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Make Your Bed

Good soil prep is the key to successful gardening. This article covers the basics of soil preparation.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer
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Good soil prep is the key to successful gardening. This article covers the basics of soil preparation.

"Make your bed" is one of those statements that we each must have heard a million times as kids.  As gardeners though, this simple phrase has a different meaning.  "Make your bed" is all about preparing the soil for planting.  Every gardener gets excited by the thought of finally getting her hands in the soil and planting out the newest plant acquisitions.  The joy of finally getting to see the garden come together in spring is certainly a rewarding experience.  However, the key to success starts before the first plant even sees the garden. 

The roots of a plant are the foundation on which that plant thrives.  Good roots will generally mean that you have a happy, healthy plant that can survive the rigors of spring and summer with aplomb.  A poor root system means your plants cannot grow to their full potential and leaves them vulnerable to damage from insects and disease.  The most important factor for good roots is good soil preparation.  If you are a beginning gardener, properly preparing your soil can be daunting.  However, there are some simple steps that you can take to get your beds ready to be planted.

There are three basic types of beds you might be preparing.  The first type is a brand new bed that has never been planted before.  The second type is an empty bed that has been planted before and the third type is a bed with existing perennials, bulbs, and/or shrubs.

Brand New Beds

The first step when planning to add a new flower bed or even if you are simply planting a tree or shrub is to check if there are any buried utility lines on your property.  Most areas should have a number you can call to check locations for these lines.  Check with your local government for the correct number to call.  In addition to public utility lines, you will  want to make sure you have identified any irrigation lines that might be buried on your property. 

When preparing a brand new bed the first step is to kill the existing vegetation. If this is woody material, you will need pruners or perhaps even a saw.  If the existing weeds are herbaceous plants, things like grass and chickweed, you will have an easier time.  The best way to begin to prep this type of bed is to define the outline of the bed in the fall.  It can sometimes be helpful to use a garden hose to determine the outline of the bed.   A garden hose can be moved and reshaped until you find exactly the right shape and size for your bed.

Once you know the shape and size of the bed, cover the soil and plant material with several layers of newspaper (a good 5 to 6 sheets should be sufficient) and then cover the newspaper with a good thick layer of compost, 2 to 3 inches would be great.  Do not use the slick, full color adds.  The ink in regular newspaper is not harmful to your soil, but the ink in the full color, slick papered ads can be problematic.  Leave the bed alone until spring.  Over the fall and winter the newspapers will block out all light, which will kill the vegetation.  The newspapers will also decompose over several months and come spring you will have a nice layer of compost that you can turn over into the soil.  This method is completely organic and will help improve your soil while killing existing vegetation. 

If it is already spring and you want to plant your bed soon, you can use a herbicide to kill the existing vegetation.  Be sure to read the label for instructions on how and when to apply the chemical.  Some herbicides can remain active in the soil for a period of time after application, be sure to take this into consideration when planning your bed prep.  It is also possible to skip killing the foliage and simply move on to the next step, digging.

Once the existing vegetation is dead use a tiller, spade/shovel or garden fork to turn the bed over.  With a brand new bed it may be difficult to get your tiller to break into the soil so turning the bed over first with a spade or shovel may be best.  When working the soil, you want the soil to be damp, but not wet.  If the soil is too wet it will clump when you turn it over.  If the soil is too dry it will be very difficult to dig and harmful to the soil.  If you turn over a spade full of soil, it should break apart and look moist without sticking to your tools or dripping water. 

A tiller will often turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.  It is good to get down at least 12 inches (the depth of a spade or shovel) when turning over a bed, another point in favor of the shovel.  If you are really motivated turning over the soil to a depth of 18 inches is even better, although it is a lot of work.  This is often called double digging.

Once you have turned over the soil, spread a layer of organic matter or compost 2 to 3 inches thick over the bed and then turn the soil over again to mix the compost into the soil.  Adding compost will improve the soil by adding nutrition and improving soil structure.  Avoid extremely fine compost or bagged amendments with a sand-like consistency as they tend to breakdown too quickly.  You want something that has both large (1") chunks as well as smaller particles.  Use material from your compost pile if you have one, or check with your local garden center.  Then rake the surface of the soil to level the soil.

Turning over the soil will expose weed seeds that were previously buried to light, causing germination.  You can control the germination of these seeds by applying a thick mulch like pine needles or bark products over the bed or you can treat your bed with a weed and feed product to help deter germination.  If you do treat with weed and feed, be sure to read the directions and apply correctly.  Some weed and feed products can damage roots below the soil if applied incorrectly. 

Also, do not direct sow flower or vegetable seeds into the soil when using a weed and feed product as they will not germinate.  Weed and feed products kill all germinating seeds, not just the weed seeds.  If you use a weed and feed product, you will want to install plants already growing in pots or packs to fill your bed the first spring.  By fall the chemicals should have broken down and you will be able to direct seed, if you want. 

You can also wait until the weeds come up and simply pull them.  This can be more time consuming than chemical applications, but it is organic in addition to being good exercise.

After you plant the bed you may still want to add a layer of compost to the top of the soil.  A layer of mulch or compost on the top of the soil will help keep weeds from growing, makes for a neater look overall and will also help maintain moisture in the soil.

 Rules of Thumb for Brand New Beds:

1.  Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

2.  Turn the soil over to a depth of at least 12 inches.

3.  Add 2-3 inches of compost and turn it into the bed.

4.  Either cover the bed with a thick (3-4") layer of mulch or use a weed and feed to help keep weed seeds from germinating.

5.  Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Existing Beds

The second type of bed is an existing bed that has nothing in it.  In other words, you are replanting the same area you used last year.  With this type of bed, you can treat it similarly to the brand new bed, but it shouldn't be necessary to layer the newspapers to kill existing vegetation.  In either fall or spring or in both seasons, put a 2 to 3 inch layer of compost on the bed and then turn the compost into the soil.  The single best thing you can do for your soil is to consistently add organic matter.  This will enrich the soil and help you grow better plants. 

Once again, you only want to work the soil when it is moist, not wet or dry.  To check your soil moisture content pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it.  If you squeeze out water the soil is too wet to work.  If the soil stays in a ball in your hand and then breaks apart when tapped, it is perfect.  If the soil is too dry to form a ball, it is too dry to work.  If you work soil when it is too wet, you will cause it to clump and become compacted.  If you work soil when it is too dry, you harm the soil structure.  Working soil when it is moist will help maintain good air porosity and soil structure.

After you add the compost layer, you will want to turn the compost into the soil.  As before, you can use a tiller, shovel or garden fork to do this.  I prefer to use a shovel so I can get at least 12 inches deep.  Double digging will again be optimum, but any incorporation of organic matter will be beneficial.  After turning this compost into the soil, you may want to put another layer on top of the soil to act as mulch.  If you add organic matter in the fall, it isn't necessary to add more in the spring.  However, if you have poor soil adding compost twice a year can help improve the soil much more quickly.  Remember that this organic matter gets used up each year and needs to be replenished to keep plants performing their best.

When I moved to my new house my Dad (he's a farmer) came over and plowed a space for a vegetable garden.  My soil is clay, but not really heavy clay.  Over two years, I added compost three times and my soil has visibly improved.  Now that the vegetable garden is in decent shape, I am concentrating on adding more compost to the flower beds around the porch.  The soil there is more clay backfill, generously littered with rocks.  I think it will take me longer to improve this soil.  I have one thick layer of compost already incorporated and will add another thick layer this spring.

Rules of Thumb for Existing Beds that are Empty:

1.  Add 2-3 inches of compost and turn it into the bed.

2.  Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

3.  Turn the soil over to a depth of at least 12 inches.

5.  Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Existing Beds With Plants

The third type of bed is one that already contains some perennials, bulbs and/or shrubs.  These beds can be a bit trickier.  You can't simply broadcast a thick layer of compost and then turn it under.  You will need to be careful when working around the established plants that you don't harm their roots.  You do still want to add organic matter.  This can be done either in spring or fall, or in both spring and fall. 

Add a couple inches of compost around existing plants, work this into the top layer of soil a bit, if possible, but do not dig deep enough to harm the roots.  Do not allow the compost to come into contact with the stems of the plants as this can promote disease.  Even left mostly on top of the soil the compost will break down over time releasing valuable nutrients into the soil while preserving moisture and protecting the surface of the soil.

Established beds will often have open areas where plants have died or where annuals are added each spring. In these areas, go ahead and turn over the soil to incorporate the organic matter and then plant.

Rules of Thumb for Existing Planted Beds:

1.  Add 2-3 inches of compost and work it into the top layer of soil, if possible

2.  Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

3.  Do not allow compost to come into contact with plant stems

5.  Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Preparing the soil in your beds doesn't have to be difficult, although it is great exercise.  Adding organic matter is the one thing that all soils can benefit from whether your soil is sand or clay based.  The addition of organic matter is beneficial, even if you are blessed with loam soil.  Are there more in-depth steps that can be taken?  Sure.  However, this is a good place to start.  We have additional information on soil testing and amendments in another article. 

You may also be asking where you can get compost or organic matter.  You can make your own, you can buy it from your local garden center, or many municipalities have compost for sale or even for free.  Check with your local government for programs in your area.  In general, here's a couple pointers until we have the compost article on line:

1. Cow and chicken manure are very high in nitrogen and can burn plants if used in their pure form.  However, they make wonderful additions to the soil if you work them in well.  They also act as a natural slow release fertilizer.  Most of these manure products are highly composted so look for something organic to add along with them to get the best of both worlds.  Peanut hulls, bark mulch (not bark nuggets, unless they are the 1/2" size) or compost from your compost pile are all excellent options.

2.  Peat moss is commonly available, but also a very fine texture.  It can also be rather expensive.  While it cannot hurt to add this to your soil, it will most likely be entirely gone by next year.  So look for coarser products to extend the benefits of amending your soil.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/17/2016 - 10:25am

I have a huge fir tree with a deep layer of needles underneath. I plan to use the needles around and in between the new perennial flowers I have planted. I know from your instrux not to let the needles touch the plant stems, but I have several 'creeping' varieties and wonder if I should leave extra space for their spreading growth over the summer, or not. Please advise, and thank you so much.

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Sun, 04/24/2016 - 8:51am

Hi there!

It is perfectly OK to use Fir needles as mulch around your perennials, and you do not need to add extra space for trailing varieties as they will grow up-out-and over the mulch as they become established. The more ground you cover with the mulch the better it will be at excluding weeds and holding moisture.

One thing to be very careful of when planting close to established fir trees is that your new plants get enough water. The big fir trees can suck all the moisture out of the soil very quickly, so keep the new plants moist all through their first year and then remember to water regularly in following years.

Best of luck and happy gardening!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/09/2016 - 3:53pm

Hi, I started a new bed for flowers and considered putting rocks as top layer as many of my neighbors did. Is practice recommended? And in this case what is the best thing to do to replenish the soil since the layer of rocks will be in the way? Thanks!!

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Fri, 04/22/2016 - 4:13pm

If you are planning to plant shrubs and/or perennials in the area, then the rock can work.  If you are planning that this will be a bed where you will plant any annuals at all, then the rocks quickly become a nuisance because you'll have to remove them from the area you want to plant each time.  So it really depends on how you plan to use the bed whether rocks make sense as a groundcover or not.  If you think you might want to plant some annuals or if you are worried about soil renewal, I think some sort of bark mulch would be better.  The bark will decay over time which will add nutrients to the soil and it is easier to remove for planting than rock is.  The biggest drawback is that you will need to add additional mulch regularly, possibly every year.

Kerry Meyer, Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:16am

I marked out exactly where I'm one of my border then I dug up all the grass tried to get out all the Rock's best I could use a metal rake to try and move around the soil to get rid of recruits so on and so forth what is the next step putting down black soil do I need to plastic I need help I'm a good Gardener but I have never actually started my own bed

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 07/02/2015 - 8:23pm

Will roundup sprayed on weeds in my flower beds also kill seeds dropped on the soil from perennial flowers? The seeds will not sprout until early Spring 2016. Thanks!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 09/16/2016 - 5:32am

Round up and other weed killing chemicals are so bad getting into our water levals. If you could look for a more natural means there are so many ways. I use homemade vinegar based weed spray in my gardens and it works great. I feel better spraying my gardens knowing I'm not adding to the problem our water table is seeing. Just some food for thought.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 07/07/2015 - 2:29pm

Usually herbicide residue will exist in the soil at most for a week or two. However, environment and the specific chemical used impact persistence.  Check the label of the chemical you use, it should include information on residue and how long it can be expected to persist in the soil.

Kerry

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 03/22/2015 - 2:14pm

Just moved to a new house and there are existing flower beds with nothing planted in them.. There seems to be layer of stone mulch then a layer of weed fabric. On top of that again is some more stone mulch and then bark chippings will i have to completely clear these layers from the beds to begin planting flowers?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Wed, 03/25/2015 - 7:43am

I can't tell from your note how deep the layers of stone/stone/mult/bark go, but I'm guessing at least a couple of inches.  If there was just a thin layer of one of these, then depending on what is underneath, you might be able to just move the material aside and plant.  However, with what you describe I don't think that is going to be possible.  What I would do is choose one spot and remove everything down to the actual soil.  I would do that for a spot several feet  long and wide.  Then evaluate what you have.  How deep are all of those layers of non-soil?  How compacted is the soil underneath?  What kind of soil is there?  Once you know what you have, you can make a better plan for moving forward.  I suspect you might need to remove all of those layers of stuff, then improve the resulting soil or work up the soil you have and then top off with new good topsoil.  However, until you know what you've got you can't make a plan for dealing with it.

Kerry

Kerry Meyer, Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:58pm

When I first decided on making this garden we used roundup & tilled & raked it. I still have a terrible time with grass & weeds coming up. I have dug everything up & given the entire garden another roundup treatment & tilled. What am I doing wrong? how can I get rid of all that grass? I've even done the newspaper thing. thanks Lorae

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/19/2014 - 8:32am

You must first understand the different weeds and their life cycles to determine the best way to control them such as when they are actively growing. Putting pre emergent down AFTER weed seeds have germinated and are actively growing is the best time to control and stunt their growth. (April 1- 30) for cool season. Weed seeds can also be brought in by wind, birds, people. They also can lie dormant without you knowing they are there and germinate when the conditions are right for that seed. 100% weed control is not possible.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:59pm

I hate to be the bearer of the news but roundup is a highly toxic chemical for your food and the earth. Weeds are inevitable. You must weed every day to keep them at bay. Once you do that no need for those bad chemicals.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:58pm

When I first decided on making this garden we used roundup & tilled & raked it. I still have a terrible time with grass & weeds coming up. I have dug everything up & given the entire garden another roundup treatment & tilled. What am I doing wrong? how can I get rid of all that grass? I've even done the newspaper thing. thanks Lorae

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 04/28/2017 - 9:03am

Are you treating and immediately tilling? If so, then that could be your problem. You need to spray and let it sit there undisturbed while it does it's work. You might want to check on the time but it is at least a day or two. Maybe even 72 hours. Just don't overspray. If you don't overspray then there is no danger of the chemical running down in to another part of the yard and hurting the environment.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 10/08/2013 - 12:25pm

Just to let you know you are NOT doing anything wrong!! Tilling brings up many seeds that have yet to see the light of day!! So after tilling make sure you put on mulch 3 inches thick regardless if you are planting anything. The soil I have has least 105 years of weed seeds and after clearing many years of neglect to the shrub border I'm still combating weeds! Although I just spray the leaves of the weeds that poke out of the mulch! Good luck! By the way, I also use a thick layer of newspaper on dirt that would be exposed and cover it with mulch.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 01/20/2012 - 11:41am

First time home owner, this was very helpful. Very exited to work on my first garden. Going to start very small as to not get overwhelmed. Will reference this for sure

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 03/16/2015 - 1:50pm

Glad I'm not the only one! our house was built in 1916 and was completely renovated from the ground-up. BUT.. they didnt really touch the yard/flower beds in front of the house... they have small/strangly bushes here and there mixed with tall weeds... i have NO idea where to start except to pull everything up and till the whole yard... daunting. This helps! If anyone else has advise..please share. thank you!

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