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Selecting a Site for a Food Garden

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The ideal site for a food garden is one that is level, gets at least six hours of sun, has good soil and is sheltered from wind, frost and even pets.

Not many of us are lucky enough to have such a site but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a food garden.
The art of food gardening is working with what you have. Even if you have a pretty clear idea of where the food garden should be, the best advice we can offer is not to cast that choice in stone until you have done a site survey of the entire garden. The results might make you change your mind or give you some new ideas.
How to do a site survey
How often have you planted something and then realised that the position does not get as much sun as you thought it did, or vice versa? Such mistakes are easy to make without careful observation, which involves more than just taking a quick glance around the garden and making a mental note of where there is sun and shade. A site survey of your entire garden means observing it in detail: where it faces, seasonal patterns of the sun, wind channels, frost pockets, foot traffic patterns, variations in soil and whether it is sloping, level or mixed.
Task one – Make a site sketch

Make a sketch of the property, filling in the house and garage and all existing features such pathways and paved areas, trees, beds, the compost heap and washing line. At this stage you are not looking for a site for the food garden but just recording the status quo. In permaculture this exercise is called zoning.

Once that is done, determine and fill in the following on the sketch:
  • Where is north? In other words, which direction does your garden face?
  • Sun patterns: mark in the summer, autumn, winter and spring sun patterns. In summer the angle of the sun is higher and wider, whereas in winter it is narrower and lower.
  • Record the wind patterns, especially in coastal areas. A food garden should not be against a southern wall that gets hit by howling south-easterly winds.
  • Identify frost pockets or cold pockets in the garden.
  • Indicate slopes, and whether they are steep or gradual.
  • Divide traffic areas into high, medium and low usage areas. For example, the path from the garage to the front door is usually a high traffic area.
  • Variations of soil and type.
  • Views that need to be blocked or framed.

Task two – Identify food garden sites
Be open to all the possibilities and look for multiple sites. It could be that one area is best for a summer food garden while another area is better in winter. The most important factor to consider is the amount of sun and the least important factor is the soil, because this can be improved. Be as creative as possible in your thinking; maybe consider going vertical if necessary. The result might be 10 smaller spots that are ideal for vegetables instead of one large but not ideal area.
Mark each area on the sketch and add your comments about that particular site. The aim of this exercise is to know the limitations of the area or areas that you finally choose for the food garden.
It is also a good idea to revisit your motivations and the goals you set last month. This may help you decide what to keep and what must go or move (such as relocating a prized shrub to make way for some vegetables).

Task three – Lay out the space
Once you have decided on the area or areas, draw up a plan for the food garden, setting out the shape and size of the beds. The design can be formal or informal, with rectangular, square or round beds. It should also be as attractive as possible and incorporate aesthetic elements like a garden bench, space for flowers, archways, or bird baths – anything that reflects your personality.
The food garden that is being developed by Di-Di Hoffman will have a formal layout. Di-Di likes simple, rectangular beds of the same size because he finds them easier to manage.

Whatever approach you take, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t start too big, the ideal starting size is 3 m2. To manage a big food garden requires experience and that comes with time. If your space is larger than 3 m2, then focus on a smaller section and use the remaining area to grow cover crops or green manure crops that will condition the soil.
  • Bed width should not be more than 1 m or 1,2 m. To check what is comfortable for you, kneel down and extend your arm. The point where your hand meets your wrist should be the centre of the bed. This means that you can work comfortably in the bed. (Don’t just do this in your head, but physically go and do it.) For Di-Di the ideal bed width is only 60 cm because this enables him to straddle the bed, which makes weeding and harvesting much easier and quicker for him.
  • Pathways should not be more than 30 to 40 cm wide. It is a common mistake in food gardening to make the pathways too wide. This is a waste of space that could be used for growing more vegetables.
  • Don’t plan permanent pathways (such as paving) or build beds at this stage because the plan could change. (Di-Di likes to put mulch on the pathways as this gets broken down as it gets walked on and when the time comes to renew the beds the soil from the pathways is added as organically enriched top soil.)
  • The design should allow you to move comfortably around the garden. If you would end up taking a shortcut through a bed, rather make two beds with a pathway in between. Once the beds have been made one should never have to step into them.
Track the changes
By the end of this exercise you will have identified the best possible position for the food garden and laid out the chosen space on paper. Once ‘the paper hits the soil’ everything seems to change, and this is quite normal. For example, there might be an underground drain or tree roots that you were not aware of. Whatever changes are made, record them on the plan. The important thing about this process is that you know why you are making the changes. They are informed decisions and are no longer made on the spur of the moment.

Article written by Alice Spenser-Higgs using information supplied by Di-Di Hoffman of Bouquet Garni Nursery