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What Every Vegetable Garden Needs

Vegetable garden plan

Here are basic elements needed by every vegetable garden:

Sunlight is a must

Vegetables need a lot of sunlight to grow well. The most productive vegetable garden must receive no less than six full hours of sunlight each day; eight hours is best. Your vegetable garden should not fall in the shadows of trees, shrubs, walls, fences, or buildings. Take some time to observe the sun and shade patterns in your yard throughout a summer day. If shade is cast on your site for more than two hours a day, pick another spot or plan to grow only shade-tolerant crops, such as salad greens, beets, and cabbages. If the garden is partially shady it is unlikely that you can grow tomatoes and beans.

If trees grow near the garden, plant at least 10 feet from the outer edge of the branches. Tree roots can rob a vegetable garden of water and nutrients. Draw a sun and shade map over the course of the day. Where do shadows fall? Vegetables to best when they get morning sun; that is a minimum requirement for success.

A few tips: north, south, east, west—around the garden

  • A south or southeastern exposure is warmest and will produce earlier crops.
  • Warm-season crops planted near the south side of a building will benefit from heat radiated from walls.
  • A north exposure favors cool-weather crops, leafy and root crops—but you still need some sun. Don’t plant closer than 10 feet on the north side of a building or fence; that space will likely be in shade all day.
  • Western exposures are warmer than eastern exposures. Even so western exposures are often in shade until at least noon each day.
  • The east or south side of the garden is best for low growing plants; they won’t cast much shadow on other plants.
  • Place tall plants on the north side of the garden where they will cast fewer shadows over the course of the day. Tall plants on the west side of the garden will cast shadows across the garden at the end of the day.

Full sun gardens offer vegetables the best growing conditions. A full-sun site warms quickly in spring and will produce through the season. Don’t worry about a full-sun site being too hot or too dry. You will be adding plenty of aged compost and planting mix to your garden; these ingredients will hold soil moisture while feeding plants.

A shady site is not optimal, but it does not rule out growing vegetables. A shady site will be cooler than a sunny site and the growing season may be shorter. If you can’t reduce shade by pruning overhanging trees or moving shadow-casting obstacles then grow crops that don’t mind some shade such as lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens, and also potatoes and sunchokes.

Let’s review garden exposures:

  • South-facing gardens are ideal for sun-loving crops; the garden will be warm and bright.
  • West-facing gardens will get sunshine for most of the day except for early in the morning.
  • North-facing gardens are likely to be shady and cool most of the day; north-facing gardens are not optimal for sun-loving crops such as tomatoes and peppers but may be a good spot to grow lettuce and salad greens.
  • East-facing gardens will get morning sun allowing plants to dry out from evening dews; plants get off to a better start when bathed in morning sunshine; but east-facing gardens may fall into afternoon shadows.
Sprinkler watering the potato beds in the garden irrigation of vegetables with water

Water nearby

Your garden needs to be near an ample supply of water.  When possible, locate the garden near a hose bib—you won’t want to lug around a long, heavy hose if you don’t have to. A convenient source of water will make your mid-summer watering tasks much easier.

Vegetables are made mostly of water. Water is essential for seed germination, photosynthesis, and the delivery of nutrients to plant cells. When a plant doesn’t get enough water it will slow or stop growing. A vegetable stressed by lack of water will drop its blossoms and leaves; its fruits will lose flavor; it will be more vulnerable to pests and diseases; it ultimately could die.

Make your garden water friendly by adding lots of aged compost and organic matter to your planting beds; plant in wide rows, and use compost mulches in hot weather.

Good drainage

While water nearby is important, don’t locate your garden where water sits on the ground for more than an hour after a hard rain or after irrigation. Vegetables don’t like wet feet—that is soggy roots. Few crops can absorb nutrients if their roots stay wet, and wet roots may rot. If a wet spot is all you have to work with, raise the garden up; grow on a mounded or raised bed. Always a good policy is to add plenty of aged compost to planting beds no matter where they are located. Aged compost feeds the soil, feeds plants, and ensures good drainage.

Rich soil with carrots
Aged compost or organic planting mix improves the soil and allows the best plant growth

Good soil

You may not have a choice about how good your soil is to start with, but with a little work, you can improve almost any soil by adding aged compost or commercial organic planting mix to planting beds then lightly forking or turning the compost under.

As a rule poor soil almost always can be improved and good soil can be made better. Choose a planting site free of rocks and stones and one that is easily worked with a garden fork or spade. Choose a site that is level, but if your garden is on a slope you can terrace or run your crop rows across the slope and keep the soil from washing away. Loosen the soil where you plan to plant using a garden fork and remove grass, weeds, and stones. Next, lay aged compost across the planting bed site; sheet composting is the addition of an inch or two or more of aged compost spread across the bed. Aged compost will work its way into your native soil via rain and irrigation and within a year or so, you will have a rich productive planting area—even if the site seemed unproductive when you first arrived.

Close to the kitchen

Locate your garden as close to the house and as close to the kitchen as possible. Put your garden where it’s easy to visit every day. You will spend more time in your garden if it is nearby and easy to reach. A kitchen garden should be as close to the kitchen as possible. There’s no substitute for salad greens and tomatoes picked moments before they are served. Summer corn is tastiest when dropped in a kettle of boiling water minutes after it has been picked. And if you have no room for a garden in the ground, you can grow almost all vegetables and herbs in pots, barrels, and boxes on the patio, porch, or front steps—very close to the kitchen.

raised beds
Newly built raised vegetable beds with prepared soil ready for spring planting.

Out of the wind and away from low spots

Choose a site that is protected from the wind–cold winds in the spring and drying winds in the summer. Avoid low-lying spots where cold air or frost can settle.

Even a gentle prevailing wind can draw moisture from vegetable leaves resulting in windburn and even the death of plants. Strong winds can uproot tender seedlings and topple crops that are top-heavy when ripe. If the wind is constant where you live, consider permanent or temporary windbreaks. A windbreak can be a building, a fence,d or a hedge, but it can also be a tall dense crop such as corn or sunchokes planted on the windward side of the garden.

While wind can be destructive, air circulation is important. Don’t plant vegetables in low-lying spots where cold air and frost can be trapped or settled. Cold air naturally drains into low spots. Low-lying areas or areas shielded by shrubs, trees, and fences may inhibit air circulation and become a “frost pocket.” Moderate air circulation is best.

Moderate air circulation and adequate plant spacing will help foliage when the dew settles on the garden reducing the possibility and severity of fungal and bacterial diseases.

Sites to avoid if you can

  • Avoid low spots in the garden where water puddles or runs off after a rain. Low spots can also trap cold air and frost.
  • Avoid steep slopes; water and soil can run off steep slopes unless they are well terraced.
  • Avoid shady spots and areas where the roots of trees or large shrubs will compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients.
  • Avoid compacted soil—areas that have been used for footpaths or drives.
  • Avoid windy spots—steady winds and breezes will sap plants of moisture.
  • Avoid sites next to roads where fumes and street runoff can pollute the garden.

How to Improve Your Site

  • Prune or remove trees that shade the site.
  • Use raised beds to rise above rocky or compacted soil and improve drainage.
  • Terrace a steep slope to make it useable for a garden.
  • Build a strong fence or plant a hedge to block constant breezes or strong winds.
  • Plant vegetables in containers where the only sunny spot you have is a deck, patio, or paved spot.

Also of interest:

Easy Vegetable Garden Planning

Planning Your Kitchen Garden

Starting Your Organic Vegetable Garden

How Big Should Your Vegetable Garden Be?

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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