Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening – Part 1, Selecting a Location for a Food Garden

historical victory garden poster

Sometimes governments do give sound advice to their nations… During World War I and World War II, in a an effort to reduce the public demand on food supplies and leave more food to send to the soldiers fighting overseas, governments encouraged their people to plant ‘victory gardens’.

What is a Victory Garden?

A victory garden, also known as a a war garden, was a garden grown in people’s homes and in public parks to produce vegetables, herbs and fruit with the aim of aiding the war effort and boost morale.

Food grown in public spaces? For a bit of a perspective check, before the industrial revolution (1760-1840) which pulled people’s work into cities and pushed food production out into rural areas, food was always grown close to where people lived!

Despite all the nonsense we hear downplaying the value of urban agriculture, victory gardens worked well enough for the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Germany that they used them over both wartime periods, and they work just as well today to produce food.

With the panic from the COVID-19 coronavirus spreading, people are realising that our food production systems aren’t as resilient as they assumed, and that ignorant panic buying by a small proportion of the population can disrupt the just-in-time food supply chains used almost universally in the modern world, even if there’s plenty of food to go round.

Starting your own garden and growing your own food can be an empowering exercise in increasing self reliance. But where to start?

In this series of seven article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started growing food in an emergency!

How to Select a Site for a New Vegetable Garden Bed

Plants need soil, light and water to grow. As a general rule, most vegetables, herbs and fruit need full sun for most of the day. When selecting a location for an edible food garden, try to find a sunny spot for a garden.

Please be aware that a garden that is in full sun in summer may be in shade in winter.

  • In summer the sun is almost directly overhead at midday.
  • In winter the sun the sun is low on the horizon at midday.
  • In both spring and autumn, the sun is at a level between the two at midday.
path and position of the sun through the seasons
The path and position of the sun through the seasons

How Much Sun is Required to Grow Food?

Lots of light – Any vegetables which flower and fruit, such as beans, capsicums, chillies, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and zucchini will need a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun (full sun) a day. The less sun, the less productive they will be, and when the sunlight exposure becomes too low, they will simply not produce!

Moderate light – Root crops, such as beetroot, carrots, onions and potatoes can grow in slightly less light and can produce in locations that only receive 4-6 hours of direct sun each day.

Low light – Leafy green vegetables, such as lettuce, pak choi, salad rocket (arugula), silverbeet (chard) and spinach will grow in part shade, dappled sun, or in shaded locations which only receive 3-4 hours of direct sun a day.

Fruit trees require a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.

  • Evergreen trees such as citrus need a location which receives this much light all year round.
  • Deciduous trees which drop their leaves in winter such as apples only need this amount of sun during the spring-summer-autumn period, it doesn’t matter if they’re in deep shade in winter as they are dormant and don’t have leaves.

Subtropical and tropical fruit trees such as guavas tolerate part shade locations as long as the climate supports their growth. Trees such as red cherry guava (also known as red guava, strawberry guava) and yellow cherry guava (also know as lemon guava) will grow in temperate climates.

Brambleberries, gooseberries and currants prefer sun in the morning and midday, with part shade or dappled sun in the afternoon otherwise the leaves and berries get scorched by the hot afternoon sun.

Grapes, kiwifruit, passionfruit and blueberries require a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight to fruit well.

Most herbs prefer lots of sun, but some herbs can grow in part shade, such as the mint family. It’s even possible to grow quite a few herbs indoors, see my article – 15 Herbs You Can Grow Indoors

Food Garden Locations to Avoid

  • Steep slopes, as water tends to run off the surface rather than soak into the soil, leaving the soil quite dry.
  • Very low areas which tend to get waterlogged, as soil which stays too wet for prolonged periods causes the roots of vegetables to rot, they’re not water plants! Grow edible aquatic plants such as taro, watercress, arrowhead, water chestnuts, water spinach, and brooklime in these areas.
  • Areas beneath or alongside large trees and shrubs, as they will shade out vegetables, and aggressive tree roots will out-compete the shallow vegetable roots by taking up all the water and nutrients, leaving none for vegetables to grow.

Solutions for Garden Beds Over Invasive Tree Roots

If it is not possible to avoid tree roots, there are three solutions:

  1. Using irrigation for regular watering and frequently feeding plants with fertiliser.
  2. Placing a raised garden bed on top of plastic root barrier material.
  3. Building a self-watering wicking bed garden.
  4. Digging or cutting a root-barrier trench around between the garden bed and tree to discourage invasive surface tree roots. Plastic root barrier sheet can be put into trench for a more permanent solution.
diagram raised garden bed with root barrier to stop tree roots
Plastic root barrier material can be used under raised garden beds to stop tree roots

Six Ways to Grow Food When You Don’t Have A Garden

self-watering planter vegetable garden
A container garden utilising pots and self-watering planters located against a sun-facing wall can be very productive, especially if support structures are used to make use of vertical space.

1. Growing Food in Pots, Containers and Tubs

It’s possible to grow a wide range of produce in containers, pots and planters – vegetables, berries and even dwarf fruit trees can be planted in pots.

The advantage of growing in pots is that they can be moved around to receive more sun, or moved to protected locations during extreme weather such as winds and heatwaves.

As long as a container has holes in the bottom for drainage, it can be used to grow food. Cutting a 220L (44 gallon) plastic food drum is a cheap solution to creating two very large containers equivalent in size to a half-wine barrel. Another cheap solution are grow bags, heavy-duty woven plastic bags with handles that have a capacity of 100 litres or more, they’re used to grow advanced trees in.

2. Hydroponics

Hydroponic system permit the growing plants without soil, instead perlite or clay balls are used as an inert growing medium, and the nutrients are carried to the plant roots by water.

It’s an expensive method, as the initial expense for equipment and ongoing cost of nutrient solutions can get costly, but it’s a viable method.

Hydroponic systems can be set up outdoors, or in greenhouses, they don’t need to be located inside with costly electric lighting.

Some hydroponic systems, such as the Autopot System are passive systems which don’t need pumps to supply water to plants.

3. Wicking Beds

Wicking beds are self watering raised garden beds, they’re essentially scaled-up self watering pots and are only suitable for vegetables and herbs, but they’re a great solution for hot, dry locations, or in places where it’s not possible to water frequently. I’ve included step-by step instructions on how to build a wicking bed here – Wicking Bed Construction, How to Build a Self-Watering Wicking Bed.

4. No-Dig Gardens Built Over Concrete or Asphalt

The no-dig gardening method is an easy way to create a garden bed in a location when there is no access to soil. The essence of no-dig gardening is soil building. Yes, that’s right, creating your own soil from organic material. You can find instructions on how to build a no-dig garden bed here – No Dig Gardening, Sustainable Gardening With Less Effort

5. Community Gardens

Many people don’t have their own private space to grow food, and for them, gardening in public spaces is a solution. Community gardens offer two models, the first being one where each person is allocated their own garden bed to grow whatever they please, the second is where everyone works on all garden bed in the community garden and shares the produce.

6. Guerrilla Gardening

Gardening in public spaces is possible without the blessing, permission and red-tape of local governments. Ideal locations for guerilla gardens are spots out of immediate public sight that receive enough water and light. They’re easy to identify, the weeds grow much better in these places, they’ll be taller, greener and more lush than those in the surrounding areas.

When selecting a site, make sure that the soil is not contaminated with heavy metals, hydrocarbons or herbicides (weedkillers)! Local government contractors love the convenience of poisoning the environment with toxic herbicides, but they won’t spray areas that are not easily accessible.

The rationale behind guerilla gardening is that public land is not the property of royalty as it was in feudal times, and people have the right to produce their own food in the way they choose rather than accept the substandard or chemically contaminated offerings from profit-based industrial agriculture, that’s the whole idea behind the concept of food sovereignty!

Once a location for a garden is selected, the next step is to prepare the soil, as discussed in the next article – Part 2, How to Prepare the Soil for Growing Food.

7 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening – Part 1, Selecting a Location for a Food Garden

  1. Great article! One tip I learnt from Isabel Shipard s was it is a good idea to plant food that doesnt look like food. If things get really tough, it might be hard to keep pumpkins and other recognisable veg but if you grow some less common and known veg you still might have something after a raid. Sucks to have to plan for the worst but might pay dividends…

    1. That’s an excellent point, and coincidentally, the subject of one of the upcoming articles in this series which will discuss how to protect your crop from both pests and humans! : )

  2. Angelo. Your articles back in 2018 were my impetus in building lasagne beds. Now my backyard saving one small social space is in flood production. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude. I am in an urban backyard, and have 7 beds now.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jim, you’re welcome! That’s awesome news, it’s amazing how a backyard can be transformed into a thriving food production system. I created this website with the intention of helping others reconnect to nature and I’m delighted when I hear of success stories such as yours! Regards, Angelo

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