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soil preparation: 7 ways to make a garden bed

Margaret Roach vegetable garden

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.

Onions in hugelkulture bed, copyright Dave Whitinger4. 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.

  1. Anne says:

    I love no dig gardening and follow Charles Dowding on YouTube. He has tons of excellent videos if anyone is interested. The only caveat is that he’s in England, so timings for North American gardens will be different.

  2. susan rieske says:

    I very much enjoy your blog, but I’m surprised at some of your statements here because you seem to enjoy the science of gardening. Gardening is rife with myths and folklore. I think you would enjoy The Garden Professors blog for science based gardening information.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, I have had Linda Chalker-Scott on the show a couple of times, and other members of the Garden Professors team, and have read her books, too, and her Garden Myths reports. I use cardboard and newsprint as described, to “smother” some weedy areas or convert a piece of turf to a bed, just to get a little edge over things at first but not as “mulch” in an ongoing manner. I have had many years of good success using it that way on such projects, hence my recommending it that way –again not instead of food-quality mulch (which I explain at the end of the story).

  3. shannon stoney says:

    I’ve tried just about all of these methods over the last 30 years. First I was a John Jeavons follower, double digging all my beds. Eventually I decided that was too much work, and I just weeded my beds, like Lee Reich, and put compost on top. By that time, I had moved my garden from a frequently flooded creek bottom to an upland terrace, which had rockier soil. I noticed that carrots just did not grow at all in the rocky soil, so I started removing the rocks with a spading fork when I got the bed ready for planting. Now I can grow carrots again, and the other crops are doing better as well, because the soil drains better.

    I also made some hugelkultur beds. If you don’t have a front-end loader, this too can be very hard work, burying the wood and piling the dirt on top of the wood. But the results are good. However, it is very difficult to use a spading fork or shovel in those beds, because of the wood.

    About deep mulching and “lasagna” gardening: the down side to that is that piling many inches of mulch on top of soil is creating the ideal habitat for voles, who love to tunnel under all that mulch and newspaper.

    Here is my present strategy, which works in my rocky upland soil with a lot of voles: when I make a new bed, I dig out the perennial weeds with a spading fork and compost them, except for the truly invasive thugs, which I take to the dump. I also dig out the rocks, which I dump in the driveway. Then I shape the bed and add some compost to the top four inches. I don’t dig any deeper than about 12 inches, but that is enough for carrots and other crops that like deep soil and don’t like rocks. I don’t mulch until mid-summer, and I use leaves for mulch. (I stockpile them in fall and winter.) For crops that are vulnerable to being completely devoured by voles, I use Smart Pots, fabric pots that the voles don’t climb up into. There, I grow potatoes and sweet potatoes, and some ornamentals like tulips.

    For beds that I have already dug at least once, I sometimes loosen the soil with a broadfork (invented by Eliot Coleman) and then add the compost. My soil is clay and benefits from a lot of added organic matter, and even sand in moderation. I also grow some deep-rooted plants like a special kind of daikon that helps to loosen the subsoil and improve drainage. Drainage is an under-rated part of good gardening. Some of the methods listed above, like sheet composting, don’t really improve drainage, or not very quickly anyway.

    1. William Goodwin says:

      Shannon – thanks very much for your post. Confirms many of my experiences and gives further good counsel. Cheers and happy gardening.

  4. Ann says:

    I had to rebuild our raised beds after 14 years. I did not use treated lumber so they started detorating quickly about two years ago. I just took out the soil and put it all back into new beds because it was rich soil, but now filled with lots of stones from the bottom drainage! So i’m Just picking up stones this spring! Leaving the soil alone until I can plant. Our last frost date is after Mother’s Day.

  5. Naomi D. says:

    After a year of neglect, I’m about to attack the area outside the gate by the street (ugh!). Fleabane has taken over everything – the bees are quite happy with that, I’ll say. Rain this week added about four inches of water for a while, but it’s subsided; for now. This afternoon’s rain will probably bring it back. It’s easy to grow anything here in New Orleans, yet just as hard to get rid of anything. I’m considering that cardboard: I think that’s far enough from my house that if the Formosan termites colonize it they won’t move to my wood home. The Spring Garden Show is happening right now; perhaps I should just go and ask them (beforehand, I’m gearing myself up to pull out the non-native butterfly weed that is so pretty but so toxic to Monarchs; oh well). Thank you for your great writing and advice.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Naomi. We don’t have those same naughty termites up here I don’t think (we do have termites of some kind) so I get away with the paper or cardboard and it deteriorates by season’s end.

  6. Frank T says:

    Hi:)

    Enjoyed the article.
    I live in south central KY, and unfortunately in the area around my house the soils are mostly hard KY clay filled with gravel, and even 1or 3 “rocks.

    Sure I amend before planting , but I’m not sure is plant roots can penetrate deep enough:(

    Surface moisture even at wet times only goes down a few inches. And trying to take soil samples at such times is a chore even with a soil auger.

    raised garden beds might be a solution but they are expensive to build and would not look good on my country property. Plus it would be hard to get full sun due to large trees, and orientation. Hot summers are also a problem.

    Sometimes, I think best solution is applying tons of top soil with balanced nutrients and planting in that is the only solution:(

    However, I do have access to 5*5 bales of spoiled hay:)

    Appreciate your comments and thoughts:) Thanks.

  7. Lauren? says:

    Hello! We are building raised beds for the veg garden at new house. Using galvanized corrugated sheets with teated lumber on outside to hold them together. Just made the first 4’ x 12’ x 1’ bed, 3 more on the way. Then imma make it woodchuck proof! Fence with 1’ floppy baffle on top, and a 12” trench with aluminum flashing underground. Flashing sticks out of soil, put a furring strip at top (use stainless steel staples) and staple the wire fence to this strip. The chicken wire fence lasts way longer if it isn’t in contact with the soil. Then all you gotta worry about is the deer hopping in but spraying with various dirty underwear sprays keeps them going elsewhere. Ha. Usually. Excited to be getting a garden again, I have many things growing under lights, waiting to do it again! ?

  8. LACEY says:

    Hügelkultur – that’s how I make raised beds. I’ve got a giant one in the works now. It requires patience, but I have to do something with the heaps of branches and leaves my yard generates anyway. I pile up branches and limbs and leaves and grass and then put compost and extra garden soil on top. Let it sit till fall, and do it again. I garden in the shade, so decay takes time. If I’m ambitious, I’ll plant shallow rooted plants or annuals in it while it sits, but nothing permanent because the pile settles so much as it decays. I’ve learned that plant roots don’t mind growing through and around brown stuff, but they are not so happy about growing through green stuff.

  9. Larry says:

    When we moved to the eastern Adirondacks a few years ago I considered all of the above methods to establish a large new garden. I decided on hugelkultur beds for the numerous advantages, and I have a lot of brush and branches and a front-end loader.

    I had considered establishing beds with the cardboard mat method but was concerned about binders or chemicals that might be in the cardboard, especially with much of it produced overseas.

    I wasn’t able to find any definitive information about it one way or the other online; I wonder if any readers have some knowledge about it.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Larry. I included some links in this longer story on the cardboard to how corrugated is made and what’s in it. Gardens Organic in the UK says it’s safe…among other such sources. I think of it this way: Yes, there will be glue and so on, but compared to first nuking the area with chemical herbicide to kill weeds, this seems like a very good alternative. :) Note that I do this only for certain usages — not in each bed every year or anything.

  10. Great job. I did one hugelkultur too. I used wood panels and put them together so they create little tent shape. Then I put wood inside my little tent and covered everything with compost.More work to set up. But less work as the years pass. Planting and harvesting should be easier since you won’t have to bend down as much. I plant strawberries in it and so far so good.

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