Let’s face it: the sine qua non of vegetable gardening is a site in full sun. Without it, growth is lackluster at best. At worst, you get a plot full of failing plants and weeds.
(Ever notice how weeds don’t seem to mind a bit of shade?)
So how do you go about locating your sunniest spot? Well, sometimes it’s easy: if you have a space with no surrounding buildings or trees to cast shadows, you’re golden. But if you’re like most of us, with a yard full of shadow-casting obstructions, then you’ll need to know not only where shadows fall now, but where they will fall the rest of the growing year. For instance, the illustration below shows the sun’s path in summer (left) and spring/fall (right). A new garden located too close to the north side of the house might have fine light in mid-summer once the sun reaches a sufficient height, but the area will be cold and dark at the beginning and end of the season, placing a real obstacle to successfully growing spring and fall crops.
Of course, if you have the leisure of time, you can simply note how the sun shifts about your property over a course of a full year and plan accordingly. If however, you’re looking to add, say, a new vegetable garden or perennial border next spring, and you want to get started, as you should, preparing the soil now, there’s a wonderful trick my grandfather taught me that will allow you to locate your beds with complete surety: watch the moonlight. At any given time of the year, the moon shadows fall where the sun shadows will fall six months hence, so pick a bright, moonlit night, and you’ll be able to see with perfect clarity which areas of your yard will be in light or in shadow. This method is especially effective right now, while the trees still have their foliage, and shady areas are particularly well defined. Once you’ve found the brightest spot available, mark the boundaries, and begin over the next several weeks to collect leaves and other compost materials you’ll need to amend the soil. Remember, if the area is currently lawn, one of the easiest and best ways to get rid of the sod is to simply bury it under several inches of leaves and compost. (An tarp, or border of hay bales, will keep the leaves in place.) By next spring, you’ll find that the worms and weather have digested the turf, saving you the backbreaking effort of digging out and removing the grass. A quick till, and you’ll be ready to go, all thanks to that ol’ harvest moon.