Choosing a site for the vegetable garden
I cannot sufficiently emphasise that the site chosen for growing organic vegetables is extremely important. A poorly structured site will drastically limit the potential for success, irrespective of any gardening competence or technical abilities which are subsequently applied. This can probably be attributed to their highly cultivated status. Even the most basic types of vegetable may possess an extended pedigree of selective breeding. This is widely accurate despite numerous distinctive plant species which are gathered under the general categorisation of vegetable.
Like racehorses, and fancy dog breeds, most of our cultivated vegetables bear minimal resemblance to their wild forebears. As a consequence, their proliferation and survival depends upon the maintenance of favourable conditions within a reasonably controlled and stable environment. In choosing an appropriate site for growing vegetables, I recommend the optimum management of four influential factors: sunlight, water and drainage, soil chemistry, physical protection and accessibility.
Like all green plants, vegetable species survive by converting carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into the basic carbohydrates stored within their cells. The edible parts of a vegetable are largely composed of cellulose, starch, and sugars. Smaller quantities of protein, oils and steroidal compounds are generated from organic and inorganic soil nutrients which also require sunlight to facilitate their absorption.
While some plant species are capable of flourishing with modest quantities of sunlight, it is a fact that most vegetables require plenty of sunlight to reach their potential. While traditional winter vegetables like cauliflower and turnips can accommodate lower intensities of sunlight, they will never thrive when its availability is restricted for extended periods. This means that an ideal location for growing vegetables receives sunlight for most of the day, without the encumbrance of overhanging tree branches, hedges or shrubbery. Vine growing vegetables in particular, require large exposures of sunlight to ripen properly.
Access to sunlight plays a significant role in maintaining soil and ambient temperatures. Remember that most vegetable species will be injured by temperatures at or slightly below freezing, unless they can be acclimatised to tolerate these levels. It is preferable to locate them in a warm location. The traditional planting arrangement of rows running north to south is often used to provide a maximum and even quantity of sunlight throughout the day.
Water and drainage
Vegetable crops develop water requirements which are specific to their variety, maturity, and the surrounding atmospheric and soil characteristics. With respect to drainage, it is the physical topography of a particular site which assumes the most significant role. The immediate elevation, slope, and soil structure needs to be carefully assessed before establishing the vegetable garden.
The most suitable types of location have gentle surface slopes and contain deep and well drained soils. Many vegetable growers prefer a moderately heavy loam with at least several feet of topsoil. While a deep sandy loam can also be very good for root crops like carrots and beets, it is better to avoid the types of heavy clay soils which become sodden in winter. This is particularly relevant for flat and low lying sites which cannot facilitate the surface drainage of air and water. Unless the underlying soil is well structured, continuous waterlogging is likely to damage plants by restricting oxygen absorption at the roots.
Most vegetables require a mildly acidic or neutral soil with a pH reading between six and seven. There are exceptions like cabbage and cauliflower, which grow poorly in acidic soils and prefer the pH to be seven or higher. The majority of cultivated vegetables also require nutrient rich soils with the structural capacity to deliver sufficient amounts of water and air to the plant roots.
For serious growers, a professional soil assessment is a worthwhile investment. This enables any problems to be efficiently treated, prior to planting. If there is evidence of mineral imbalance or specific deficiencies, there are some natural clays and organic extracts which will enhance the soils productive capacity, particularly over the longer term. Because vegetable crops require substantial quantities of colloidal minerals and water soluble nutrients, even well balanced soils should be improved by the regular addition of organic materials in the months prior to sowing vegetables. An exception to this advice would be root crops like turnips, which grow better without compost.
Physical protection and accessibility
Vegetable crops require a degree of protection against the elements. In their wild state, annual and perennial plants frequently obtain cover from larger plant species or establish themselves around natural crevices and other protective structures. When choosing a site for their vegetables, gardeners need to consider the prevalence of strong winds and heavy rains which can easily desiccate young plants. Gardens provide moderate shelter when they’re situated alongside a fence or wall, although try to ensure this doesn’t restrict access to adequate sunlight. Climbing varieties like cucumber, peas, and ornamental peppers will always benefit from the warmth and support of a sun drenched wall. For the additional protection of delicate varieties and immature seedlings, it is acceptable to surround vegetable beds with temporary net barriers or low density shrubbery. When choosing shrubs, try to obtain native species or other sturdy varieties with modest water requirements.
An ability to secure convenient access is frequently overlooked when choosing the best site for an organic vegetable garden. I usually encourage people to plant their vegetables and herbs as close as possible to the kitchen. This is likely to ensure that the garden becomes integrated with the everyday activities of food preparation, socialising, and entertainment. The direct route between garden and kitchen may be travelled so frequently that a pathway is suggested. Non slip concrete, pebbled, or flagstone pavers are visually attractive on warm afternoons, and will also prove themselves invaluable during prolonged wet weather. Finally, for gardens of substantial size, don’t neglect the importance of maintaining access for vehicles and equipment, garden storage sheds, water faucets, and enthusiastic visitors.