Before you plant your garden in a new space you need to carefully consider where the sun is in the sky in relation to the garden. Unless you are out in the middle of the country and you can pick a space out back well away from the house, sheds or other buildings and tall trees that will shade the garden during long periods of the day, you need to think seriously about the placement of the garden. If you don’t get enough sun and the growing season is a short one, gardening with benefits is very difficult. Nothing is more discouraging than watching beautiful plants come up out of the ground and slowly move toward maturity only to be killed by an early but predictable hard frost. Of course, occasionally you can save them for a few days by covering them overnight to protect against the frost, but, in the end, life gets hard and gardening into a period when early frosts, even blizzards wasn’t something you had in mind.
A few crops you can potentially manage at that time are Brussels sprouts, maybe a few broccoli plants giving up their final edible stems, some very hardy kale and other greens as well as some root crops. The Brussels sprouts like going through an early freeze. The sprouts get sweeter and are at best not even harvested until the early freeze has passed. Also, onions, beets, potatoes, some radishes, carrots and other root crops will be fine and will keep going as long as you don’t have to harvest them by first applying a blow torch to the ground to dig them out. In the ground, cooked beets are not a favorite. The beets should come up when you can no longer protect the greens with a covering.
Clearly, some things are more easily protected than others and need to be planted early, receiving as much sun as possible during the season. For example, if you’ve had a good tomato harvest then at the first sign of frost, you might as well pick the remaining green tomatoes and fry them up. Then you can get rid of your tomato plants and concentrate on the remaining more cold-hardy plants in the garden you may be able to protect by mulching with loose straw and a plastic cover.
Well! Back to the sun and planting. Let’s assume you have enough land to have some options even though you have some shade issues. First, go to the south side of the house, stand up against the back end and walk at least 5-10 feet due south. While facing south put up both arms (parallel to the ground). Your left hand will point due east while your right hand will point due west. Now put a stick in the ground where you are standing to mark the spot and continue to walk to the south an additional 15-20 feet. Put another stick in the ground and connect the two points with a little string if you like. This will measure one dimension of your garden, the north-south dimension. It also puts you at most about 40 feet back from the back end of the house at the south-most position. If you got all the way back 40 feet without running into your neighbors fence, you did well. Also, if you have 80-100 feet in the east-west direction of the back yard, you probably have some great options on where to do your gardening.
First if you ran into your neighbors picket fence after going 38 feet back, then the north-south distance suitable for gardening will be from 10 feet to 32 southward from the house. The final six feet you will not use because your neighbor’s fence will block the mid-day sun from that space for most of the summer. Use the space perhaps for some low lying flowers or ground cover. After that you need to lay out the east-west dimension.
Let’s say you are in the middle of the yard and if you move to the east you can see the sun will eventually be blocked by trees or by a sizable shed in the south-west far corner of the lot. On the other hand the west direction is only blocked by a low-lying picket fence between your lot and your neighbor to the west of you. Obviously, in that case, you want to extend your longest east-west garden dimension to the west. If you are on your north-south marker line in the middle of the back yard that measures about 100 ft in the east-west direction, you can take about 40-45 feet toward the west and not bother going east as all. But if you have a little ways to move toward the east before running into the shade mentioned earlier, you can do that as well or in place of doing all 40-45 feet entirely toward the west.
Evaluate your potential shade problems carefully. Your garden need not be laid our as a perfect rectangle. It can have an irregular shape. For any areas you are not sure about you can always put in a few partial shade loving plants or you can garden in containers that are not so heavy that you have trouble moving them around to follow the motions of the sun over the summer.
Now you have some options and a good size garden space and still some back yard remaining. Look around for tall trees at the back of your yard or in your neighbors yards that could be a shade problem. Remember that on the first day of spring the sun will rise due east, but will slowly rise more and more to the northeast to about 20 degrees further north by the beginning of summer and then back due east by the first day of the fall season. As the sun goes from east to west it will rise to a higher point in the sky at midday as the season shifts from spring to summer and then back to fall when the sun returns to the same high point on the first day of fall that it was at on the first day of spring. On the first day of summer the sun will be higher by about 20 degrees off the southern horizon compared to where it is on either the first day of spring or will be on the first day of fall.
These apparent motions of the sun have the effect of increasing the length of the day progressively over the summer months and will give the garden, if you have laid it out properly, much more access to sun over the summer months.