soil preparation: 7 ways to make a garden bed
HOW DO YOU GET your garden soil ready for growing things each spring? Do you till to prepare your beds, or double-dig them, or roughly turn in compost—or are you a no-till type who uses some passive tactic?
Garden preparation methods aren’t just about fostering good soil to grow healthy plants. Just as important, they are also an organic gardener’s main tool in all-natural weed control. The best practices, properly timed, can stop them, or at least limit them, before they get a foothold.
When I began gardening, I always turned or tilled, and deeply. Today, however, I know that such soil disturbance may actually unearth weed seeds that then sprout, so in many situations, less-is-more is my soil preparation approach when I want to convert a patch of lawn to garden use, or smother a weedy area in an existing bed. There’s a method for every gardener and situation in your garden. I’ve outlined seven:
1. smother it! make a bed with cardboard or newsprint
MAYBE the easiest and most economical way to transform an area of lawn (or some weedy spot) into a planting bed for ornamentals or edibles capitalizes on the magic of two recyclables, corrugated cardboard and newsprint. I simply place over mown lawn or an area I’ve cut back, then moisten and pin or weigh down (with earth staples or stones) and cover with mulch. Like this.
2. add heat! solarizing or tarping garden beds with plastic
THE PRACTICE of covering moistened soil with clear plastic for a period of weeks, called solarization, creates a local greenhouse effect as solar energy heats up water molecules in the soil, potentially reaching temperatures hot enough to kill pests, including plant pathogens and weeds. But clear or black plastic, and when and for how long? Read more.
3. top-dress with compost: no-till garden preparation
MY FRIEND Lee Reich hasn’t turned one vegetable garden in 15-plus years since he created it; his other growing area hasn’t been turned in more than 30. Both deliver bountiful harvests (proof positive in the photo above), and all he does each year: Lee minimizes soil disturbance by not tilling or pulling things too roughly in fall, and adds an inch of compost then as a topdressing. That’s right: Don’t dig your compost deep into the soil, he says. Learn more.
4. hügelkultur: nature’s style of raised beds
A CENTURIES-OLD, sustainable way of making raised garden beds called hugelkultur, or hill culture, is “like sheet mulching or lasagna gardening,” says Dave Whitinger of National Gardening Association, but in hugelkultur, “wood is the first level of your sheet-mulched bed.” How to build nature’s version of raised beds—recycling “debris” while creating fertile beds. (That’s Dave’s prolific onion hugel bed, above.)
5. straw bales: a moveable garden (no bed required)
DON’T have a sunny spot for those tomatoes in the ground anywhere? What about a portable, pop-up garden planted in straw bales (or grow bags or large pots) positioned where there are pockets of strong light, the way my friend Craig LeHoullier grows his peppers, tomatoes and eggplants in his driveway? One way of Craig’s to prep a bed that I haven’t tried myself: growing not in soil at all, but in straw bales. Like this.
6 & 7. old-school prep: different strokes from 2 heroes
FROM ONE extreme to the other, two early heroes of mine took diverse approaches to soil preparation. One was passive, or “no-work” as she called it. Long before phrases like “lasagna garden” were uttered, Ruth Stout layered all her organic materials on top of her soil—sheet composting, as it might be traditionally called—to thwart weeds, reduce the need for fertilizers, conserve moisture and spare herself the digging.
Then she simply moved it back a tiny bit each year to make room for seeds or transplants rather than all that turning and tilling (and weeding). Feel “lazy” like Ruth?
“How to Grow More Vegetables” author John Jeavons is the modern master of double-digging, and I was an adherent, too, at first. His biointensive method is covered in a series of videos on his YouTube channel, each available in Spanish or English, and in his beloved book (reissued in 2017 in an updated edition).
Jeavons, originally from Bountiful Gardens/Ecology Action in California, admired Stout, but quite correctly says that her “no-work” methods aren’t suitable for all soils.
Maybe a mix of all these tactics–from active to passive, with and without a layer of weed-thwarting material of some kind–will work in your various garden areas?
p.s. — don’t forget the mulch!
WHATEVER way you make a bed, use mulch! My mulch FAQ page has my 2 cents on what makes good mulch (and doesn’t) and how to use it. And no: chunky bark chips in plastic bags from the garden center are not my idea of garden mulch, except for the occasional pathway.