I recently moved to a new homestead and while I’m pretty excited about the potential and possibilities with my new land, it was sure hard to leave behind my established gardens that took me 8 years to create and build up.
I couldn’t bear to leave behind my beloved flowers, most of which I had started from seed, so we ended up moving with 140(!!) plants that had to be transplanted into the soil at our new place ASAP. At the moment, they have all been plant haphazardly around the home in random spots. And I planted all of my veggies at my super-awesome-friend’s home, with the promise of splitting the produce when it’s harvest time.
And now, I’m starting with a completely blank canvas for creating my new garden space. It can be pretty overwhelming when you start a garden from scratch. If you’re looking at a huge space to design and fill, it can be totally difficult to figure out WHERE to put things and WHAT to put where, etc.
So here are my tips for how to start a garden from scratch. This is what I will be doing over the next year to build an entirely new garden. This does not by any means make me an expert, but I thought I would share what I am doing for my new garden space in case you find it helpful and inspiring for your own gardening adventures.
When Should You Start The New Garden?
The moment we bought our new homestead, we immediately had some loved ones ask if I was going to start putting in a new garden right away. “Are you going to be able to get in a summer garden yet this year?” “When are you getting your garden beds made? This week or next week?” And so on.
Here’s the thing: I am not going to put in a new garden for AT LEAST six months. Why am I waiting that long? Because I want to get the garden space done right. I don’t want to waste my time hurriedly putting in a garden only to find that there’s not enough sun in that spot, or I don’t like how far away it is, or whatever else could come up. That’s a waste of time and also energy.
Instead, I am going to spend the next six months carefully observing and gathering data about my potential garden space to make sure that I create the best garden possible. I might still move some minor things around, but for the most part, the land I clear for my garden needs to be the permanent spot for my garden. I am gathering data for at least six months in order to get more than one season of data collected. For example, the sun mapping of my area will be different in early spring, mid-summer, and late fall. So I’m trying to gather data from a longer period of time so that it covers as much of the seasonal changes as possible.
Step One: Sun Mapping
Sun mapping is when you track the sunlight across your yard throughout the day in order to figure out the best possible location for your garden.
In an ideal situation, you would do sun mapping on your yard on four separate dates throughout the year: March 21, June 21, September 21, and December 21. These are approximate dates, but if you do sun mapping on those four dates, you’ll have a very detailed understanding of the full-sun, partial-sun, partial-shade, and full-shade locations in your yard throughout the year (because you are gathering data on the four equinox/solstice dates of the year).
So if you have the patience to delay gardening for an entire year, you might want to give that a try. However, most of us don’t want to wait that long, and that’s okay, too. You can do sun mapping at any time of the year, just keep in mind that the sun angle will be different at different parts of the year. For example, don’t expect to do sun mapping in the winter and then think that you’ll have an accurate understanding of your sunny locations for a summer garden.
For my new garden space, I’m gathering sun mapping data in late spring (May) and then in mid-fall (October), and I’ll adjust it a little bit from there. Plus, I’ll stay aware during the summer to see how my potential garden space fares during the hot hot summer sun. Since South Carolina summers can be quite intense, many fruits and veggies that claim to need ‘full-sun’ actually need some shade during the hottest part of the day. So I’ll be watching my garden space carefully this summer to see how things go and if I need to plant something (or put some fences up or trellises or garden benches, etc.) to provide shade.
How to Make a Sun Map
- If possible, make a sun map on a sunny and clear day. Try to do the entire activity on one day if you can, but if you cannot, then adjust that over a few adjacent days.
- Make a map of your potential garden space. This doesn’t have to be beautiful or super accurate. I’m a terrible artist, but I still scrawled out a map of the location. You can do this on paper or online, depending on your preferences.
- Make 5 copies of your base map and consider using 3 different colored pencils.
- Title each copy: 8am, 11am, 2pm, or 5pm, and title the last copy as “final”.
- In the morning, approx. at 8am, grab the 8am map and observe your land. Color in all the spots that have 100% shade with one color, spots with partial shade with a different color, and 100% full sun with another color (if you don’t want to use colored pencils, you can just write words like ‘p.s.’, ‘sh.’, and ‘sun’ throughout your map).
- Repeat your sun map colorings at 11am, 2pm, and 5pm (approx.). Set an alarm if you need help remembering.
- At the end of the day, look at your 4 sun maps: if 3 or more of an area are colored for ‘full sun’, those spots are sunny. etc. Put this data on the ‘final’ copy.
- Save all five maps in your garden binder. You now know where you have ‘afternoon shade’, ‘morning sun’, and all those other interesting factors that can help you decide what to plant where in your garden.
Since most garden fruits and vegetables need full-sun in order to thrive, make sure your garden mainly fills that objective (unless you live in a very warm climate and want a place that gives some afternoon shade). If sun mapping has proven that your garden space idea isn’t ideal, hopefully you can figure out a different spot in your yard to put your new garden.
If this is the only available place in your yard for a garden, think about how you can adjust things. For example, maybe there is a tree that you can trim so that you get more sunlight in your garden space. Or perhaps you will need to grow tomatoes in pots on your sunny front porch and use the partially-shade garden space for other types of fruits and vegetables, like lettuce and arugula.
Sun mapping is a super important detail for figuring out how to start a garden from scratch, so try not to skip this step. Sunlight is necessary for your plants and it would be terrible to waste time and energy clearing space for a garden and then learning you have to move it again later on.
Step Two: Investigate & Observe the Garden Location Carefully
This is another important step to take before you start putting in your new garden. It’s important to observe your potential garden space for at LEAST a month before putting in your new garden.
Why do I think you need to observe that long? There’s lots of things to think about, investigate, and observe about your future garden spot that cannot be done in just one day.
Here’s a few things to observe and learn about (let this list be a springboard for you as you observe your specific land):
- Is there an efficient flow from that garden location? For example, is it close enough to the house that you can quick run out and harvest something for dinner (if that’s how you roll at dinner time…)? Or is it so far away from your house that you will always be too lazy to harvest something? Another example: is it close to your compost pile location? Can you easily access a wheelbarrow and/or shovel and get to that garden space? Think about how you want the garden to easily flow into your homestead activities before you start that new garden.
- How will the weather affect your garden location? For example, is there a specific direction that severe weather and wind comes from? How will that wind and weather affect your garden spot? Another example: is your future garden spot going to easily flood with torrential downpours? Is it going to be affected by frosts more easily due to the lay of the land? Think about as many weather issues as possible and how they might affect your garden location and how you can remedy those issues BEFORE you place your garden.
- How will neighbors or permanent structures, roads, railroads, etc. affect your garden location? Some things to think about here include: will your neighbors be annoyed at the visual sight of your garden, if so, how can you ‘hide’ it from their view? Do your neighbors use yucky chemicals on their lawn and will that possible drain into your garden spot? Will salt from snow plows be sprayed into your garden spot due to the proximity to the road? Think of all these types of scenarios with your future garden space beforehand in order to figure out potential solutions that can be put in place before you even start your new garden.
- How easily can you get water to your future garden location? How will you water your future garden? Figure that out before putting the garden into your yard. At our last homestead, we were as far away from the water source as possible, which meant that some of our drip irrigation lines had less water pressure. We won’t be making that mistake at our new homestead!
Step Three: Pest Management
Depending on where you live, you’ll have to deal with different types of pests in your future garden space. Start watching your future potential garden space now to figure out what pests might be an issue for you. This is easier to do if you can quietly observe your garden over a few different seasons and times of day. You can also start looking for pest damage in your yard (for example, looking for mole hills) to figure out what pests might be the worst issues for you.
Once you figure out your worst pests, spend some time doing research to figure out how to prevent their damage. Do this research BEFORE you start your garden in case that information changes how you put your garden in (raised beds, fences, etc.).
In my last garden, my worst pest issue was dealing with cats using my garden as a litter box. I had to use various cat-preventative measures (netting, orange peels, etc.) around my garden and garden space to keep them away. Fortunately, they only attempted to use my garden in this way during the winter when the ground was too hard for them to dig anywhere else.
At my new homestead, I’ve been here a month now, and it’s very obvious that my worst pest will be deer. I’ve written about how to keep deer out of your garden before, but I can already tell that these deer are WAY more aggressive with my plants than they ever were at my last home. I already know that I cannot start a garden here until I have a deer-proof fence put in place.
So I’m saving up money and gathering up fencing materials NOW and I’m researching for ways to make pretty fences around a garden that can also keep out deer. I am not going to bother trying to start my garden until I can afford a way to deter the deer damage.
I’ve also noticed turkeys on the property, and while I don’t think that my garden will suffer from local wild turkeys, I’m going to research them before I start my garden in order to make sure they won’t be a threat.
I get so many emails from readers who are distraught and feeling defeated due to various pests destroying their gardens. Help yourself out by trying your best to figure out potential pest threats BEFORE you put in your garden and then put preventative things in place right away. If you cannot afford what you need for proper pest prevention in a garden, start hunting online groups for scrap materials for cheaper materials. Start looking for seasonal sales or Black friday deals or bartering with other local homesteaders or whatever you can do in order to put something in place before your new garden has been put in.
It’s okay to take your time getting the materials you need or taking time to do extra research on various pests in order to make sure that your future garden will be the best possible before you even get started.
Step Four: Get Some Soil Tests Done
What is the soil like at your future garden spot? Obviously, good-quality soil is super super important for a healthy and happy garden. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to naturally amend the soil to improve things, however, it takes about 6 months-ish for those amendments to make a difference, so the sooner you test your future garden soil site, the better.
There are actually a few different things to look for and to test for your garden soil. First, what is your soil texture like? Sandy? Silty? Clay? Etc. Check out my article on How to Properly Test Your Soil in order to learn more about how to test your soil at home with a mason jar to figure out what type of soil structure you have.
The other important bit is the pH levels of your future garden soil. If it’s too acidic or too alkaline, then certain plants won’t thrive. My new homestead is surrounded by pine trees, so I have a hunch that it’s a pretty acidic soil. I’m going to get my soil tested at my local extension office soon to figure out HOW acidic it is so I can figure out how dramatically I need to fix it. You can click here on my article How to Properly Test Your Soil if you would prefer doing home pH tests on your soil.
Final Thoughts on Starting a Garden From Scratch
The best advice I can give you is this: take your time. Our modern culture is ALL about ‘rush rush rush’ and it can be so hard to avoid falling into the trap of comparing ourselves to others (especially due to social media). There’s so many reasons why we humans all want to just excitedly jump and GO into a new project. And that can be a good thing sometimes…I know that I can oftentimes be too afraid to do something new or to just START something.
If you rush into things when starting a garden from scratch, there are more chances of wasting your time and energy. It’s okay if you spend a few months or even a year watching your land and observing the weather, the pests, the sunlight, and testing your soil. That’s okay. You’ll be more prepared to do things the right way if you just take your time.
Don’t let others peer pressure you into starting a new garden before you are ready. Having a new homestead or new home is already overwhelming, so if you’re trying to start a brand new garden on top of all of that, you risk burnout and severe overwhelm. Obviously, we don’t want to go to the other extreme either, where you never feel like you have enough information to start gardening. At some point, you need to just do it.
If you are worried that you’ll go to that other extreme of ‘analysis paralysis’, then you might need to give yourself an actual date that you’re starting to put in your garden, no matter what. And in the meantime, gather up the data from these four steps.
No matter where you are on your garden journey, take a few deep breaths, my gardening friends. Grab some paper and a pen and start observing your land. Gardening is such an incredible experience and can bring you so much joy. Enjoy the journey and know that I’m rooting for you. Today and always. ❤️
I’ll add Part Two of this series later this fall when I start designing and building my brand-new garden!
Check Out My Other Gardening Tips:
- The Benefits of Companion Planting in the Garden
- How to Prevent Weeds from Stealing Your Gardening Joy
- The Benefits of Gardening: A Gardener’s Reflection
- Finding Joy in the Garden During the Summer