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Site Analysis: Getting to Know Your Garden

Most successful gardens did not happen by accident. The gardeners who tend them developed a deep understanding, or analysis, of the site over time. Here's how to perform a site analysis for your garden. This is especially useful when you've just moved to a new location, but it also helps when you want to hit the reset button on your current garden. Armed with this information, map out a plan for turning your garden into a beautiful, functional, Earth-friendly oasis. 

Create a simple drawing that shows the areas of your garden.  		Photo: Eve Werner
Create a simple drawing that shows the areas of your garden. Photo: Eve Werner

Getting started

If possible, allow a year to accurately assess your site. This way you can see your garden in every season. 

Create a simple drawing. Nothing fancy, just something that shows the various areas of your garden. 

Keep a journal of your observations. Jot down findings for each area throughout the year. 


Begin with the basics: cultural conditions

• How much sun do you have? During what hours? 
• Use the following guidelines for the various areas of your garden:
   - Full sun: 6+ hours per day (8-10 for edibles)
   - Part sun: 5-6 hours per day
   - Part shade: 3-4 hours per day

• Where does shade come from? Trees? Neighbors? Hillside? Your house?
Identify where you want to let in more light by removing trees or shrubs that are creating shade. 

Evaluate your soil.
• Do you have clay soil? Sandy? Rocky? Loam? A combination? 
• If you plant to amend your soil, how will you access that area? 

• Are you in Sunset climate zone 15, 16, or 17?
Assess your microclimate
• Learn how climate change affects your garden.
• Does your garden experience frost, wind, or intensely hot days?

• Do you have a drip irrigation system, sprinklers, or no irrigation?
• How will you provide water to each area of your garden?
• Are there any issues with drainage?
• Are there permeable surfaces where rainwater can sink, slow, and spread? 

Next: what else defines your garden?

Native plant community 
• Are you deep in a redwood forest canyon or overlooking coastal grassland or maybe surrounded by an oak woodland? The look, feel, and native species in your immediate surroundings may influence your plant choices.
Living with oaks or redwoods requires special planning. 

• If you are on a hillside, what is your plan for controlling erosion?   Will you terrace the space?

Threat of fire
• Creating a fire-smart landscape is critical in Marin County. 

• Is your fence in good shape? Retaining walls? 
• Does anything need repairs?

What do you like about your setting?
• Is there an attractive view to retain and possibly accentuate? 
• Are you near open space?
• What plants would you like to keep?
• Do you want to play up the architecture of your home?

What do you dislike about your setting?
• Is there an unattractive view to hide?  
• What plants would you like to remove? 
• Is there traffic noise? 
• Is your garden overrun with weeds? How will you eradicate them?
• Have you had issues with pests or diseases or other garden problems
• What else would you like to change? 

A small corner surrounded by greenery makes a nice sitting area in the garden. .  Photo: Pxhere
A small corner surrounded by greenery makes a nice sitting area in the garden. . Photo: Pxhere

Finally: how do you want to use the space?

• Envision how you and your family will use the space - the more detailed the better
• What kind of garden(s) do you envision? Edible? Habitat? Formal?
• Where do you want to walk? 
• Where do you want to sit? 
• Do you want a garden for entertaining?  
• Do you have kids who will play in the garden?
• Will your pets be sharing your garden with you? 
• Where do you want a patio, deck, or other hardscape? 
• Do you want to add a water feature? Hammock? Boulders? What else? 
• How much time do you have for maintenance?


Quick tips for building sustainability into your garden

• Build, protect, and nurture your soil.
• Choose native plants to extend and protect Marin's unique biodiversity.
• Choose other low-water plants from the other Mediterranean climate regions. 
• Create habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects. 
Replace your lawn.
Conserve water and energy. Compost on-siteshop locally, use recycled items.
Avoid pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals that could harm wildlife and the environment. 
• More suggestions for creating an Earth-friendly garden