How To Make Garden Beds Without Too Much Fuss

– Posted in: How-to, New House, New Gardens

If you don’t want to dig and you don’t want to pile, try this.

When I first started gardening, the “proper” way to prepare a garden bed was double digging. I wouldn’t recommend that for anything except really long-lived plants, like peonies and asparagus.

These days many people recommend lasagna gardening or something similar. I tried that, and it didn’t work too well for me. The biggest mistake I made was not making sure the bindweed was thoroughly dead before I laid down the cardboard and newspaper. I also didn’t pile up as much organic matter as I should have, due to not having enough around and not wanting to buy it. And thirdly, I didn’t want to wait for everything to rot and settle.

I Didn’t Want to Dig & I Didn’t Want to Pile

So I didn’t want to dig and I didn’t want to pile. Also I had read Jeff Lowenfel’s Teaming with Microbesand realized that the more you disturb the soil layers, the more you set back the microbes that are the real life force of soil fertility.

So I came up with a hybrid method, a compromise between ideal soil preparation and my limitations of time and money. (And space. Storing up enough newspaper to cover a new garden bed thickly requires storage space that other family members might prefer to put to other uses.)

The first thing I do is mark the bed with landscape paint, which was discussed in the previous post.

Use landscape paint to outline your new garden bed

Use landscape paint to outline your new garden bed

Remove the Sod

After that, I cut along the painted edge with a sharp spade. Then I find a teenage boy and hand him a mattock. I am not kidding you. I ask one of my strong sons to use a mattock and remove the sod. They learned from their father how to skim the sod off with shallow cuts, leaving as much soil behind as possible. The sod is used to fill bare or uneven spots in our lawn, used as fill, or thrown onto the compost pile.

Remove sod from the expanded garden bed

You can see the difference in level between the original bed and where the sod was removed.

After the sod has been removed, I remove any plants I want to save. In this case there were two small hydrangeas that I moved to a different bed, and I also rescued those Johnny-jump-ups you can see in the photo. And then I removed the weeds as well.

Knowing that the most fertile soil is around the roots of the grass that was just removed, I used to pound the pieces of sod and shake out as much loose dirt as possible. And even after that, the soil level would still not be up to its previous level. I finally realized sod-pounding was not the best use of my time, so now I try to line up some organic matter to replace what was taken away–but not as much as you would need with the lasagna method.

Add Organic Matter

Since we’ve moved here, I’ve discovered a horse breeder a couple of miles away who sells well-rotted manure by the pickup truck load. He uses this little front-loader to toss and turn the pile frequently. I’m not sure if the pile generates enough heat to kill weed seeds, or the seeds sprout but then get killed by the disturbance, but I have had very little weeds come up from this soil amendment. Again with the help of family members, I shovel the well-rotted barn cleanings out of the back of the truck and onto the bed.

Well-rotted manure has been added to this garden bed.

We just got done shoveling the manure out of the truck. Oops, it looks like I still need to remove some plants.

Don’t Dig It In!

Now here is where I depart from my previous practice. I used to dig all this good stuff into the native soil. I don’t do that anymore. I dig to the extent necessary to plant something, but I don’t uniformly dig through the whole bed. That’s my concession to what I learned from Mr. Lowenfels. The idea is to avoid disturbing the soil layers any more than you have to. And it is a heck of a lot less work and time.

Supposedly the earth worms will eventually incorporate the organic matter into the native soil. I haven’t seen that with my own two eyes. But the plants at the old house that were planted this way seemed to do fine. And really, it makes more sense to create a garden with plants that are adapted to the conditions you’ve got. If you have to heavily amend the soil and other conditions to make your plants happy, you’re making a lot of extra work for yourself. And it doesn’t stop with bed preparation. You’re going to have to keep babying them. Is the pleasure you get from those particular plants going to outweigh the extra effort, time, and expense? Only you can answer that question. Just don’t grow something because everyone else is growing it. End of rant.

Rake It & Make It Look Good

The rotted manure has been raked smooth over this new garden bed.

Raked smooth and ready to be planted. Now the fun begins!

After I rake everything smooth, I’m ready to plant. This is the process I went through with all the beds I’ve created since I’ve moved here. Ideally, once they are planted, all the bare soil is covered with mulch. For the most part that hasn’t happened, but the weed problem hasn’t been too bad because that manure has been well-composted. I really think in order for a garden to thrive, more organic matter should be added every year, but I don’t manage it on every bed every year. That’s the goal I aim for, though.

This post is part of a continuing series chronicling how I am designing new gardens at my new (to me) house. All the posts are gathered under the category New House, New Gardens. Here is an overview and map of the environs.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Carol - May Dreams Gardens February 6, 2014, 4:55 pm

That’s similar to what I’ve done, though I cleared off the sod myself. I found it helped to cut the grass as short as possible before digging it out.

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2014, 7:07 pm

Yes, and it helps a lot if you have good soil to start with, too, which I know you do.

ro February 6, 2014, 3:56 pm

What is a mattock?
I have had fun collecting old jack o lanterns and ground up leaves to make “lasagne”. It does take more patience than I have right now.

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2014, 7:11 pm

I guess what we call a mattock is more specifically a Pick Mattock. The boys use the broad blade to remove sod.

Peter Roberts February 6, 2014, 2:40 pm

This was great! I loved the step by step process, and I think you’re garden is going to thrive come spring.

I especially liked that you pointed out that you have to keep taking care of the bed even after you’ve planted. The work is nonstop! (Though it is fun work…)

Betsy February 6, 2014, 12:11 pm

Loved this post, Kathy. But not having a horse breeder down the road, what can I use for fill? Any suggestions?

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2014, 7:19 pm

Betsy, I agree that finding a plentiful source of organic matter can be a challenge, especially if you tend to keep to yourself or don’t have easy access to a pickup truck. At our old house the county landfill composted all the yard waste (leaves, etc.) that the municipalities collected and offered it free to those willing to shovel it into their truck. You could check to see if there is a program like that near you. That is what I used before I discovered this horse breeder. (He made it easy to be discovered–had a big piece of plywood with the words Garden Gold spray-painted on it propped in front of the pile in easy sight of the road.) I have to admit I only developed this method after my oldest son bought a truck. Before that I was limited to the compost I could generate from my own garden and kitchen waste and there was never enough to go around.

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2014, 10:10 am

Glad to brighten your day, Kathy.

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern February 6, 2014, 9:04 am

Wow, you have got your process down! I have used newspaper and cardboard topped with compost (if I have) and mulch in my own garden but always “cut” an edge to define the bed. It seems to help to edge the area. I certainly see the value in hiring someone to do the sod removal! I am getting rid of my entire lawn one day. Love seeing your progress and all that nice dark organic matter without snow cover!