Fall is a great time not only to plan for spring planting, but also for garden preparation including the design and creation of any new beds you’ve been thinking about. Advanced planning and preparation will give you a jump start on planting seeds in early spring to maximize the growing season for all those gorgeous plants you’ve been fantasizing about. Before you start, following are some key considerations important for garden success.
- What to plant in your new garden? Do you want to plant flowers or herbs and vegetables or some combination thereof?
- Based on your answer to the above, do you know how much space you need? Depending on the magnitude of your desired floral display or the volume and variation of vegetables, it will help to map out how much space each plant will require and plot the dimensions of the garden bed accordingly. Your seed supplier can provide guidelines on plant spacing.
- Where will the new garden bed be located? Many plants need at least six hours of sunlight, including most vegetables. Do you have a sunny spot in your yard large enough to accommodate your new garden as envisioned above?
- Is the new garden plot in reasonable proximity to a water source? It needs to be convenient or else you’ll be tempted to skip the regular watering necessary for your plants’ optimum health. Supplemental watering may be particularly important for raised beds, depending on your climate and weather.
- Speaking of which, you need to decide whether you’re going to go to the extra effort to create a raised garden bed; if so, we have provided some guidance below. Otherwise, we recommend you test your soil to see what sort of amendments it may need, for best results.
Raised Garden Beds
Raised garden beds offer advantages over ground level beds including:
- They allow you to use a rich, custom soil mix
- They allow for better drainage
- Elevated soil warms up sooner in the spring and stays warmer longer in the fall
- They’re easier to maintain both because they don’t allow adjacent lawn to encroach and they’re easier to reach for planting and weeding.
If you’re unfamiliar with raised garden beds, you can think of them like large immovable ‘containers’ set up semi-permanently in one spot in your yard. They are typically square or rectangular in shape with a depth of at least 6” to accommodate plant roots. A rectangular shape provides for a larger garden since the bed should be no wider than 3’ for ease of use. There are practically endless ways to design raised garden beds.
While the sides of the ‘containers’ can be made out of a wide variety of materials, many people make them using lumber planks—stacked 2 x 4’s, for example. If this is what you plan to do, it’s important to choose untreated rot-resistant wood for this purpose, particularly if you’re planning to grow vegetables. Over time, pressure-treated lumber will leach harmful chemicals into the soil which, in turn, will be absorbed by your plants’ roots, which, in turn, when end up in your body when you consume the vegetables. In any event, there is plenty of information online about other materials you can use to make raised beds and how to construct them.
Preparing the Garden Area—Removing the Grass
If you’re creating a ground level garden bed out of lawn, the first thing you have to do is remove the grass where the bed is supposed to be. There are different approaches for removing grass sod once you’ve marked off the dimensions of your garden:
- Obviously, you can simply dig it up with a shovel. There are pros and cons to doing this. On the pro side, it will provide quick results, allowing you to proceed with the preparation of your garden bed. On the other hand, digging up sod is backbreaking work and not for the faint of heart. It helps to water the area a few days ahead of time to moisten (not soak!) the soil to loosen it up. If you’re creating a large bed, it might make sense to rent a mechanical sod cutter. This method will strip away organic nutrients from the soil, along with the sod, however, which means you will have to add it back in via additional compost and other rich organic material.
- Use a heavy duty rototiller (with a rear tine). This may also be hard work and may require more than one pass. The advantage of rototilling is the sod gets turned under—rather than removed, leaving organic matter in the soil. The bad news is that weeds get turned under also and will undoubtedly make an appearance, stronger than ever, down the road.
- Or, if you’re prepared to wait awhile, you can smother the grass by covering the planned garden bed area with plastic, newspaper, cardboard or even a heavy dropcloth (weighing down the edges, of course) which will eventually kill the grass but leave the soil structure intact.
- You may be tempted to use herbicide but please don’t—it’s harmful to you and the environment.
- If you’re creating a raised bed that’s at least 8” deep, the grass will most likely die on its own, though you can add a layer of insurance—literally—by laying down biodegradable landscaping fabric first, before constructing the container, installing it in the footprint of the ‘container’.
Preparing the Soil for Planting
As mentioned above, if you’re creating a garden bed at ground level, even if it seems like your soil is good, it’s a good idea to have it tested to see if it’s missing key nutrients your plants will need. Your local Cooperative Extension Service office may be able to help with that or refer you to a soil testing service. Or, if you don’t want to bother with that, skip that step and add rich, organic matter such as compost, preemptively. If it’s heavy clay, you will want to mix in some lighter material such as peat moss as well, though you should be aware that it will lower your soil’s pH, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what you plan to grow. Thoroughly work the organic material into the soil, breaking up compacted clumps of dirt and clay.
If you’re creating a raised bed, you need to fill it with a mixture of basic soil and rich organic material as described above. You can also mix in leaves and grass clippings.
For either kind of bed, add a layer of mulch to protect the soil during the winter months. And, that’s it. Your garden bed will be ready for planting when it starts to warm up in the spring.