2nd best way to start new garden beds?
May 1, 2018 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I know you're supposed to cover new beds in fall. I didn't do that. Now what?

I moved into my house late last summer and I had too many other projects to worry about the garden. I thought I would just make it a problem for future me. Well, future me is here, and I don't know what to do.

I have a few days off surrounding Memorial Day - and my mother is coming to help me - so I'd like to do some prep work ASAP so that we can work on planting while she's here.

1. My small front yard is a scraggly mess of lawn, weeds, and some random plants. I know where I want the flower beds to be. I don't know much about my particular soil, but I doubt it's great. It doesn't look like it has a bunch of clay to me but then again I grew up in the south so I'm used to dirt being red, not black. If it matters, I plan to grow a bunch of perennials and a couple climbing roses. I'll also plant bulbs in the fall.
Opt A: cover the new flower bed areas with newspaper and compost now, and till it all up over Memorial Day before planting.
Opt B: cover the beds with landscaping fabric and dump a bunch of new "raised bed" soil mix on top of it. I don't actually want to have the flowers in raised beds but a pile of dirt is basically the same thing, right?
Opt C: spray the bed areas with a bunch of weed and grass killer, and dig up that layer over Memorial Day weekend. Then, maybe, mix some compost and peat moss into the soil underneath?
Opt D: try to dig up the top layer with all the grass and weeds in it, before tilling in ....idk, more soil? Peat moss and compost? This sounds back breaking but I would do it if it's the only way.

2. In the back, I want to do a raised bed for a veggie garden. This one seems a little easier. I plan to cut the weeds and grass super low with a weed whacker, cover it with something - wet newspaper? - and then dump a bunch of "raised bed mix soil" into a 4x4 frame. Does this make sense?

3. Also in the backyard, along the garage, I want to grow sunflowers and melons. I could build a framed bed here and copy the tactic from #2, or I could copy whatever tactic I use in #1. I believe the melons will also need a mound, but that seems like it could go on top of whatever else I do.

Thankful for the input of any veteran gardeners.
posted by ohsnapdragon to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Where in the world are you? Not the south isn't terribly informative, and it does matter. Guessing you mean someplace maybe zone 5b-7a in temperate interior North America:

1. If no veggies/food here, not so terribly important. I'd do A, maybe spraying some roundup first, depending on weed species and density. If you go for native perennials, they should be fine with what you have. In many areas, enriching the soil will help invasive species and hinder natives that are used to poor soils. Landscaping cloth is for dufuses imo.

2. That's totally fine, keeping in mind there's a lot of volume there and it take far more bags and $$$ than you realize if you haven't done a serious estimate. Consider getting bulk delivery of high quality topsoil.

3. Raised beds for sunflowers and melons is fine and workable, but a huge waste of time and money imo. What you really want is a lot of good rich N fertilizer for the melons, people often sow them directly into compost bins. So start composting now and consider amending the soil with bagged composted manure or any other compost you can scare up.

*(Unasked) Sure it's fun to surge ahead, but it will save you so much time and money to learn to play the long game. Slow gardening will give you better soils, less weeds, better performance of flowers, foliage and food. If you look at a few years out, e.g. killing off grass with cardboard and leaf mulch is super effective and easy, but physically or chemically killing grass/removing grass in a week is lots of work. This applies to lots of things, so have fun this season, but keep the longer term in mind, and work smart!
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:34 PM on May 1, 2018

Response by poster: I'm zone 5b.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 5:11 PM on May 1, 2018

Best answer: If you kill the grass and weeds without removing them, they will decompose in the soil and raise the phosphorus levels and likely burn the roots of your new plants.
I would suggest digging up the whole area, removing vegetation and mixing in both peat and compost. Grasses especially deplete soil quality a great deal.
Doing it the hard way upfront is more work upfront, but it will save you more work later and prevent garden failures.
posted by OnefortheLast at 6:03 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Last year on Earth Day I hand tilled my whole front yard to turn it into a plant garden (your option D), but the constraint here is that the whole front yard is all of 120 square feet (we live in a rowhouse with a postage stamp yard). It took me about four and a half hours from start to finish, which is about what I guessed. Our water supply runs straight through the middle of the yard and if I'd rented a rotary tiller I still would have had to hand till almost a third of the yard, and I'd also have had to pick up the tiller and return it when I was done. Hand tilling also minimizes the problem of rhizomes. If you've got some weeds and you use a rotary tiller, you will have all the weeds when you're done.

If you can stand the labor, hand tilling will pretty much be one-and-done for getting rid of the grass. I bought a hoe and a fork to till with, and a rake to smooth out the new surface. The first couple rows sucked, but eventually I figured out how to use the tools somewhat efficiently. After that it was physical but methodical work. I cut cubes loose with the fork, and then dug them out as intact as I could manage with the hoe, flipping each cube into the adjacent row. I went down about 8-10 inches, and instead of trying to dig my rows a foot wide I just matched the width of the hoe. I had mulch and compost delivered the week before, so as I flipped, I incorporated the new compost.

I laid gardening fabric down less because I thought it would really help the garden, and more because it gave me a work surface to draw on with chalk as I planned our planting. I did a few freehand curves for the big stuff and some hex grids for dense flowers, but I probably could have done almost the same thing by dropping bulbs. When it comes time to replace the bulbs that never came up last year I'll probably not bother to replace the fabric.

I'm gonna do the slow kill for our back "yard" (a strip of grass about nine feet wide) when we have the budget to replant back there. I second the recommendation to do only some of the work right now and let the sun help you.
posted by fedward at 6:06 PM on May 1, 2018

Best answer: Please don't use weed and grass killer. I wouldn't till, either. I'd use newspaper or cardboard, soak through with a hose, pile some new soil on top, then mulch. See lasagna gardening and look up Ruth Stout (watch the video then buy her books because they're amazing and also really funny). I've been lasagna gardening/following ruth stout for 3 years now and at this point, I directly compost under a layer of mulch (hay, straw and leaves, in my case) and my soil is really healthy and productive with lots and lots of happy earthworms.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:36 PM on May 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and in my experience you can kill pretty much everything with cardboard for most of a season (I even strangled out a bunch of poison ivy with it--easy!) and heavy mulch makes anything that grows much more manageable to yank out.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:38 PM on May 1, 2018

Best answer: I'd go for option D (and I am doing that next weekend, making a new garden space in my yard). It's not painless but it doesn't involve chemicals and you'll get the quick results of goodbye grass and hello nice big canvas upon which to plant.

If you need to till and don't want to/aren't able to use a roto-tiller, you can do a pretty good job with a sod cutter and a broadfork. I used a similar kick sod cutter to create a 12'x20' many years ago, and it went lightning fast. However, it was flat ground with no rocks or anything like that, so ymmv. Broadforks are awesome but it's real physical work. I find that it works well to just break up the soil, not flip it - so go in at a slight angle leaning towards you, lift the soil up halfway, and let it go. Then move one step ahead and do it again with the next patch. This does a pretty good job of breaking it up. I'm going this route with the garden space I'm making next week because I will be close to both a sidewalk and a fence, and I don't trust myself wielding a gas-powered machine near things that shouldn't be coming in contact with it.

A lot of garden centers or tool rental places will have these tools to rent. Or, you could ask around to see if someone will let you borrow a broadfork/tiller/sod cutter.

One note: if you're cutting the sod up, you'll need to have a plan for where to put it. Sod is heavy and bulky. If you've got bad patches of grass in your yard you can fill it in (cut the bad sod out and graft the good sod in, don't just put the good sod on top of the bad sod) or maybe you've got a friend who just had their yard torn up for utility work or something. Anyway, think ahead. If I don't find someone to take my cut sod, I will put it up for free on NextDoor or Craigslist to get rid of it...and I would recommend you do the same too if you have to! Just leaving it in a corner for later will result in you having a mud pile for all of eternity once it rains and it compacts down.
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:18 PM on May 1, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the feedback. I think I'm going to hand-till the flower bed areas (since I don't want to raise them significantly above the rest of the yard) and use the lasagna method for the veggie and sunflower gardens.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 7:32 AM on May 2, 2018

Best answer: Quick note from a former Chicago gardener: I was surprised at the amount of clay I found when turning the soil in my yard. It's not red like the clay I remember from visiting family friends in the south when I was a kid. Rather, it's beige and gray-tinged. I'm sure I worked literally tons of peat and composted manure into my garden beds the first few seasons in order to get the soil into decent shape for gardening.
posted by she's not there at 3:29 PM on May 2, 2018

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