carrots, hot buttered corn, and peas to pick daily along the garden path. We’re talking abundance.

To get the most from your garden, you need to do some work. Gardening requires planning. But it can be intimidating to get started. So join me, over the next three weeks, on a journey to discover your garden’s potential.

Whether you have a tiny high-rise deck, a community garden plot, or a full backyard, your first task is to figure out what you’re really working with. Put on some warm clothes and go out to your garden. Walk around a bit and get to know it in its wintery state. Then, take note of the following things:

Changes. If you’ve been gardening in this space for a year or more, take note of anything that might have changed recently. Has nearby construction affected your light or access? Do you have new neighbours? Are they gardeners like you, or are they letting the weeds take over?

Directional orientation. In the northern hemisphere, our strongest light will come from the south. If you have existing garden beds, are they positioned in the best way to take advantage of available light?

Light. Beyond directional orientation, a lot of other things will affect light in your garden. Are any trees or other objects shading your space? The position of the sun will change over the course of each day and year, so if possible, try to observe light over a period of time.

Slope. Is your garden space relatively flat, or is it uneven? Which way does it slope? Gardens with a south-facing slope will be much warmer than gardens that slope north. Do any parts of your garden tend to get waterlogged, or overly dry?

Soil and weeds. You might have to wait until the spring thaw to do this, but when you can, grab handfuls of soil from a few different parts of your garden. Are they dark and rich? Sticky and clayey? Crumbly and sandy? Do a jar test and use a soil test kit to find out what’s going on with your soil. I also highly recommend you do a professional test for heavy metals.

One of the most powerful tools for garden planning is a scale drawing. While having one isn’t an absolute requirement, they’re very helpful if you’re a serious gardener or if you’re planning to install an irrigation system. Here’s how to make one.

  • Get a big piece of graph paper. 24” x 36” is good for a full-size backyard. Tape everything to a table so it lays flat. Use pencil, not pen.
  • Choose your scale. We decided that 1 foot in the garden would equal ¼ inch on paper.
  • Get two friends — three people in total. Two of you will run around and take measurements and call the numbers over to the third person, who plots everything on paper.
  • Start with a couple of basic measurements — such as the distance from your house to the closest path — and then continue measuring from there, keeping in mind the distances between things as well as the sizes of individual objects. Include all the basic “hardscaping” in your site – paths, existing garden boxes, decks, patios, fences and sheds.
  • Next, add overhead representations of large perennial plants such as trees and hedges (here’s an example). Your measurements for these will be rougher — do your best.
  • Make it as beautiful as you’d like. The drawing should inspire you aesthetically.
  • Get some photocopies and pdfs made. You’ll want to have plenty of these handy to play with.
  • If measuring isn’t your thing, consider doing a not-to-scale artistic drawing of your site. It can still be very helpful. Try using Google satellite view to get a general sense of your space.

You’ve done a site assessment, and maybe you’ve even done a scale drawing. Now what? Join me next week to explore deciding what to plant, and where it’s going.

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