The Year of Walden – Gardening, Part 1

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

     -Henry David Thoreau

As a man who espoused simple living, Thoreau was a man of few needs.

To put a roof over his head, he chopped some trees and built himself a log cabin. What food he ate, he grew or (infrequently) fished; for water, he had Walden.

There were no zoning requirements for housing in his day and his contemporaries were only just beginning to give serious credence to the “germ theory” by which we know about the various parasitic and bacteriological organisms which inhabit common lake water. We’ve learned enough about our world to make legal a framework to keep ourselves safe and healthy. As a side effect, however, those of us following in his footsteps will find ourselves in a more complicated environment for growing.

Those who aren’t living rurally need to weigh out the options afforded by their dwelling places. The proverbial “three ‘L’s” of real estate apply to positioning a home garden as well: location, location, location. In today’s blog post, I’ll go over a lot of the considerations that I’ve been having to make in zeroing in on a suitable position for my garden.

1) Residential Zoning

Before going any further, make sure that your neighborhood will allow you to grow a garden. It would be awful to put in all the leg-work, muscle, and research, only to have someone from the neighborhood zoning commission come down from on high and slap you with a fine for cultivating a vegetable garden against neighborhood regulations.

(Note that this is probably a non-issue in most areas, but some neighborhoods have rather strident guidelines about what you can plant and where in order to maintain their 1950’s “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” wet dream of homogeneity.)

At the same time, your search for sunlight (step three) might have you looking at the front yard as an option and it could help you out knowing ahead of time whether that’s an option or not. Living in unincorporated St. Charles County has afforded me a fairly laissez-faire atmosphere to plant in, though if I can’t resolve my light problem, I might have to start looking into front-yard garden solutions.

2) Utilities

I still have the old “Call 1-800-DIG-RITE” jingle buried in my brain from when I was a kid and it’s still just as important to have utilities marked today as it was then. The easiest way to schedule makings  is to telephone them and they will (generally within a week or two) have everything posted for you with flags and spray paint.

If you’re planning on building an enclosure for your garden, you’ll want to give them a digging estimate that includes the depth of the poles that you’re going to have to place for the frame. (A good rule is to bury a post so that 1/3 is underground and 2/3–the visible portion–is coming out of the top.) Remember to always dig at least two feet away from any marked line. If your yard  turns out to be a network hub of utilities lines  throughout the neighborhood as mine is, you may have to construct a raised bed to give yourself the room you need–this might be a blessing in disguise if it turns out your soil is no good (step four).

3) Sunlight

In order to fruit (produce the edible parts of a plant), a vegetable needs a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day, by variety; depending on how your yard is structured, it may or may not lend itself to that much light. Living in the northern hemisphere, the yard on the southernmost side of your house will generally receive the most sunlight throughout the course of the day, depending on the number of light-blocking structures (trees, fences, neighboring houses, etc.) that get in the way.

The most common way of finding a suitable garden spot is to make a sun map: Draw out a rough outline of your yard, making note of every major landmark that might block the sun (trees, etc.) and, starting at sunrise, sketch out the places in your yard where light is hitting.

My house has a particularly deep lot with a complicated package of light-blocking layers created by some eighty-year-old trees and their offspring. Since it wasn’t really practical to draw every open patch of light (and because my schedule doesn’t afford me a straight ten hours to watch the sun move) I narrowed down my options and then used some of the extra flags in my yard from step two to mark my optimal spot, posting one flag there each hour that I checked it and found it it to have adequate light and using two more flags to frame out the shade line. I kept track of  the times I’d already checked by making a checklist of each hour of sunlight in the day. Sadly, some of the trees in the back lot will have to go, assuming I can pick up the other hours I need elsewhere.

Bear in mind that as we transition from winter into spring, the angle of the sunlight you’re seeing now is going to get progressively steeper with the sun approaching to directly overhead, which will somewhat alter lighting conditions. We’ll also have more hours of daylight in general, reaching its peak in mid-June, with almost 15 hours (calculated here).

4) Soil

Your soil will need to have the food and the stability that your vegetables will need to thrive. Thoreau used no fertilizers in his garden, but he also had the benefit of an entire acre of farmland to pick up where his production faltered. He also chose, as his growing spot, a previously fallow section of forest, which was probably rather nitrogen-rich due to the natural decomposition of leaves and other plants.

Determining the quality of your soil only matters if you are planning on sowing directly into the ground you’ve got; many folks are quite happy with buying new soil from their local department store’s gardening section and letting that be that. Even if you do decide to go the natural route, there are many factors to consider in your soil, all of which can be treated once you’ve got a location you like: pH, composition, nutrients, pollution, and drainage.

-Your soil’s pH is a measure of how acidic or basic it is, on a scale from 1 (most acidic) to 14 (most basic). Most veggies need a pH somewhere around 6.5 or so to thrive and the pH in your home soil can be modified using various chemicals to get it to where it needs to be. You can buy home kits for testing pH, but if you look around at consumer reviews online, you’ll find a lot of people complaining about how inaccurate they are; the best way to get reliable information about your soil is by sending a sample of your soil to a lab for testing (more on that in a later post).

-Soil composition falls within a range from sandy to clay. Sandy soils are loose and stony–they aren’t as finely broken up and so they drain water more quickly. Clay soils, on the other hand, are very dense and thick, tending to retain a little water while letting the majority wash away. There are several ways of checking your soil’s composition and finding out now will help you later: different plants require different soils and the composition of your soil may need to be modified to ensure that your veggies develop strong roots. At the same time, you may need to water your plants more or less, depending on whether their soil flushes water out like a sieve or pinches it out if it isn’t on a steady drip.

-Your food needs food. Most vegetables and fruits require high levels of nitrogen to produce adequately, which will most likely mean that your natural soil needs some work. Composted manure can help get your first crops going, while planting a winter crop of peas or beans (nitrogen-fixing plants) and allowing them to die and be tilled into the soil will ensure that your ground is well-prepped for next year.

-You’re more likely to see ground pollution growing in an urban environment. Elements like lead, mercury, and arsenic can be leeched from the ground by your plants or might coat them, creating a health hazard in the long run. Once again, sending a soil sample to a lab for testing is the best way of ensuring that your veggies aren’t going to make you sick. There are still other options if it turns out you’re living in a hazardous waste zone, such as pot-growing your plants or creating above-ground boxes for them.

-The general lay of the land is also important: unless you’re planning on building rice paddies in your backyard, you’ll want a spot that drains well or your vegetables may well drown.


5) Climate Zoning

Your last position to consider, is the time-frame in which you will be planting. Some crops are best grown in the spring, others in the fall. Agricultural circles divide the U.S. into climate bands based on the date of last frost and the St. Louis area was recently bumped up from a 6a to a 6b zone, which might shift around your planting dates a bit.

Thoreau grew white beans (navy seems to be the most robust variety), but his diet was somewhat limited in that regard. I’ll also be laying in some tomatoes (good source of lycopene), carrots, kale, bell peppers, and possibly cucumbers. My earliest crop will be carrots, which will go in between mid-March and late-April, while my latest crop will be my sweet peppers, which will be starting between mid to late May.

– – –

All this seems like a lot of work, and it is. Thoreau didn’t put as much effort into the planning stages of his garden. As residential denizens, we are saddled with sharper limitations on space, and so we must garden smarter, rather than harder. Fertilizing, irrigation, row-planting, and soil analysis–all of these techniques will allow you to get more yield out of a square-foot of garden space than Thoreau did.

In doing this, you may find yourself cultivating more than land. Gardening is a way of getting back in touch with the world around you, experiencing it in a very direct and real way and perhaps discovering what sunlight feels like on a sweaty brow again. This isn’t primitive man’s work or even a man‘s work, but a human‘s work, in life bearing and in sympathy with nature, a good excuse to step outside, disconnect for a bit, and experience a stress and advertisement-free day.

Enjoy a breeze now and again.

Breathe, again.

See and listen to the great symphony that we are all a part of which we have found ourselves angling increasingly to destroy.

Your time is your own and it is short. Cultivate it.

©2013 by Blake Vaughn. The text of this story may be redistributed freely in its original form with attribution to the author, Blake Vaughn, and his website,, as under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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  1. […] first post on gardening was way back in February, when I was still in the planning stages, and this second post, I’m […]

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