Planning Considerations for an Urban Garden

By Cyndy Crist

Herbs in an Urban Garden

Herbs in an Urban Garden

I don’t know where you live and garden, but for those of us in Minnesota, and in many places across the country, an astoundingly warm March left us with the false sense that perhaps it was going to be warm from here forward (okay, at some level we knew better, but hope does spring eternal).  Some of us may even have been foolishly optimistic enough to start planting things outside that are now shivering (and, sadly, perhaps freezing to death) in our chilly April weather.

For the sake of my fellow gardeners, I hope the only mistake that was made was thinking it was getting too late to make plans for this year’s garden. In fact, there is still plenty of time, and this year’s early spring may offer the advantage of giving us each an earlier look at the “bones” and basics of our yards and gardens before we finalize plans for the 2012 growing season.

To help those who are planning a new or “revised” garden this year, I offer the following checklist to guide your thinking and planning.  A bit of time and attention to these questions up front may help you avoid problems and disappointments as the growing season progresses.  And even for those who are planning minimal changes this year, thinking through these questions may help you make improvements or think a little differently about the use of your space or spaces.

So, grab some paper (graph paper is helpful), a measuring tape, and a pencil, pull on your shoes and a jacket or sweater, and get started.  Happy planning!

Getting Started

Begin by thinking about the kind of space you have available to you and answer the following questions.

Designing the Urban Garden

Designing the Urban Garden

  • How much space do you have that you can devote to a garden?  Measure both length and width. If you have curved lines in your yard or garden, measure a rectangular or square space that just encloses your garden space and simply know that your actual planting space will be slightly less.
  • What changes will you need to make to plant your garden?  If you’re planning a new garden, will you need to remove sod and/or existing plants, shrubs, or trees? If you will you be changing an existing garden, how much do you plan to retain and how much space do you intend for new plantings?
  • Do you plan to plant in the ground or in containers? If you’re going to use containers, where do you want to place them, and how does your plan need to take that into consideration (e.g., how large a space will you need within a garden bed to accommodate a pot of the size you plan to use)?


Assessment of Growing Conditions

One of the most important things to do is to carefully assess the growing conditions available to you so that you make the right kinds of plant and design choices.  Here are some key questions to answer.

  • How much sun and shade do you have? For gardening purposes, full sun is defined as at least 6 hours (some say 8 is ideal), partial sun as 4-6 hours per day, and partial or full shade as less than 4 hours per day.  Keep in mind that patterns of sunshine vary across the year, so a space that gets full sun in June may not in late August or early September.
  • When during the day does your space get sun – morning only, morning into afternoon, or late afternoon only?  Some plants can tolerate full sun in the morning but will struggle with the greater heat of afternoon soon.
  • What kind of soil do you have?  Is it largely clay, heavily sand, or well-balanced with good organic content?  Having a soil test done is a good idea to get a detailed “read” of your soil content so that you know what it may be lacking.
  • Is your soil frequently wet or dry? This may be a reflection of topography (e.g., proximity to water and patterns of drainage), other vegetation (e.g., competition with a heavily wooded area for soil moisture), or your soil (clay soil holds water far longer than sandy soil, for example).  Since some plants demand consistent moisture while others are highly susceptible to root rot, this can be a very important factor to consider.


Design and Aesthetics Considerations

This set of questions involves preferences more than factors ofnecessity, but in a garden, aesthetic satisfaction is important, too.

City Sidewalk Planting

City Sidewalk Planting

  • What spaces or structures do you have or want that might impact or influence your garden design and choices?  For example, do you have mature trees with major root structures that will limit where you plant? Do you have sidewalks, driveways, and/or alleys that dictate shapes and available spaces?  Do you want to leave paths for moving through and around you garden, or will your garden be large enough that you will need paths in order to work in it?  How about fences, and the shade cast by garages and your house?
  • Will there be children and/or pets using outdoor spaces?  This may primarily influence the specific plants you select (e.g., if you have small children, you’ll likely want to avoid plants with thorns).
  • Do you want to have mixed plantings that include shrubs or small trees as well as soft-tissue (herbaceous) plants?  Mixed borders (combining woody and herbaceous or non-woody plants) can provide more visual interest but take careful planning.
  • What kinds of plants do you want to grow? Do you want to primarily rely on perennials that will come back from year to year; include annuals to provide on-going color in the midst of perennials that often bloom for a  limited time or edibles that have more than aesthetic value; or grow only vegetables?
  • What colors and textures do you prefer?  If you’re growing ornamentals, keep in mind that the flowers come and go but the leaves are a constant, so think about choosing plants whose leaves have interesting shapes, textures (e.g., some smooth leaves and some that are “hairy” or velvety), or variegation and that bring different shades of green to your garden.


Management, Sustainability and Lifestyle Considerations

Finally, give some thought to the following questions, which may help you make both design and plant selection decisions.

Planning the Urban Garden

Planning the Urban Garden

  • How much time do you plan to spend in the garden?  Think about whether, on average, this will be at least an hour per day (7-10 hours per week or more), only an hour or two per week once your garden is established, or somewhere in between.  A realistic assessment upfront can save you lots of stress and problems later in the season.
  • Do you have any physical limitations that might influence or inhibit what you can do in the garden?  There are many ways to accommodate an array of physical abilities with a little planning, but it’s important to be realistic.
  • How experienced are you?  As you make decisions about what to grow and how much space to devote to your garden, choosing plants that are known to be reliable and easy to grow and starting with a relatively small space will be wise if you’re a novice, while a more experienced gardener may be prepared to try a more persnickety but potentially rewarding plant.
  • How far away is your source of water and what will you need to ensure that your garden space gets the water it needs?  Thinking about hose length, providing protection for plants as hoses are hauled from space to space, or considering the installation of an irrigation system are all worth a little time as you shape your plans.  Mostly, you don’t want to end up having to lug many heavy containers of water to the garden a day during dry spells.
  • Do you have the tools you need?  See our earlier posts on favorite tools and think about what you will need to plant and maintain your garden spaces.
  • Do you plan to use chemical products or to grow organically?  This can be an important consideration as you’re planning your garden.  For example, if you wish to grow organically, attention to plant choices can help you avoid varieties that are susceptible to fungal diseases like powdery mildew, select plants likely to attract beneficial insects, etc. There are lots of good sources of information to help you with this element of planning, including SULIS (Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series ) on the University of Minnesota Extension’s website.
  • Do you have a compost bin, wish to build or purchase one, or have access to compost? If you want to make your own compost, you’ll want to research the ideal size and location for a bin and determine where you can site yours. If you don’t want to “grow your own,” you may want to research access to free or low-cost sources of compost.

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