Ready to start a garden?
You could do what a friend of mine
did: She threw some topsoil on top
of an unused wooden sandbox, let
her 6-year-old choose the seeds
(strawberries, green beans, watermelon)
and watered haphazardly.
Net result? They ate a lot of green
beans, and most of the rest of the
plants were no-shows.
So maybe you’d want to start a
garden the right way instead—do
the planning, test the soil and cultivate
the ideal soil conditions for
the plants you choose. Here we’ll
show you how to start a garden—any size!—from scratch. All it takes
is basic garden tools. A sod cutter
to remove the grass and a rototiller
make the job go faster but aren’t
Track the sunlight
The amount of sunlight your garden
gets will determine which plants you
should choose. You’ll have the widest
selection of plants to pick from if you
place the garden in full sun to light
shade. Vegetables require full sun.
You probably have an idea where
you want to plant flowers to enhance
the landscape. If so, pick plants suited
for those growing conditions (like
full sun, partial sun or shade). Take
photos of the proposed site throughout
the day so that when you shop
for flowers, you’ll have a reference of
how much sun the area gets. If you’re
flexible on the garden location, choose
a spot that suits the sun requirements
of the plants you want. Take a trip to
a garden center to see what plants are
available for your zone and how much
sun your favorites will need (visit
usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html for a plant Hardiness zone map).
Unless you’re planning a rain garden,
avoid gardening in low spots in
the yard where water collects. In the
fall, low areas tend to be frost pockets,
which can shorten your growing
season. A well-drained area will yield
the best plants.
Outline the garden bed
Use a garden hose or landscaping
paint to mark the perimeter of the garden
bed. Avoid creating tight angles
that would make it hard to mow
around the garden. Gentle curves
look more natural than sharp corners.
And make the size manageable—you
can always add on later if you decide
you want a bigger garden.
Don’t dig yet. Wait at least one
full day so you can look at the site
from various vantage points (like
your deck or living room) and at
different times of the day. It’s a lot
easier to change the shape or location
now than after you’ve started digging.
Once you decide on the layout,
call 811 to have underground utilities
marked (for free!). You’ll have
to identify irrigation lines on your
own—they usually run in straight lines between sprinkler heads.
Test the soil
A soil test will tell you whether you need to add amendments such as
lime, nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium to the soil.
Test kits are available at home and garden centers, but use a university
extension service or a state-certified soil-testing lab instead to get the
most accurate results. Enter “university extension service” and your
state in any search engine to find the nearest
lab. Contact the lab to get the necessary paperwork
to submit with your sample. Test fees are
usually $15 to $20, and results take one to two
weeks. Dig down 6 in. and scoop up a trowel
full of soil. Take samples from 5 to 10 areas in
the garden and mix them in a clean bucket.
Wait for the soil to dry (this can take several
days), then mail it to the extension service.
Retest the soil every three to five years.
Edge the garden
Now that the prep work is
done, you can dig and plant
your garden in a weekend.
The first step is edging the garden
bed. Use a square shovel
or an edger to dig down about
6 in., slicing through the grass
roots around the garden bed. After making the
slices, dig around the garden edge at a slight angle
to remove a 3-in. swath of grass and create a small
trench. This keeps the sod cutter or herbicide
from going into your yard when you remove or
kill grass in the garden.
Remove the sod
The grass has to go—you
can’t just till it under or it’ll
grow back and you’ll never
get rid of it. Digging up turf
is hard work, so do yourself
a favor and rent a power sod
cutter from a rental center. Set the
blade to cut just below the
roots and slice the grass into
long strips. Then roll the sod
into easy-to-carry bundles.
Use the sod to fill bare spots
in the yard, or compost it to
use later in your garden.
Ways to Get Rid of Grass
A sod cutter is the fastest way to remove grass,
but you can kill it and till it instead. Here are three
- Herbicide. Spray with a non-select herbicide.
Spray the herbicide after you’ve edged the garden
so the weed-and-grass killer won’t run into the
lawn. If anything is still growing after seven days,
spray it again and wait another seven days.
- Plastic. Stake down clear plastic that’s at least
2 mil thick
over the garden for six to eight weeks to kill
- Mulch. Place your mower deck on its lowest setting
and cut the grass. Then cover the area with at
least 2 in. of newspaper, cardboard, leaves or wood
chips and keep them wet. The covering and grass
will naturally decompose, giving you rich compost,
but this process takes several months.
Keep out grass
Add a border to keep grass in your lawn from invading your
garden; it’s hard to get rid of once it does. Home and garden
centers sell a variety of border and edging materials.
Strips of steel, aluminum or heavy-duty plastic work best on fairly even terrain and are
unobtrusive. Pavers form a wide border
that allows flowers to spill over and provides a flat surface to mow over. A
raised stone wall contains the garden and looks attractive, but it’s the most expensive option. Be sure your border extends at least 4 in. into the ground to keep out grass.
Fertilize to suit your soil
Your soil test will tell you the type
of fertilizer your garden needs.
Fertilizer labels list the three main
nutrients needed for plant growth.
A 10-20-10 formula, for example,
contains 10 percent nitrogen (N),
20 percent phosphorus (P) and 10
percent potassium (K).
Buy a slow-release granular fertilizer
that contains the appropriate
percentage of the nutrients your
soil needs. If your soil only needs
one nutrient, don’t bother adding
the others (some fertilizers contain
just one nutrient, such as a
20-0-0). Apply the fertilizer just
Back to Top
Enrich the soil
Adding organic matter such
as compost, manure or peat
moss increases drainage in
clay soils and water-holding
capacity in sandy soils.
It also makes the soil more
permeable, which encourages
root growth and attracts
organisms that leave nutrients
in the soil. There isn’t
one best type of organic matter,
so buy whatever’s the
least expensive in your area.
Spread 2 to 4 in. of organic
matter over the garden. You
can work it into the top 6 to
10 in. of soil with a shovel
by digging down, then flipping
the load over to mix the
organic matter and soil. But a
faster, easier way is to use a
Consider a Raised Bed
If it’s almost impossible to grow plants in your soil (heavy clay, poor drainage,
rocky), a raised garden bed is the perfect solution. It lets you bring in
good soil and create the ideal garden bed. It also lets you garden without
bending over as far or working on your hands and knees. Limit the size of
the bed so you can reach all the plants from the border, and build it at least
12 in. deep to fill with topsoil.
To begin, cut the grass in the area and cover it with cardboard or layers
of newspaper to kill it. The paper will decompose into organic material.
Then build the bed and fill it with topsoil, mixing organic matter into the
top 6 to 10 in.