I need to create flowerbeds from scratch
March 26, 2012 4:40 AM   Subscribe

We have a house with exactly zero flowerbeds (or landscaping in general for that matter) and it has no curb appeal whatsoever. THIS SHALL NOT STAND! I have some experience gardening, but creating beds from scratch seems a bit major at first glace. Help me make new flowerbeds, and help me make a good plan for our new beds.

1. We're in Zone 5 (Central New Brunswick, Canada).
2. I intend to have a mix of perennials and annuals.
3. We are going to make one large bed in the front yard that will get lots of light.
4. We are going to make another medium sized bed in front of/around the flag pole that also gets lots of light.
5. We are going to make a third smaller bed that will get some shade from nearby trees, but will still a fair amount of light.
6. I'm not interested in vegetable gardening.
7. We don't have a gigantic amount of money to invest in this, and the flowers/plants themselves are going to cost a pretty penny, so the new beds need to be DIY.

I have experience gardening and have had a very successful garden at the place I lived at previous to this, but I've never gone zero to sixty garden wise before, so it is a big project. I have read on numerous sites that you don't HAVE to dig up the sod when making a new bed, that you can just layer newspaper/cardboard directly on to the sod, then cover it with a whack of compost/manure/black earth and then finish it with a layer of wood chips and let it sit for six weeks, keeping it watered and moist in that time, and then ta da! You have a new bed ready for planting! Is this reasonable? Sounds too good to be true.

Also, looking for some sites that could lend a hand in terms of helping me make logical choices for the things I plant in my fancy new beds. In a perfect world I'll still be able to have a fairly full, colourful garden this summer, even though it is all brand new. This may be unrealistic.
posted by gwenlister to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
GardenWeb is a great resource, with forums covering every conceivable gardening concern. This link takes you to their Canada forums, but you might find help elsewhere on the site as well.
posted by 6thsense at 5:13 AM on March 26, 2012

If you are going to bring in good earth to layer on top of your sod then your procedure would work fine; I'm not even sure if you need to wait six weeks though it'll give your much a chance to settle.

Around here (zone 5ish) it is just about time to split Irises; if those are acceptable to your plan then you can probably get large quantities from anyone who has them for free.
posted by Mitheral at 5:20 AM on March 26, 2012

Seconding GardenWeb.

Have you seen YardShare.com?

Here is a garden in Ontario, zone 5. "When we purchased this new home, there was nothing but grass. So we decided to take on the task of building this garden."

I think the layering method can work. I have also read about it numerous times. I have never tried it because I never planned well in the winter. I am in zone 9 and don't have a lot of advice. My standby garden advice is to know yourself. As you know gardening is full-time job.
posted by Fairchild at 5:52 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent most of my teen and college years working for a very high end garden design and build firm.

We would have never left the sod in place unless we were putting raised beds on top of it. Cut the sod out. Get a good spade and mattock and go to work. Put Steel edging in, and then do your bed prep.

Bed prep is the hard part, don't try to shortcut it.

Hell we used to double-dig entire beds if we weren't happy with the soil. It's worth it.

Your method is going to make little berms. It would probably be OK for annuals and smaller perennials if you build a big enough layer of soil on top, but I'm not sure how many seasons it would last for. I would not do it near any trees though as you'll be suffocating them.

If you are really resistant to cutting the sod then build raised beds. They'll be stable at least.
posted by JPD at 6:03 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, remove the sod. I use a flat shovel to cut the sod into manageable size (18"x18" works for me), then slide a spud fork underneath to loosen and remove the sod.
posted by buggzzee23 at 6:49 AM on March 26, 2012

That cardboard with toppings method did not work for me. We have a strong lawn and it pushed the cardboard up and kept on growing. We tried newspaper, which was no match for our lawn and, worse, blew away.

If you want to kill or at least discourage the grass in the next few weeks, cover the future bed area with a rug you don't care for or use dark plastic and weight it down. Even if this knocks down the grass a bit, you'll still need to remove the turf before you plant. Cut out small sections and scoop them up, being sure to get all of the roots off with the sod. Or edge out a narrow section and scoop under one end and roll it up as you go. If you store these sod-side down, they will eventually rot into some nice soil.

We use a modified double digging method I learned from John Jeavons. The biointensive entry from wikipedia gives a clear explanation. It' s easier on your back than true double digging. You wind up with a slightly raised bed.

About choosing plants--I buy what I like, at least three of each type, and plant one in the soil/exposure it supposedly likes, and I plant one in a nursery bed and one somewhere else. Then I see what succeeds and where, and I plant more of those.

Create beds in a shape that won't make mowing the lawn harder than need be.
posted by sevenstars at 8:05 AM on March 26, 2012

Rather than making square beds, I use a garden hose to layout the shape of my new beds. It helps me form gently curves that aren't too difficult to mow around. I then scrape up most of the grass trying to avoid overworking the soil and disturbing dormant weed seeds. You could augment the soil by adding a layer of compost. You might also consider winding a soaker hose throughout the bed to make watering easier down the road. Next, a two-sheet layer of newspaper, followed by a layer of sphagnum or peat moss. Then I layout the plants, being sure to leave plenty of room around each one. It'll look sparse at first, but there's a lot more later than now, so plan for growth. (This is the hardest part of all.) Make a map so you know what you put where. After the first season, mulch with chopped leaf mulch.
posted by crunchland at 9:07 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Zone 5, Ottawa.

I'd cut the sod. I've tried to use layers of newspaper as weed control/killer on a new bed, and covering it with cedar mulch too. I still had a lot of breakthroughs, one every few inches, after a season. The only thing that worked was putting down sun-blocking geotextile, and even that wasn't perfect.

You want to dig the sod because you'll want to improve the soil anyway, and probably raise the bed a bit. You might need to add compost and/or sand, particularly if you've got a clay soil---the bane of the Ottawa Valley.

You'll also want to cut the grass back, so grass doesn't spread back into the new bed. You can do this by cutting a 3-4" deep trench at the grass edge or by using edging. I like using the cheap plastic stuff sold in rolls. It's pretty much invisible when it's in, you can mow over it and it's cheap. Tip: before you install it, leave it in the sun for an hour or so. This softens it and makes it much easier to unroll.

I'm not much of a gardener, but I like and have had a lot of success with northern roses. They're easy as anything to grow in Zone 5 and tough as nails. I'm not talking about hybrid teas, which are marginal in our climate, and have to be babied through the winter, but the tough Pavement and Explorer and Mordens. Some of those are Zone 2 (Yukon!) and grow like weeds in Zone 5. This article talks about some of the heirloom varieties available in the Maritimes.

Finally, Ed Lawrence is a source of great advice for Canadian gardeners. He's the head gardener for the Governor General in Ottawa, and he's been doing a weekly phone in show on the local CBC radio affiliate for decades. Some of his columns and shows have been collected as podcasts.
posted by bonehead at 9:34 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Montreal reporting. Last fall I tried the thick newspaper & dirt over a section of my recently created veggie garden. I had quite a lot of grass coming up last summer cause I'm lousy at sod removal apparently. Grass is still coming through in sections already this spring. So as stated above, far from perfect as a technique, sadly.

Veseys keeps pitching me their rototiller. Maybe you are in the market?
posted by Cuke at 9:43 AM on March 26, 2012

You have to use A LOT of newspaper/cardboard on top of sod to prevent it coming through. I did many beds using less so I learned the hard way. But I found it worthwhile with tons of mulch on top. I have a bad back so removing sod is out of the question for DIY.

In addition, I planted straight into the grass and did the newspaper at the same time. This works quite well actually, I think the sod breaking down adds to the soil. But you have to be careful where your plants and sod meet to do extra covering there so the grass doesn't break through.

I do not recommend rototilling - that can bring up dormant seeds and generally disturbs the soil too much.

I really like DavesGarden.com. They have a plant finder where you can put in various characteristics like zone, sun quantity, etc and it'll give you a list of matching plants. Like gardenweb, it has lots of forums where folks are very helpful.

Good luck!
posted by evening at 5:56 AM on March 27, 2012

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