Analyzing Garden Soil Quality and Sun Exposure

The quality of your garden's soil and its exposure to sunlight are just two of the factors that will influence the best spot for planting.

Related To:

Soil Quality Affects Plant Growth

Soil Quality Affects Plant Growth

Before starting a garden, check your soil quality to be sure it meets the needs of the plants you intend to grow.

Photo by: Humannet /

Humannet /

The first step in creating a successful garden is analyzing the key characteristics of your lot. If you know your challenges, such as a border that floods in the winter or an area that’s always in shade, you can find planting or landscaping solutions. 

Consider the Soil

Understanding the type and structure of your soil is of utmost importance. Plants require differing conditions, and knowing what you have allows you to make better planting choices. Although certain soil types can be improved, it’s best not to try too drastic a change: a thin, alkaline soil formed over limestone bedrock will have a high pH—ideal for lavender, but lethal for pieris, rhododendrons, and other ericaceous plants that require deep, acidic, humus-rich soil. Adding peat or chemicals to increase the soil’s acidity may solve the problem in the short term, but water rising from the bedrock will ultimately return the ground to its original state. The consistency and drainage of soil can also adversely affect construction projects, such as ponds or building foundations, so plan carefully to avoid disappointment. Here are three factors to consider when analyzing the soil in a potential spot:

  • Soil pH: Use a pH test to analyze your soil. Most plants prefer conditions that are slightly above or below pH 7. But be aware: some, such as rhododendrons, prefer acidic conditions, while many vegetables thrive in alkaline soil.
  • Heavy Soil: Clay-rich or “heavy” soils can be tough to dig. If they dry out, they can become solid or cracked. Since they drain poorly, they can become very sticky when wet. Add organic matter to improve the soil structure.
  • Sandy Soil: Sandy, stony, or gravelly soils drain quickly and therefore tend to be deficient in water-soluble nutrients, which are easily washed away. Rake in fertilizer, and apply deep mulches of well-rotted manure or compost.

Exposure and Shelter

Factors such as the direction in which your garden faces, how much sun it receives, where the prevailing wind blows from, and how sheltered the lot is should strongly influence your garden design and planting decisions. By observing the sun as it moves across the garden, you can identify which areas will make the best locations for eating and relaxing—you could have one patio for breakfast or morning coffee and another for evening dining. These observations will also help you to position a herb or vegetable plot or a gravel garden, which all need as much sunshine as possible. As the sun moves from east to west, the house, neighboring trees, buildings, and hedges can cast shadows over different areas. The amount of shade will also vary according to the time of year: in the summer the sun is higher, which results in more of the garden receiving warmth and light.

Protect Exposed Seaside Sites

Strong winds can strip moisture from foliage and damage weak stems, so the more sheltered your garden, the better your plants will cope. Use tall wind-, salt-, and cold-tolerant plants, like to create a “shelter belt,” to shield the plot from prevailing winds. This barrier of plants will allow you to grow more delicate types in sheltered spots. Consider tough plants such as large, spiky phormium and tall, feathery pampas grass on exposed, sea-facing exposures. Their height and foliage make them an attractive asset.

Watch for Frost Pockets

Hot air rises, and in sloping gardens the cold air will sink to the bottom of the grade. If prevented from escaping by a dense hedge or wall, it accumulates, forming a frost pocket. Select plants carefully because tender and newly planted ones, especially evergreens, may not be able to survive the cold in winter months. 

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