Site Planning and Tools
By John Jett, WVU Extension Service horticulture specialist
To create a productive garden, you must start with the fundamentals. Fruits and vegetables grow best in a level area with loose, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Most fruit and vegetable plants require six to eight hours of full sunlight a day to produce fruit like tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. Root and leafy crops like carrots, turnips, beets, leaf lettuce, spinach, and others can tolerate some shade.
Sites too near buildings may mean plants will not receive enough sunlight. Observe shading patterns throughout the growing season, if possible, before starting the garden. If you have a shaded area you wish to use anyway, plant it in shade-tolerant crops. Increase effective light if needed by providing reflective surfaces around plants.
Use contour rows or terraces on sloped or hillside sites to avoid erosion. South-facing slopes are warmer and less subject to damaging frosts for annuals. Perennials are less subject to freezing and thawing cycles on the north-facing slopes.
Avoid placing the garden in low spots, at the base of a hill, or at the foot of a slope bordered by a solid fence. Such areas are slow to warm up in the spring, and frost settles in these “pockets” since cold air naturally drains into low areas. If there is a creek nearby, the water table may be very high or the area subject to flooding.
Avoid windy locations; if you must plant in a windy spot, build or grow a windbreak.
Locate the garden near a good and easily accessible supply of water if possible.
Choose a spot near your home so it is convenient to work in the garden when you have a few minutes.
Avoid planting near trees and shrubs; they compete for nutrients and water, and may cause excessive shading. Never plant your vegetable garden near a black walnut or a butternut tree. Root exudates can be toxic to many garden plants.
Avoid locating the garden on a site that has contained buildings with lead paint; soil lead may be present in toxic amounts. If you are unsure about your chosen location, have the soil tested for lead content or have tissue analyses done on some leafy vegetables.
Start small! Plan a garden only as large as you can easily maintain and ask yourself a few basic questions:
- Who will be doing the work? Will the garden be a group project with family members or friends who will work willingly through the season to a fall harvest, or will you be handling the hoe alone? Remember, a small weed-free garden will produce more than a large weedy mess. As a beginner, select fruits and vegetables that are easy to grow and that will produce the maximum amount of food in the space available.
- What do you and your family like to eat? Although the pictures in the garden catalog look delicious, there is no value in taking up gardening space with vegetables that no one eats. Make a list of your family’s favorite vegetables, ranked in order of preference. This will make a useful guide as you decide how much to plant of each. Successive plantings of certain crops such as beans will give a longer harvest period and increase your yield. List recommended varieties and planting dates.
Soil and bed preparation
Check soil fertility and pH by having your soil analyzed at least once every three years. Vegetables vary to some extent in their requirements, but most garden crops will do well with a soil pH of 6.2-6.8. A soil test will also give you a relative idea of the nutrient level in the soil. Soil samples may also be sent to the West Virginia University Soil Testing Laboratory. The WVU Soil Lab will mail results to you with recommendations for correcting any deficiencies or other problems that may exist. The WVU soil test kit is available free of charge from your county’s WVU Extension office.
The ideal vegetable garden soil is deep, friable (easily crumbled), well-drained, and high in organic matter content. Proper soil preparation provides the basis for good seed germination and subsequent growth of garden crops. Careful use of various soil amendments can improve garden soil and provide the best possible starting ground for your crops.
In new garden spots, remove sod with a spade and use it to patch your lawn or put it in a compost pile to decay. Plow, spade, or rotary till the garden spot to loosen the soil. Or try one of the no-till methods such as square foot or lasagna gardening. Work the soil only when moisture conditions are right. Working excessively wet soils can destroy soil structure, which may take years to rebuild. Plowing with a tractor when the soil is wet is especially damaging, causing the formation of a compaction layer that will inhibit root growth.
Any addition to the soil that improves its physical or chemical condition is considered a soil amendment. Many types of amendments are available to the home gardener. Organic matter, such as humus, compost, or well-rotted manure, helps make heavy soils more crumbly—improving water infiltration and root penetration. It also serves as a filler to increase the number of large pore spaces in the soil.
Just before planting, break up large clods of soil and rake the bed level. Small-seeded vegetables germinate best in smooth, fine-surfaced soil. Do not pulverize the seedbed soil. This destroys the structure and promotes crusting and erosion problems.
The type of equipment used to prepare your garden will depend on the size of the garden, your physical ability, time, and budget. It doesn’t take a lot of fancy tools and equipment to have a successful garden. All that is needed is a hand trowel for transplanting and roughing up the soil; a hoe for digging weeds and making furrows to plant into; a rake for smoothing out soil after planting and preparing seedbeds; and a spade or spading fork for turning the soil.
Larger garden spots may require a rotary tiller or small garden tractor. Do not go to the expense of buying this larger equipment as a beginning gardener until you have decided this is the cultivation method you will use in the future. You can rent or borrow a tiller or hire someone to till or plow.
The minimum equipment needed by most gardeners includes
- a shovel or spade
- a hoe
- a rake
- a trowel
A wide selection of styles is available for each of these tools, and the choice is really one of personal preference and price. You can get the best value for the price range you choose by knowing each tool’s uses and the particular qualities to look for when comparison shopping.
A garden shovel with a pointed blade is lighter and smaller than most other shovels and is well-suited for use in the garden. Shovels are earth movers with dish-shaped blades mounted to the handle at an angle.
A spade has a flat blade and is designed for cutting rather than lifting or moving soil. Spades are excellent for shaping straight-sided trenches and for edging beds. For general-purpose digging, lifting, and moving, a long-handled shovel is ideal.
Both shovels and spades come with long or short handles in standard or D-shaped styles. A spading fork is another useful digging tool. It is ideal for breaking and turning heavy soils and for loosening subsoil layers when double-digging a bed. Turning coarse compost, spreading mulches, and digging root crops are other jobs suitable for a spading fork.
A hoe is essential in any garden for preparing the seedbed, removing weeds, and breaking up encrusted soil. Several hoe styles are available. The pointed hoe with a heart-shaped blade is lightweight and useful for opening seed furrows and cultivating between plants. The hula, or action, hoe is a type of scuffle hoe that is very lightweight and maneuverable. Pushing and pulling it just under the soil surface eliminates newly emerging weeds and breaks up any crust on the surface. Probably the most commonly used hoe is the square-bladed hoe, which lends itself well to many garden tasks.
A sturdy rake is useful in clearing the garden of rocks and debris. It is also helpful in spreading mulches and smoothing seedbeds. The length of the rake handle is important too; the tip of the handle should come up to your ear when you are standing upright. A handle that is too short will make your work harder by causing excessive bending and back strain.
A trowel will be in constant use for those many digging jobs that need not be done with full-size tools. The trowel is perfect for transplanting seedlings and bulbs or digging shallow-rooted weeds. Small hand cultivators, often sold in sets with trowels, are good for weeding in small areas and between closely spaced plants. Another useful small digging tool is appropriately named a digger (or weeder, cultivator, asparagus knife).
The power rotary tiller is probably the gardener’s most commonly purchased power tool. Whether a gardener needs a rototiller depends on the size of the garden, the gardener’s capabilities, and the tiller’s intended uses. Tiller selection may be based on the nature of the work to be done, the quality of the machine, and ease of repair, as well as personal preference. The tiller’s engine powers rotating blades, or tines, which can make garden soil loose and fluffy, ready for planting. It can also chop up plant debris and mix it into the soil.
Incorporating organic matter and manures into the garden is easily accomplished with a tiller, reducing the gardener’s tendency to put off this necessary chore. The ability of the tiller to do these jobs effectively is a function of its weight, strength, and design; type of tines; and type of soil.
Both front- and rear-mounted tine rototillers are available. Rear-tined tillers are generally better able to self-propel on all but the rockiest soils. They travel straight and can produce a footprint-free seedbed. Rear-tined tillers often have a number of attachments for a variety of uses, including hilling potatoes, making raised beds, and even plowing snow! The price of a rear-tined rototiller is considerably higher in most cases than that of the front-tined type; consideration should be given to the payback time necessary for such a large investment.
Carts and WheelbarrowsA wheelbarrow or cart is very handy to have around the garden area. It should be easy to handle when full. Durable construction is well worth paying for to ensure a long, useful life. Be sure to choose the size appropriate for your physical abilities and garden needs. A wheelbarrow generally requires more strength and control than most garden carts. But many small carts are made of relatively flimsy metal and, although inexpensive, are not particularly long-lasting or suitable for heavy items such as rocks.
Again, consider your needs. If you plan to haul only light straw, leaves, sawdust, and such materials, then one of the small carts may be suitable. For heavier jobs, you may need a wheelbarrow; or investigate some of the newer garden carts, especially those with bicycle-size tires, which make easy work of hauling. They are made of heavy plywood and metal but are well-balanced and easy to maneuver. These carts do, however, involve a sizeable investment (up to several hundred dollars) and a large storage space. Therefore, only serious gardeners or those with other uses for such a cart find these carts economical. One alternative is to build your own from a plan available from gardening magazines or private companies.
Watering is one job that most gardeners must do at least occasionally. An adequate water supply may make a big difference in garden yields. Which equipment to purchase depends on available facilities, water supply, climate, and gardening practices.If there is no outdoor spigot near the garden, the expense of having one installed may be greater than the benefits gained, except in very drought-prone areas or if a gardener is fully dependent on the season’s produce. Where rainfall is adequate except for a few periods in summer, it is wise to keep watering equipment simple; a rain barrel or a garden hose with a fan-type sprinkler will suffice.
A water breaker for small seedlings is a nice extra, but in areas having extended periods of hot weather without precipitation, the local water supply is likely to be short. Because overhead sprinklers waste water, a drip irrigation system may be in order. Drip irrigation puts water right at the roots and doesn’t wet leaves, helping to control disease.
Timers are available that allow automatic watering with drip and some other systems. This type of system is relatively expensive and may be considered a nuisance by some gardeners because of maintenance and placement requirements.
Determine whether cultural practices such as mulching, close plant spacing, shading, or wide bed planting will meet most of your extra water needs. Then purchase watering materials accordingly.