Preparing Planting Beds
Whether you're growing flowers, vegetables, shrubs or trees, the basic steps for preparing the beds are pretty much the same:
Laying Out New Beds
Whether you're working off a detailed plan or simply "eyeballing" a new planting bed, a length of garden hose is often the best tool for establishing the new boundaries.
It's heavy enough to stay where you put it, but it's also flexible enough to adapt to any tweaking you need to do.
First, lay it out approximately where you want it. Then, flex the hose as needed to achieve the best-looking layout.
If you're working off a plan and exact dimensions are critical:
Choose a landmark on the plan (like a corner of the house or lot)
- Determine the lengths at right angles from that to the bed's boundaries on the plan
- Measure those same lengths off the landmark in your yard
- Lay the hose through those points to get the boundaries exact.
Once you've determined the boundaries for the beds, you can remove the sod (or whatever vegetation falls within the boundaries) to strip the area down to to the topsoil.
First, cut into the sod down to the soil along your boundary line using a square-nose shovel. That defines your new bed so you can coil up the hose and get that out of the way.
Next, use the shovel to pry up the edge of the sod down to the soil and push the shovel in between the sod and the soil as level as you can get it to cut the sod away.
Set the sod in a wheelbarrow and replant it elsewhere in the yard, use it as compost or otherwise dispose of it properly.
For larger beds, a sod cutter, which we've used on many projects, is an excellent option.
The sod cutter's front blade slices the sod away from the soil cleanly as you kick the back of the tool, and the plow-like handles put less stress on your back than using a shovel.
We usually rely on a variation of double-digging when we prepare a new bed, and it's a great way to refresh an older bed, too, for a new growing season.
You start on one edge, digging down with the shovel, prying up a shovelful of dirt and turning it over. And you do that over every square foot of the bed before moving on to the next step.
NOTE: TRUE double-digging would actually involve:
- Digging down a foot and removing that soil temporarily.
- Digging down another foot and removing that soil, too.
- Filling the resulting 2-foot hole with the first batch of soil going on the bottom and the second batch going on top.
It's a lot of work, but it loosens and aerates the soil to a depth of 2 feet (which is probably over-kill in most situations).
After turning the soil over, you could spread organic amendments (2-4 inch layers of peat moss, manure or compost) to improve soil drainage or fertilizer to increase soil nutrients (based on soil tests or seasonal feeding plans--always follow fertilizer package instructions).
We recommend renting a roto-tiller to fully mix up and aerate the amended, turned-over soil. Go over the bed 2-4 times, and you end up with a finely churned, soft layer of top soil.
You can use hand tools to chop and mix the soil, but it's time-consuming, tiring and not quite as thorough.
Then use a dirt rake to smooth out the top of the tilled soil.
For a simple, natural look, you can finish your new beds with a beveled edge.
Just dig down along the edge about 4 inches deep, pushing the soil back into the bed and leaving a gap between the bed and the edge.
Then shape the soil so it slopes down to the bottom of the new edge at a 45 degree angle.
You could also use plastic edging, following these basic steps:
Dig down about 6 inches along the edge of your bed,
keeping the outside edge fairly plumb.
- Set the edging against that outside edge.
- Backfill the loose soil against the edging.
- Compact the soil to to embed the edging firmly.