Q. My wife and I are starting to shop around for our first home. I want to grow vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, herbs, etc.) and maybe plant a fruit tree in whatever little bit of land comes with our townhouse. What garden-related qualities should we look for when comparing various properties for sale? (e.g., is there a particular time of day that our plants will need sun? And, is there a quick way to estimate the quality of the soil?) Thanks!
- ---Jason and Amy; "garden amateurs" in Columbia, MD
A. Thank YOU for asking a great question; and one that maybe I should have asked when WE bought our first—and only—home some 25 + years ago. Although I had been gardening for a few years and had moved to our area to take a job that would eventually lead me to become the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, I nonetheless thought first of the school district that our then-imaginary children would attend. Then, of course, came an affordable price. And so we wound up buying Snow White's old house in the woods, which is great when the birds and chipmunks drop in to help with the dishes, but not so great when the drama queen vegetables complain about the lack of sun.
To wit (I always wanted to say that!) you want morning sun for your veggies, that fruit tree to be named later, and any disease prone ornamentals, like roses, lilacs and dogwoods. Not afternoon sun (which I don't think any plant prefers); and at least six to eight hours of total sun a day on the majority of your veggies. (Ignore that moaning and clanking noise in the background—it's the Ghost of Tomatoes Past rattling their chains of shade.)
Now, this advice is specifically directed towards Jason and Amy's Baltimore/Washington area and similar climes. One size does not fit all when it comes to garden sun. The further North and/or the cooler your climate, the more 'full sun all the time' becomes something between ideal and basically required. The further South and/or the hotter your gardening region, the more you begin to absolutely need some afternoon shade.
I wouldn't sweat the soil too much, as soil can be improved a lot easier than the hours and times of sunlight. And I'm going to nag you and almost everyone else on the planet into building raised beds for most plants to avoid your crappy soil anyway. If somehow you have the choice, sandy soil is better than clay. Sandy soil can be improved and made close to perfect by the addition of large amounts of organic matter (that means compost—and lots of it!). Improvement of clay soil involves a backhoe and dump truck.
Now we come to the issues that are more important than sun and soil and which few new homeowners anticipate, leading to years of gardening frustration—and not the kind I experience when squirrels replant my tulip beds with black walnuts: Is the given home restricted in outdoor use by a homeowners association, management rules, local ordinance or other governing body?
I get dozens—maybe hundreds—of heartbreaking emails every year from people who moved into a "townhouse" or similar dwelling and then learned on the back end that they were not permitted to have a vegetable garden, fruit trees or even certain ornamental plants.
So ask direct questions on the topic; and do so in several different ways. First, tell the sellers or their agents that you intend to garden, and ask if there are any rules that will prevent your free use of plants. Then take a different route. If there's no sun out back, say directly: "we'll be planning to have a small vegetable garden out front; are there any issues with that?" Accept no evasive answers. And responses like, "well, we typically don't allow that, but I'm sure 'they' will make an exception for you fine young folks" should be taken to mean "It will be a tropical winter in Northern Iowa before you grow tomatoes here, pal."
Try to avoid buying in winter, when there will be few to no visual cues on this. Consider it a warning flag if in Spring or Summer there's no evidence of gardening anywhere nearby. Conversely, a tomato cage in every yard would be a very positive sign.
And finally, if the home is in any kind of a 'shared community' and has grounds utilized by all the residents, ask about lawn care and chemical use. People who buy a smallish home without much ground probably already realize that they'll have to use a lot of containers and maybe join a nearby community garden to feed their addiction. But people who are determined to avoid toxic chemicals are often dismayed—and worse—when they learn that their yard or the large area right next door is getting hosed down on a weekly basis with some kind of green colored liquid from the back of a tanker truck. And They Can't Do Anything About It.
Learn these things on the back end, after the papers are signed, and you are screwed, blued and tattooed. It may make the search a little more difficult up front, but be prepared to hold firm on your principles and keep looking, because as many sad listeners have told me over the years, there are few things worse than being tied by a mortgage to a home you've come to loathe.