Making a New Vegetable Garden

As making a strong foundation is the beginning of making a strong building, the land you select for a vegetable garden can make the difference between a problem-plagued garden and a thriving, healthy one. This page answers questions about garden size and where to locate a vegetable garden.

What Size Garden?

Decide first how big the garden is going to be. It is smart to start small. If this is your first garden, pick a site with room for a large garden, but actually make a small one. You can enlarge the garden as you become successful and find that you want to devote more time and space to growing vegetables. Realistically consider how much time you can devote to the garden. How much produce do you really want to grow? And how much sunny space do you have?

A really big garden is 50 by 100 feet. It provides plenty of vegetables, herbs, melons, strawberries, asparagus, artichokes, and rhubarb for six people, with considerable produce left over for freezing and storing. A garden 40 by 60 feet is still big and provides amply for a family of four, with some extra for freezing.

The largest size recommended for a first vegetable garden is 25 by 25 feet—625 square feet overall. With careful planning it can keep four people supplied with loads of salad makings, herbs, vegetables, and some special treats, such as bok choy and strawberries. But a raised bed 5 feet by 5 feet with just tomatoes, peppers, parsley, basil, and lettuce is also a fine way to get started. The happiest approach is to start small and expand a bit each year.

What you absolutely must have for a thriving food garden is lots of sunlight. In looking over potential sites, light is the first consideration. Only a mushroom grows in the dark. Second to light is the need for proper drainage. Ample light and good drainage are not simply recommendations—they are a must for success.

Finding the Light

All leafy green plants make their own food in a process that uses light and chlorophyll, the substance that makes plants green. The process is called photosynthesis, and light is the energy that drives it. Plants will survive for some time in less light than they need, but at the expense of food stored in their tissues. Lack of light causes weak growth and spindly plants.

Most food plants need full sunlight, which means a daily dose of at least six hours of direct sun—and more is better. In warm regions a garden plot whose sun exposure is primarily in the cooler hours of early- and mid-morning is more desirable than a site that bakes under high heat later in the day. Such direct late-afternoon sun adds to the heat built up during the day. In very hot regions, it may be necessary to provide some screening in the afternoon for certain plants.

To every rule, of course, there are exceptions. Some of the herbs, basil for instance, can do with a little less-direct light. Leafy lettuces, snap beans, broccoli, and cabbage can endure more shade than tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, melons, and potatoes and other root crops.

Though six or more hours of direct sun is the general rule, you will find vegetables thriving in what at first glance seems much less. They are basking in reflected light. Reflected light can greatly increase the potential of an area that seems too shaded for food plants. The usual sources of reflected light are white and light-colored walls and expanses of glass and water. You can create reflected light by whitewashing a wall or fence.

Good Drainage

Drainage is important because, like us, roots need oxygen. The fine, hairlike threads growing from a plant’s roots draw carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the soil. In soggy soil, oxygen is not available and the plants literally drown.

Look for a location with good drainage. Signs of poor drainage are persistent dampness, poor plant growth with bare soil showing, crusts of white or brown salts on the soil surface, and puddles that remain for more than a few hours after a rain. The presence of moss is a clue that there is inadequate drainage, even when the problem is not otherwise obvious.

In new housing developments, the preparatory earth-moving often leaves depressions that turn to wet pockets in rainy weather. Regular flooding from poorly contoured terrain—yours or a neighbor’s—can make soil soggy.

For more information on drainage, see Evaluating Drainage.

Other Considerations

Here are some other practical considerations when choosing a site.

  • Vegetable gardens are functional features, but their looks are important, too. Traditional vegetable gardens are planted in straight rows to be functional, and look it. If the site you select is visible from a living area or upstairs window, there are many ways to make it attractive. It can be surrounded with a tidy picket fence, have brick paths between raised beds, and be interplanted with flowers for color. If you want a strictly functional garden, however, place it at the back of the yard where it won’t be an eyesore.
  • You will enjoy gardening more if the garden is convenient. If you will be running out at dinner time to harvest some parsley or one more tomato for the salad, position it close to the kitchen door. It’s also handy to store tools near the garden so that moving them isn’t a chore in itself. If tools will be stored in a garage, position the garden near the garage door.
  • Look for ground that is relatively level, because it is easier to work. Gentle slopes are good because the soil drains well. Also, where there are strong drying winds, or cold winds that add to the chill factor, a gentle slope away from the wind may be the ideal site. In the north, gardeners plant fruit trees and the kitchen garden on a sun-warmed south-facing slope.
  • Land that is too steep for easy working can be terraced. In many ways, terraced gardens are among the most satisfactory: drainage is excellent, it’s usually easy to work each terrace from the one below as if it was a raised bed, and you make use of land that might otherwise only be a problem. However, terracing is a lot of work and can be expensive.
  • Be wary of low spots at the bottom of a steep slope—water may collect and stay. Cold air and frost also settle in depressions early and late in the growing season and can damage frost-tender plants. A low spot is not the choice site for the earliest seedlings, nor for heat-loving plants.
  • Breezy areas can improve pollination and keep insects from settling. Airless corners are bad. In pockets of dead air, pests and diseases thrive.
  • Do not plant near trees or large shrubs. They rob the soil of moisture and nutrients and cut down on air flow.
  • Locate the vegetable garden within easy reach of the water supply.
  • If you live in a wooded area, put as much distance as you can between your food plants and the hunger pangs of furry critters.