Feb 13, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed

Once you've chosen your garden site, the next step is to get that location ready for planting. There are about a gazillion ways to do this, but today I'll type about some of the most practical ones.

But first, you should decide what sort of garden you want. For example, do you want a traditional, flat in the ground garden? Or a raised bed garden? Or berms? To help you decide, check out my post "Which Gardening Method to Choose?," which lists the pros and cons of each of these methods.

Preparing a Site That's Never Been Gardened Before

If you've chosen a site that's never had a garden, chances are it's covered with weeds and grass. (If there's nothing or very little growing there, your work is increased because you'll need to amend the soil more heavily; more on that in a moment.)

There are two main methods for reclaiming this sort of location. One is to cut away the grass; the other is to cover it.

Before you cut away the grass, mow it - then mark out your beds. If you're not using a traditional row method, remember that you'll want to be able to reach at least halfway across each bed; this ensures you don't have to step into the garden beds in order to weed or harvest, which is important for soil health. To mark the area, use stakes or a little sprinkled flour.

Remove the grass by using a spade or sod cutter. You don't need to dig deep - just deep enough to get all the grass roots out of the soil. (If you leave roots behind, pretty soon the area will be grassy again. No fun!) The sod you remove can go face down in your compost pile, or anywhere else in the yard. (Got an area that isn't grassy and you wish it was? Lay the sod where you want it, grassy side facing up, then water it in.) If you're going to plant directly into the soil, you'll now need to add some topsoil or compost to the area, to fill in the space the sod used to take up.
Lasagna beds. Over time, the organic layers will decompose and the beds will become lower.

You could also cover the area to create a garden bed (especially recommended if the area is weedy, not grassy). The easiest way to do this is with a method called "lasagna gardening" (a.k.a., "sheet mulching). Once the grass is mowed and the beds marked, place cardboard where you want the beds to be. Corrugated cardboard works best. Just flatten some cardboard boxes out and lay them on the ground, overlapping so that sunlight can't peek through to the soil. Some people like to add a few layers of black and white newspaper, too. The idea here is to kill any weed seeds by depriving them of light. As the cardboard and newspaper decay, they will also attract tons of worms, who will do a great deal to make the soil much better for gardening. Once the cardboard and (if desired) newspaper is down, water it well.

Now add layers of organic material over the cardboard/newspaper. Good choices include peat moss, a little wood ash, thin layers of grass clippings or dead leaves, and compost. If you have quite a bit of uncomposted organic matter (like fruit and vegetable scraps), you can even add a layer of those; just be sure they are well buried by other things, or critters like raccoons will come along and make a mess. The more layers you add to the bed, the better the soil will become.

The lasagna method works best if you create the bed early - in the late fall or early winter before you want to plant. But you can create lasagna beds in late winter or early spring, too. Just be sure that your last layer is topsoil or compost - soil to plant your seeds in.

Also note that if you want raised beds with wooden or stone sides, you'll need to construct those first, then use the lasagna method to fill them up.

Amending the Soil

When you considered where to locate your garden, I recommended testing your soil with an inexpensive soil test kit available at gardening centers. If you haven't done this yet, do it now. Supposedly, spring and fall are not the best times to test soil, but if you want a garden bed for this year, it's impractical to test in the summer. So go ahead and do the test, and amend the soil according to the test's instructions, adding whatever organic matter is recommended. In the long run, this will save you a lot of time, money, and heart ache. There's nothing worse than planting something only to find your plants aren't growing because they lack certain nutrients. Ugh!

Building the Beds

Once the soil is all ready to go, it's time to make your beds. If you're planting directly in flat soil, you can either till the soil with a rototiller, or use the double dig method by hand. If you want to plant berms (raised beds without wooden or stone sides), bring in good garden soil and shape your berms as desired. If you want raised beds with sides, now's the time to build them and fill them with great gardening soil. If you used the lasagna garden method, your berms are already formed.

Incidentally, I've found that most soil touted as gardening soil and sold by the yard (by far the least expensive way to buy it) usually isn't that great. Sometimes killer compost has been added to it - compost that was made with manure or other organic matter that has Round Up in it. (In which case, the soil is going to kill anything you plant in it.) It's a good idea to always ask what's in the soil and whether it's been exposed to chemicals. Unfortunately, there is no test I'm aware of for seeing ahead of time whether the soil has Round Up in it. But even if the soil hasn't been exposed to this chemical, you should expect to add plenty of organic matter to it, to boost it's fertility. That means adding lots of good compost - ideally, your own compost.
Raised bed gardening.
See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site


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