Starting a vegetable garden for the first time can often seem like an overwhelming prospect. Where do you put it, how big should it be, and how do you get started? This is the first of a three-part series of posts on the basic issues in starting a vegetable garden.
Where to Put It:
Water: On the West Coast you will need to water a summer garden, so access to water is a primary issue. It's usually easy for people with outdoor taps to set a drip hose system on a timer. But if you don't have an outdoor tap, the proximity of your garden to a water source becomes a serious consideration. Your options include using a watering can filled in the kitchen or bathroom, a hose attachment for your kitchen tap (a small coiling hose), and/or a rain barrel.
Soil: Soil conditions should not be too limiting on the placement of your garden - you can grow at least some vegetables in almost any soil, and it's pretty easy to amend soil to make it quite hospitable to food crops.
In the Vancouver area, as in other rainy climates, the soil tends to be clay-y and acidic. As a result, if you plan to plant in existing soil, you'll probably need to dig in a good load of sand (most "manufactured" garden soils are 25% sand) for drainage and an even bigger load of compost and some manure for both texture and nutrients. The manure also helps to mitigate the acidity of the soil.
From there, you can also tweak the soil fertility and nutrients, and/or balance the pH, using a variety of organic soil amendments, from fish manure to kelp or flaxseed preparations. (Most vegetables prefer a more-or-less neutral soil pH, though most berries prefer slightly to moderately acidic soil conditions).
If your garden is planned for a low, overly wet spot of the yard, and/or if it'll be in a pretty shady area, you will need to build raised beds to promote drainage. Some plants (like leeks [right]) particularly need good drainage. There are plenty of other advantages with raised beds, too, so you really can't go wrong using them in any situation.
Sunlight: If possible, you should plan your garden - or at least part of it - for the sunniest spot available. Some vegetable crops do best with optimal sun, while others are fine with somewhat less - but it's easier to create pockets of shade in a largely sunny area, than vice versa.
The light is needed for photosynthesis, as any 6-year-old can tell you - but outright heat is also an important factor. The heat extends the growing season, warming the soil sooner in spring and keeping it warmer into fall than in shadier spots. (Raised beds help extend the growing season in this way, too).
The sun and heat also aid in keeping the plants' foliage reasonably dry, helping to prevent fungal diseases such as mildew or blight, which are common problems for many of these same plants.
If you don't have optimal sun: In the Vancouver area, many summer vegetables do fine in partial shade - in spite of what many seed packages say about full sun: carrots, potatoes, asparagus, small-variety beets, beans, most herbs, purslane, raspberries and early-bearing blueberries, as well as most of the brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, etc).
You can still grow tomatoes, too, if you have 5 or 6 hours of sunlight a day - just focus on the small varieties, like cherry and grape tomatoes. Golden nugget tomatoes - seeds are available from a variety of companies - are among the earliest to ripen. We've also successfully grown medium-sized tomatoes, like green zebras, in partial shade. This principle goes with many other vegetables as well: get early-bearing and/or smaller varieties of plants.
As well, have a look at many of the tips about fungus prevention (and in the link above, about mildew and blight). Most practises that help prevent fungal growth involve increasing the heat and air drying around your plants - which is exactly what you need to help sun-loving plants deal with a bit of shade.
Plants that just can't do without full sun: corn, artichokes, melons and squashes, larger tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, fruit trees.
Shade: Part of your garden will benefit from being in partial shade, since there are plenty of plants that actually need it. Any plants that are grown for their greens - all the lettuces and mescluns, as well as kale, chard, endive, arugula, mustard greens, and so on - don't deal well with too much sun, because they go to flower too quickly in the heat. Once they are setting flowers, the leaves become too bitter to be palatable. If you are the lucky person with too much sun, you can plant these crops in the shade of the sun-loving plants, behind bean and squash trellises, and so on.
Finally, some crops do perfectly well in almost full shade: chives, parsley and mint, for example!
Next post: How Big Should My Garden Be?