The Basics of Site Design

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When looking to design your property there are several things you need to consider. The most important are sun/shade patterns throughout the year, slope, drainage, and what your proposed uses will be. Vegetable gardens need good drainage, minimal slope and a lot of sun during the growing season. West facing slopes tend to get more moisture than east facing slopes, while north facing slopes will get a lot less sun than south facing slopes. Most livestock need a place with sun and shade all year to really be happy.You will also want to consider placement in relation to how often you will visit it. Areas that you will visit frequently, such as a chicken coop, should be closer to your home compared to something you visit less frequently, such as fruit trees.

I’ll be using our property as an example for some basic site issues and how we designed it. Of course we had few real obstacles compared to others, but it should give you the basics.

When we first moved into our home the very first thing I did was create a site plan of existing conditions. Our property, .28 acres, is a narrow, long rectangular lot running east to west. We had some obstacles in the way including some old, dead and dying fruit trees and two large black walnut trees on the western end. We also had an oddly placed 6′ wood fence right off the back stoop (posts locations in the photo above) and no fence or gate on the side of the house so anyone could enter our backyard.

The next thing I did was create a list of things I wanted. I knew I wanted garden beds and fruit trees. We needed a place for our chickens and we needed to be able to add more animals into our system in the future. I also needed a large patio for entertaining and a way to keep our dogs out of the garden (though that has been largely unsuccessful since Squeak is agile enough to jump fences). We had two things in our backyard that we could not change – the water tower and a large oak tree centered on our southern property line. Our lot sloped gently towards the western end, away from the house. Even in the winter with the big oak tree, most of the yard got good sun exposure all day, which was definitely a bonus. In the summer only the area directly under the tree gets all day shade.

Fruit tree placement was easy. It was important that they go in locations where they wouldn’t cast too much, if any, shade when fully grown on the vegetable beds. The north edge of the property was the best place for the majority of trees. Additional trees were located on the eastern and western outermost edges. The biggest rule you want to remember is to never place trees on the southern side of your vegetable garden (at least here in the northern hemisphere) if you want to maximize sun exposure. Western edges should also generally be avoided, but we decided to include more trees along that side anyways.

designBecause our site was narrow and long we ran our beds from east to west. This helped with wheelbarrow access and running irrigation line. Because of our layout, it maximized the amount of growing space relative to walking paths. It also helped with sun exposure because all of the beds would get equal amounts of sun exposure throughout the day. Taller crops would be planted in the northern beds while shorter crops would be planted in the southern beds. The site plan to the right is flipped so that north is down.

It made sense to put the patio adjacent to the house and tower as that would be one of our most used spaces, especially for entertaining. The backdoor enters the kitchen and then the wraparound patio accesses the door to the water tower. A clothesline was added on the western side of the tower running east-west to, again, maximize sun exposure.

The chickens and turkeys are kept between the patio and garden so we can monitor their shenanigans and the rabbits were placed directly under the oak tree to maximize shade during the hottest months. The greenhouse is on the northern property line but the area south of it is clear of any trees or structure that could reduce sun exposure. The goats are at the far end of the yard, though we’ve recently been thinking of finding them a new home closer to the house.

Which brings me to my next point. No matter how well planned out you think you’re property is, things will always be in flux. What we thought worked well during planning might not actually work so well during implementation. The goats are a good example. The barn is easy to access from the pathway off of the patio – just a straight shot down there. However, that also happens to be the lowest spot in our yard so in the winter it floods. This wasn’t as apparent to us before we built the barn because we didn’t really spend that much time in that corner, especially when it was raining hard. If you don’t want to have to keep moving things go slowly. Really observe everything before building. Go out during a heavy rainstorm to see where all the water goes. Spend time outside during hot days to see where the most comfortable place to sit is. The more time you take in planning, the less time you’ll spend rearranging.

Comments

  1. How timely! We’re just now planning our garden out for 2013, so nice to see yours! Did you do the design yourself or did you get a landscape architect (or maybe you are a landscape architect?!)

    I noticed you grow your potatoes in bins…how do you like that? We did ours in the ground last year and didn’t have any issues but I’m always looking for the most efficient way :)

  2. I’m very interested in how you dealt with the black walnut trees. I have two mature ones in my front lawn and the neighbour has several that are growing and possibly getting close to poisoning my space. Did you cut them down? How long does it take for the ground to recover afterwards?

    • Kim, they were the first trees we cut down. We still haven’t found a use for the logs (we don’t have a fireplace otherwise we’d burn them). It took about a year to kill them completely as they continued to send up suckers. The following year mushrooms began to show up on the stumps so I’m comfortable saying it was another year after total kill before the toxins had been leached.

      • Thanks for the reply!
        A couple of years isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. We want to cut one down for sure because it’s root system is a threat to our foundation and roof on the house. The other is far enough away from the house and provides some shade so it will likely stay. I had a great deal of success this year planting carrots in containers so I can see myself putting pots out there for a couple of years until the toxins are gone.

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