Getting Started on the Right Foot: How to Create a New Garden

06.07.11 By //

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In our last foray into the garden over here at The Design Confidential, I chided you all to stay the heck out of your garden when the soil is sodden. But what if you don’t have a garden yet, or you want to create a new garden … how in the heck do you get started? A lot of people might run off to the local rental place or their neighbor to borrow a tiller and I’m going to tell you, that’s really not the best way to start a garden.

But first, let me just backtrack a little to just quickly give you a little insight into my gardening philosophy. I think people make too big of a deal about it. There is a complicated way to garden and a simple way to garden and a whole lot of stages in between. Lean too much toward simple and you’ll end up frustrated at your lack of success. Lean too much toward the complicated side and you might get so overwhelmed with the details that you either never get started or burn out quickly. So find a balance that’s right for you and don’t be afraid to let that balance change over time: If one year you’re really into gardening, go all out, but if the next year you just had a baby or got a job promotion that limits your gardening time, simplify things a little until the time is right for a change. Don’t let guilt be an excuse not to garden.

Probably the easiest kind of garden to start (other than a container garden) is a raised garden bed. First, of course, you’ll need the framework for your bed, and for that you can buy a pre-made raised beds, corner system or make your own. One you have that in place, it’s simply a matter of filling it with dirt. If burrowing critters (particularly voles) are a problem in your area, you may want to consider putting down some one-inch square hardwire mesh over the ground. If not, I like to use a garden fork to just loosen up the soil below. You don’t have to dig up the grass before you pile in your dirt.

It’s worth spending some time and money to get your soil right from the get-go. You only get one chance to easily make the soil right so you might as well do it right from the beginning. I like to get a combination of blended topsoil and compost. If you’re ordering topsoil (which is usually more economical than buying it in bags), tell the nursery or place you’re ordering it from that you are using it for a raised bed garden. You want to make sure that they understand you are buying it for a garden, not for just filling in for a lawn. I like to do at least 1/3 compost and blend it all well. This will yield a lovely, fluffy soil that your plants will love.

If you’re planting in the ground, you’ve got a few options and almost all will still require amending the soil. The easiest, and best in my opinion, is to make a lasagna bed, but it does require patience. Like a season…At least. Still, if you plan a little you’ll save yourself some hard labor and get great soil. Making a lasagna bed could be a whole post on it’s own, so perhaps we shall do exactly that and cover it shortly? For now, Google it if you need some additional info. The basics, however, involve covering the area you want to turn into a garden with several layers of newspaper (cardboard can work too). By several, I mean somewhere in the neighborhood of seven, but that is a whole lot of Sunday papers and a lot of unfolding. So here’s my secret tip: Find a newspaper print shop (smaller may be easier to deal with, but it’s worth a try anywhere) and ask for an “end roll.” These are the ends of the huge rolls of paper used to print newspapers on. There are usually hundreds if not a thousand or more feet of paper left on them. Sometimes they’ll make you pay for end rolls, but they really shouldn’t because newspapers have to pay to recycle them otherwise. (By the way, anyone with kids should tap into this too, they are great for the little artists in your life and you can do all kinds of fun projects with them.) Covering up the area you want to turn into a garden will go a lot faster if you can just roll out (wet it as you go so it doesn’t blow all over the place, because THAT will make you cranky) the paper instead of pulling it apart!

This was an area of the yard I reclaimed from some nasty weeds using the lasagna bed (or sheet composting) method.

You can see how nasty the weeds behind it were. I chopped the worst of them down with a weed whacker but then just papered right over the top of them.

This award-winning (or, um, not) shot, taken in a rain storm from my living room, apparently through the window and the screen, show the area well papered, partly covered in straw. I later added soaked alfalfa cubes I purchased at a feed store (grass clippings would have been just as good) and some finished compost on top to get it “cooking.”

After you’ve got the paper down, you want to throw on anything you would throw into a compost pile and roughly alternate “browns” and “greens.” Wait a season, throw on some finished compost or maybe a little topsoil and go for it. The benefit of this method is that you don’t have to start by removing the existing material because the paper smothers it all. Grass can technically be turned under into a bed, but I think it’s a lot easier to just get rid of it all together. Weeds are another story. Those little suckers will come back to haunt you, so ideally you’ll pull out all the big ones and you’ll have plenty of years of ridding yourself of the smaller ones, but eventually you’ll get through it.

Gardening purists might tell you to double dig. This will certainly create a lovely garden bed. And probably be a great workout because it’s a ton of work. To double dig a bed you want to 1. Dig a trench that is 18 inches deep and about a foot wide (pitch the dirt to the end of the bed because you’ll need it at the end). 2.) Dig another trench right next to the first one, but throw the dirt from it into the first trench. As you go, throw in some compost. 3.) Repeat until you’ve done the whole bed, when you can put the dirt from the first trench in. Tired yet?

And, of course, you can rototill, but you’ll be killing a lot of great little critters in your soil in the process: earthworms and the little beneficial fungi called mychorrizae to name two. And consider that it’s likely that you’ll spend the rest of your gardening life trying to get those things back INTO the soil, why not start your relationship with them off on the right foot?

Once you get your garden all fluffed up, you’re ready to plant and that’s when the fun really starts.

For more Gardening Goodness and other fabulous DIY articles, visit Erin at her site: The Impatient Gardener.

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