I went on a local permaculture course earlier in the year and they suggested that you should study your garden for a year before you plant anything, and then make a detailed plan. Well, I have never been patient enough to plan things like that, not even my essays at university, but I have studied my garden over the years and have realised by trial and error that different crops grow better in different areas of the garden. Growing food is not as easy as picking and sowing seeds and then ‘viola’ you have a good crop. That is why I often hear people saying that they are giving up trying after a bad growing season. Plants need the right growing conditions to be strong and healthy, and these vary between different crops. If you have had some growing disasters, it probably just means that you have been trying to grow the wrong crop in the wrong place, or it has been freak weather conditions.
I always study the plants that I want to grow, and research their favourite growing conditions and which companions they like to be planted with, as this determines where I will plant them in my garden, which I have now thankfully got to know.
So, what do I mean by saying that I know my garden? Well, there is specific knowledge that will save everyone from making mistakes and planting crops in the wrong place, and will consequently lead to a higher chance of them thriving and providing us all with a good yield. These are some of the things that are useful to observe and learn about your garden if you are thinking of growing your own food.
How much space do I have?
There is no point in trying to be self sufficient if you do not have the space, but you can utilise any space to grow crops that would be expensive to buy. We have a hedge of currants on a border, and an area next to the house that used to have a shed on it and was basically hard core. I built a wall by placing pieces of stone on top of each other and filled it with homemade compost and have grown raspberries there for the last 14 years. A lot of my garden has stone paving and so I grow in tubs. If you plan your space well you can grow an awful lot of food, especially if you plant successional crops, but there is no point in trying to grow everything if you only have a few metres of growing space with little light. It is better to be selective and think about what you enjoy most and what would save you money. You can however increase your growing room if you think vertically. I recently put up a rose arch in an area that is shady and now cucumbers and beans grow on it in containers that are hooked on to it so that they can reach the light.
Where is the sun coming from?
This can impact on the kind of plants that you can grow. My back garden is south facing and so I grow a lot of my crops there, as it is good for heat loving plants like tomatoes and courgettes. The down side is that my soil dries out really quickly. I utilise my north facing front garden by growing some crops there that like some sun as I know that they will be slower and so I will be able to harvest at a later time. I also grow some crops that like more shade. An East facing garden will have more sunlight in the morning but may be more shaded in the afternoon and the west facing garden has the opposite. Different plants enjoy the sun at different times. Growing plants in containers, as I do, means that you can move your crops as the sun moves to maximise the sunlight, which is useful if your garden does not get a lot of light in one place.
Where is the shade?
Some plants can tolerate a bit, or even a lot of shade, whilst other plants like constant direct sunlight to perform their best. It is important, therefore, that you know where the shade is and how much of the time that part of the garden is in the shade. Shade can be caused by hills, buildings, hedges, fences or tall plants. I have currant bushes in a shady area as they do not seem to mind the shade. I also grow lettuce, spinach and chicory in the shade. My peas seem to do well in the shade too. I grow my potatoes in a shady, cool place next to my greenhouse as not much else will grow there, but it is sheltered and rarely gets frost and so the potatoes do quite well. Sometimes I use other plants to provide shade and will grow lettuce under taller plants that give them shade. This is mimicking what nature does naturally. This year I placed my pak choi under my apple trees to stop them from bolting as quickly.
Is there much wind in my garden?
If there is you can put structures like fences, hedges or bushes in place to reduce the impact of the wind on your crops. It is also good to know which direction the wind is coming from. I did not put up a solid fence as air flow is important in a garden to reduce pests, but mine still protects my plants from the wind.
What is the soil type?
I have thick clay soil and when I first moved in twenty odd years ago it was not very fertile and was full of junk, bits of car and large stones. My garden was basically a hill going up from the house, and the water ran down it when it rained and pooled at the bottom. Except for the middle that had steps, it was not very steady to walk on and any building, like a shed, was on an angle. Over the years I have terraced it, removed stones and rock and built walls with them. The soil was not good enough to grow in and so I paved some of it, but added compost to some areas to improve fertility. Some weeds helped me identify how fertile the soil was. Dandelions are a sign that your soil is infertile and compacted as it has a large tap root. Nature uses them to improve the soil. Chickweed and nettle, on the other hand, shows that your soil is fertile and rich in nutrition. Dock often grows in soil that does not drain well.
The PH of soil is also important. Some soils are more acidic and others, like mine, are more alkaline. It is easy to buy a kit to test your soil. Different plants prefer different types of soils but you can change the PH of your soil. I added compost over years and it now has a neutral PH which is best for growing most plants.
What happens to the water in my garden when it rains? Does it flood or pool? I had an area that flooded but it was okay after about June and so I would save that area and plant crops then. Most crops do not like to have their roots standing in wet soil. Later by terracing my garden I got rid of the flooding.
Are there any frost pockets?
Cold air will always sink to the lowest point of the garden as it is heavier. I avoid planting in these areas until later in the season and do not put my autumn crops in these areas.
What can I change to improve my growing conditions?
Some things in the garden just can not be changed. My next door neighbour has a tree that shades part of my garden in the afternoon. I therefore use this to my advantage by growing shade loving plants in that area. I have however, added shade, warmth and shelter by making changes to the rest of my garden as well, for instance bushes, a greenhouse, a shed, stone walls and trees. These benefit my garden as they act as wind breaks and temporary shade. My tomatoes love to grow behind my tin shed as they get the warmth from it late into the evening during the summer, and it shelters them from the wind in spring. The herbs love the stone walls as they provide shelter and heat, and the light reflects off them too. My courgettes are placed along a path that gets constant sunlight all day which has really improved my yield over the years. I have also added structures for plants to grow up like a rose arch and trellis in places that climbing crops should do well.
On the permaculture course I realised that I was doing everything that they were teaching me already as I had got to know my garden naturally over the years by having poor harvests or crop failures. Lack of money and being frugal also meant that I was not wasting any resources, the same as nature doesn’t. I was recycling and using what nature provided. I was mimicking nature, and unlike a lot of gardens, there was no bare soil. I had learned that this saved on weeding. I would just plant plants next to each other (flowers included) that did not need the same nutrients, or I would use mulch to reduce watering. My pest control was other plants mainly, or waste products like egg shells. I planted perennials that would crop for free each year. My rhubarb I moved twice until I found out where it flourished. My advice would be to keep a diary about what has grown well in what area and what might need to be tried some where else in the garden, depending on the conditions that they need. Don’t give up, as every year somethings will thrive and somethings will struggle as the weather is never the same, but you will give your crops the best chance if you plant them in a place that suits them. Do you know your garden?