Build your own garden bed

Five simple steps to start a new garden bed

It’s spring and the backyard is tempting you with the rich smells of earth. Swelling buds invite you to dig your hands into the soil and connect with nature.

Whether you have a new home with a dirt yard, or a fully landscaped property, you can build a simple garden bed and dive right into planting. Here are five points to take you from sod to splendour.

Pick your spot

Fruits, vegetables, and most flowers require six to eight hours of sun to grow to their full potential in our region. A few perennials such as woodland flowers and ferns will grow in light shade, but very few plants will grow in heavy shade.

Count the hours of full sun your potential garden bed receives each day and read the tags to determine which plants will grow best.

Dig a hole or two

You’ve chosen the spot and now it is time to check your soil. Remove any sod while saving as much soil as possible. Dig a hole with a flat bottom and sides that’s approximately 60 centimetres wide by 30 centimetres deep.

Look at the layers of soil along the hole’s sides. Loose, crumby topsoil needs more organic matter. Hard, light brown soil is clay that needs sand and organic material. Your soil might also be rocky, sandy, or a mix of all three. Fortunately, most problems can be solved by adding organic matter such as composted manure, peat moss, or finished compost.

Next, half fill the hole with water and time how long it takes to drain. Three minutes is ideal. Five to 10 minutes is okay, but longer than that and you may have drainage problems. Few plants will thrive with permanently wet roots.

Soil testing, which your local agriculture department or nursery will provide for a fee, will determine how you can improve it. No soil is perfect. It will take some time, but can improve your chances of success.

Prepare the earth

Your bed can take a formal geometric shape or use a more organic shape with flowing curves to suit your yard. Use a hose or rope to mark the perimeter. Then spray the grass or soil along the hose with white paint or sprinkle it with flour, and remove your marker.

Water any sod first to make removing it easier. If your bed is small, which it should be for your first attempt, use a spade and fork to loosen the soil.

Be prepared to appreciate the old tongue-in-cheek quote: “What a gardener needs is a cast iron back with a hinge in it.”

Improve the soil

Take what you learned about your soil in step two, and add the recommended organic material, such as lime, potassium, and phosphorus to enhance the quality of your soil.

If your drainage or soil is so bad that it’s not economical to improve it, build a raised bed and fill it with rich soil that drains well. You can build raised beds with wood, rock, or brick frames in any shape. Be sure you can reach the middle for planting and weeding.

Add the plants

Finally, the fun begins! Visit your local nursery for the plants you chose in step one, and place them in their pots where you think they’ll look best. View your garden from different angles and rearrange if you wish. Remember, these little plants will grow three or more times their present size, so read the tag and leave them room to grow.

Watering the plants will make it easier to remove them from their pots. This holds the soil together resulting in less trauma to the roots, and allows them to get established faster. Water the bed thoroughly every day for the first week. Then water as needed to keep the soil moist. You can also add six to eight centimetres of mulch, like bark or compost, to keep the soil moist and deter weeds.

If you already have a landscaped yard with healthy soil and you just want to add another bed, there’s a quick and relatively easy way to create one.

Choose your site and mow the grass using your mower’s lowest setting. Lay out the shape of the bed with your hose or rope. Lay four or five layers of newprint inside the perimeter of your bed. Soak them with water as you go to encourage decomposition.Top the newsprint with 18 centimetres of mixed soil, organic material, and composted manure, and cover that with four or five centimetres of mulch.

In spring, add annual transplants immediately as their roots do not go deep. If you build your bed in fall, wait until spring to plant. After the second year of annuals, the newspapers and grass will have formed a lovely loam that will enrich the bed and allow you to plant whatever you wish

As with most things, preparation determines the outcome, and a well-prepared garden bed will provide you with pleasure for many seasons to come.