Perhaps you have a place where you want to create a new garden bed, but the project has been delayed because the task seems so daunting. Actually planting the shrubs and flowers is the fun and easy part, but preparing the new garden bed seems like an awful lot of work.
First you want to kill off the existing grass, then turn or rototill the soil and apply soil amendments before you can even begin to start planting. Anticipating all the labor and resulting blisters may prevent you from ever getting started on the garden bed.
Creating a new garden bed doesn’t have to involve that much work. Of course it’s not going to be completely effortless, but a new garden bed can be created in as little as one afternoon. It can even be done without using chemicals to kill the existing grass, if you wish.
Let’s assume that the area where you are planning your garden bed is now planted in grass. But even if it is a weedy area on the edge of your property, creating your new garden bed will involve the same steps. The first thing to do is to mark the area where the garden bed is going to be created.
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Spend some time on this step. You want to get it right the first time so you don’t have to revisit the project later.
The easiest way to mark out your garden bed is to use a can of marking paint that can be purchased at a hardware store. Marking paint is designed specifically for painting lines on the ground and it only works when the can is inverted. You may even find cans of spray chalk instead of paint for marking out your garden bed. I’ve always used the paint because the lines will hold up better if they happen to get wet.
When outlining the area for your new garden bed, give careful consideration to what is going to be planted in the bed, and then determine how large each plant is going to be when fully mature. You can keep shrubs trimmed to a certain size and perennials can be divided to keep them at the desired size, but be realistic when making estimates of their mature size.
Trust me when I tell you that underestimating the size of plants as they mature and making the garden bed too small for the mature plants is the Number One mistake made by do-it-yourself landscapers. If the garden bed is too small, the landscape is going to look silly as the plants mature and reach their full potential.
Typically, a garden bed should never be narrower than 42” and corner beds should be at least twelve feet in diameter. What about island beds? A tiny island bed floating out in the middle of a spacious front lawn just looks terrible! To make an island bed look good, it must be twenty to forty feet long and a minimum of twelve feet in diameter on at least one end.
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Once you have the outline of the garden bed established, you’ll need to get rid of the existing grass or weeds in that area. First I’ll tell you how to use chemicals to accomplish this, then I’ll explain another method that does not use chemicals. Both methods are very effective.
A chemical that can be used for killing grass and weeds is RoundUp, and when used properly it is highly effective. Always read the label before using any chemical herbicide or insecticide to make sure you are mixing and applying it as recommended by the manufacturer. RoundUp is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill nearly any plant it touches, so you do want to be careful when applying this herbicide.
Always use RoundUp in a sprayer that will not be used for other purposes. You’ll need a sprayer that is dedicated for the use of herbicides. You sure don’t want to mix fertilizer in that same sprayer later on and risk killing the plants you were trying to feed!
To minimize spray drift, adjust the spray nozzle so the spray pattern is narrow and the droplets are larger. A wide, fine spray pattern is sure to drift outside of the intended area and kill plants you didn’t want to harm. Also keep the pressure in the sprayer quite low.
Pump the sprayer just enough to deliver the spray. High pressure causes the spray to atomize and drift. Do not choose a windy day to apply RoundUp, as the wind will carry the spray onto other plants. Apply just enough RoundUp spray to wet the foliage. If the liquid is dripping off the foliage, you are applying too much. More is not better!
Once the future garden bed has been sprayed with herbicide, be careful to not step in the area while the herbicide is still wet. Many folks have left golden footprints of dead grass across their lawn because they forgot and walked through what had been just sprayed.
Pay attention to this next step. Once RoundUp has been applied to an area, leave that area alone for 72 hours. That’s three days. RoundUp is a systemic herbicide, meaning it has to be absorbed by the plant and translocated throughout the plant before that plant will die. It takes three days for that to happen.
If it should rain within 24 hours after the RoundUp is applied, the chemical will wash off the plant and it cannot do its job. So watch the weather forecast and apply RoundUp only when no rain is forecast for at least 24 hours. After the RoundUp has had a chance to work for three days, your garden bed project can progress to the next phase.
Now let’s talk about how to kill the existing vegetation without the use of chemical herbicides. You’ll be amazed at how simply and quickly you can accomplish this task.
To kill the existing grass or weeds, all you’ll need is a stack of newspapers or some cardboard boxes. If you’re going to use cardboard boxes, any staples or plastic taping should be removed from the boxes, and the boxes should be flattened so they are just one long layer. Use heavy cardboard that is not heavily colored, or eight to ten layers of newspaper.
Newspapers these days are printed with soy-based ink, so the ink will not create a problem for your plants. But do avoid using the glossy inserts from the newspaper. Some people say to avoid using the Sunday comics because it could make the plants grow funny. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!
Next, spread the layers of newspaper or cardboard over the entire garden bed area, making sure to overlap the edges so the grass beneath it is completely covered. The cardboard or newspaper will smother the grass and prevent it from growing up through your new garden bed.
The beauty of this method is that it is so easy to accomplish, it recycles material that nearly everyone has on hand, and it is completely organic. Over time, the paper and cardboard will moisten and disintegrate and become food for earthworms in your soil. But by the time it disintegrates, the grass beneath it will be dead, and any weed seeds that are buried deeply beneath the garden bed will have no chance of germinating.
Smothering the grass with newspaper or cardboard is a lot easier on your back than digging out the grass with a shovel. The only digging you’ll need to do is to peel back a fifteen-inch wide strip of sod from around the edge of the bed to prevent the grass from encroaching on the garden bed. This will also make it easier to mulch the bed later if you wish to do so.
Once the existing grass has been dealt with, you are now ready to fill the garden bed with topsoil. Pile eight to twelve inches of good, rich topsoil in the bed. Make sure the soil is higher in the center of the bed so excess water will drain off the bed, and if the bed is up against your house, the back of the bed closest to the wall should be the high point.
When purchasing topsoil, make sure it drains well and is rich in organic matter. How will you know this? Buying topsoil is tricky, and it should never be purchased sight unseen. If you are purchasing topsoil from a mulch yard, you must see and feel the topsoil before deciding whether or not it is good stuff. If you are buying it by the bag, ask if they have a bag that has been opened, so you can get a look at the soil inside.
Topsoil that is rich in organic matter will be very dark in color. If the soil is light in color, it is probably just fill sand. The other thing to watch for is how well the soil drains. Topsoil that is clay-based will be sticky and drain poorly, and your plants won’t like it at all. It will keep their roots too wet, and after the soil dries out it will become hard as a rock.
When choosing topsoil, you’ll want to have a pair of gardening gloves with you because you absolutely must feel the soil. Scoop up a handful of the topsoil, give it a squeeze and run it through your fingers. If it seems grainy, it is probably good soil.
But if the soil remains in a clump after you squeeze it in your hand, it is probably a clay-based soil that will trap water during rainy spells and become hard as a rock when the weather is hot and dry. Good soil should clump together somewhat when it is squeezed but break apart and crumble again very easily.
When buying topsoil from a mulch yard, ask how their soil is screened. Some have machines that shake the soil over a set of screens to separate the soil from any debris, while others actually run the soil through a shredder. If the soil needs to be shredded, you don’t want it. It has to be shredded because otherwise it would be hard as a rock, and it will become hard as a rock again once you get it in your garden bed. If the pile of topsoil appears to be fairly loose, it’s probably good soil.
If you’re concerned that the topsoil you’ve purchased won’t have enough nutrition for your plants, go ahead and spread one or two inches of compost over the soil. The compost can be mixed in a bit by raking over it gently, or it can be left in a layer over the top of the soil. Nutrients from the compost will filter down into the root zone as it rains, and it will also become mixed with the soil as the garden bed is planted.
Once the soil is in place, you’re ready for the fun part of this project; planting your new garden bed!