By Steve Cramer, Horticulture Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
It's safe to say that the site you choose for your vegetable garden will greatly determine its success.
The amount of sunshine a garden plot gets throughout the day, the soil type and other factors play major roles in a garden's productivity.
Fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, squash and peppers, require a full day of sunlight. Root vegetables, such as carrots and beets, can get by with a half day of sun. Leafy vegetables, such as lettuce, tolerate the most shade.
To determine the amount of sun available for growing a vegetable garden, stake the edges of shadows once in the morning and once in late afternoon. This will reveal areas that receive full sun six hours or longer each day, which a garden needs if it is to be productive.
Also consider the soil content of a garden site. If the soil is shallow or very heavy, root systems may not develop well. Avoid planting near tree roots because vegetables can't compete with root systems of established trees and shrubs. Make sure that the soil drains well. Standing water after storms will stunt the growth of vegetables, and storm runoff may need to be diverted from the garden.
While good air movement around a garden is important, avoid planting a garden in breezy areas where wind can dry out or break plants. Planting near a windbreak, fence or shrubs can protect vegetable gardens. Choose a spot close to a water supply for convenience. Plant a vegetable garden where it's convenient for you to visit frequently to monitor pests.
People sometimes plant vegetables among flowers and other plants, rather than in an area devoted exclusively to vegetables. That's because vegetable plants also can be attractive.
Raised beds versus rows
To choose the best method of setting up a home garden, consider the type of soil in the garden plot. Native top soils in the west can range from those that are light and sandy to heavier clays, or even to adobe types of soil that dry like concrete. These soils commonly are found in new housing developments where, often, all the topsoil has been removed, leaving only the clay subsoil.
If the soil falls somewhere between a loose, sandy soil and a rich, deep loam soil, planting a garden in rows can be simple, inexpensive and quick. Water row gardens by flood irrigation in furrows or use sprinklers, drip irrigation or soaker hoses.
To improve any soil for planting, mix three to four inches of organic material into the soil to a depth of one-and-one-half feet. This process can quickly improve drainage, encourage plant roots to grow deeper and improve soil aeration. Organic material will hold moisture and, as it is broken down in the soil, it also will release nitrogen, which helps beneficial organisms that live in the soil.
For heavy, clay soils, or for soils with poor drainage, raised beds are the answer. Raised beds save space, drain faster, heat up earlier in the spring and save water by keeping it where the plants are growing. Also, because gardeners walk around rather than on the raised beds, the soils are remain loose.
Raised beds offer other advantages. They are more comfortable to work on than row plantings and they can be designed to be wheelchair accessible. Raised beds can offer a solution to gardeners with small yards and limited spaces.
Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.
© CSU/Denver County Extension Master Gardener 2010
888 E. Iliff Avenue, Denver, CO 80210
Date last revised: 01/05/2010