Setting Up a New Garden: Choose the Right Site

Updated: May 12, 2023

When figuring out how to start a garden from scratch, your success depends on location, location, location. Here's what to look for.

Whether it’s a vegetable or butterfly garden or simply a new landscape, your greenery won’t thrive if you choose the wrong location. Success depends on three important factors: How much sunlight the area receives; how wet the soil stays; and the soil’s pH.

Before you get your heart set on what you want to grow in your new garden, be sure to match the plants to the conditions present. Choose wisely!

How Many Hours of Sunlight Do You Get?

There’s no way around it: The number of sunlight hours a garden location receives determines what plant species will thrive there. Here’s what to know:

  • If it gets eight or more hours of sunlight a day, you have full sun. Select plant species that can handle full sunlight.
  • If there’s morning shade and afternoon sun, that’s generally considered partial sun. If it’s morning sun and afternoon shade, this is considered partial shade. Partial sun or partial shade means between five and seven hours per day of sunlight.
  • Full shade is considered five hours or less of sunlight per day. Full shade is common for small yards where there are only 10 to 15 feet between houses; a yard with lots of canopy trees; or when multiple-storied buildings cast shade.

Keep in mind sunlight conditions likely vary between the front yard, side yards and backyard. And the direction of the sun changes with the seasons, with more intense heat in the afternoon during the summer months.

How Wet Is Your Soil?

To ensure you choose the right plants for the location, determine your soil’s moisture retention. How wet does the soil stay after rainfall or watering?

There are scientific and technical ways to determine soil moisture, but all you really need is a clump of soil and your hands.

  • After a good rainfall, or after you’ve watered the potential garden area to a depth of one inch, wait 48 hours, then dig down about six to eight inches into the root zone.
  • Place about three tablespoons of the soil in your palm and squeeze. If the dirt doesn’t mound, lacks organic material, only has sandy grains, feels warm or filters through your fingers, it’s considered xeric, aka dry sandy soil.
  • If that soil is dark and earthy, feels cool or damp, has little dark flecks of wood, plant material or tiny twigs, and it makes a mound in your hand after you squeeze it, you have mesic, aka moist soil. That means it’s not too wet, not too dry. Seeing earthworms when you dig also indicates mesic soil.
  • If that soil is glossy, you can squeeze water out of it, or you can squeeze between your fingers into smooth ribbons, you have hydric, aka saturated soil. You’ll find hydric soil along shorelines, in low-lying areas and in places with clay soil.

Once you know the moisture content of your soil, select plants with roots that will thrive in those conditions.

What Is the pH of Your Soil?

Your soil’s pH is important because it affects a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. The pH numeric scale runs from 0 to 14. The general pH range for plants is 4.5 to 8.5.

If the pH is not correct for your plants, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies, lack of flowers and fruits, pest susceptibility and overall poor health. To find a plant’s pH needs, search online with the plant’s name, pH and edu as keywords (e.g. blueberries + pH + edu).

To determine your soil’s pH, buy a DIY pH test kit or ask the local county or university extension office to analyze a sample of your soil for you.

Acidic soil pH ranges from four to six, neutral pH is seven and alkaline (aka base) pH is eight and above.

Most plants can handle a wide range of pHs. But some species, like blueberries and clematis, need a specific pH to grow well and produce flowers and fruits.

For a low-maintenance landscape or flower garden, select plants that will thrive with your existing soil pH. Or use raised beds or containers filled with potting soil with the proper pH for the flowers or vegetables you want. If you’re determined to grow something that requires a different pH, try amending the soil.