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 necessary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 options:
- 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 the grass.
- 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.
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.
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 before planting.
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 rototiller.
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.