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How to Prepare a New Garden Bed

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Preparing a garden bed for planting can be time consuming, but well worth while to create a healthy environment for your vegetables to grow.

When we moved to our new homestead at the end of 2016 there wasn’t any garden bed. Not even a little spot dug out to grow some amazing food.

We knew when we moved in that we wanted a large garden the coming spring. But, we had moved late in the year, I was 5 months pregnant, it was opening day of deer season and we did not get around to picking a plot and preparing it before the snow started flying.

Preparing a garden bed in the fall is the best way to do it, but it’s certainly not the only way. You can prepare a new garden bed in the spring, it just takes a little more work.

How to Prepare a Garden Bed

Choose a spot for your bed

Ideally, you’ll want a spot that receives at least 6 hours of sun a day and is well-drained. Of course, most of us don’t have ideal spots for gardens so we have to amend the soil, build raised beds, or simply settle for what we have available when choosing the ideal spot for a garden.

Another part of this step is to make sure there aren’t any buried utility lines if you’re going to dig your garden bed. We live in the county and only our electric is marked, so we have to know where our well and septic are.

You shouldn’t be digging down deep enough to hit anything, but it’s always worth it to make sure. So, if you aren’t off grid and aren’t sure where your utility lines run… get them marked. It’s free and it only takes a day or two.

Remove all weeds, grass, and anything else from the plot

A lot of our garden bed was actually covered in a layer of asphalt. So, we were lucky in that we didn’t have a ton of grass and weeds to clear. But, on the flip side we had a ton of chunky asphalt and rocks to remove and put somewhere else.

You’re going to want to remove all the grass, weeds and any other vegetation from the plot before you really start your work.

There are numerous ways to do this. You can throw vinegar down and let it work its magic. It will take a day or two, then you’ll be able to remove the dead vegetation.

You can cover the entire area with black plastic and smother out the weeds and grass. This will take a little longer than vinegar, but it won’t change your soil composition and it will warm your soil up if you’re working in the spring.

Or, you can use a shovel, dig down 12-18 inches and remove the grass and weeds in chunks. You can then take those chunks, place them upside down in a pile and they will compost down into beautiful, rich compost you can add back to your garden later.

It’s totally okay to leave some (see photo below, there’s definitely some green in it) but you want the bulk of it gone.

I don’t recommend you till first. You’re just asking for weeds. It’s hard work to remove all of that grass, but trust me, it will be worth it. If you have a lot of large rocks in the soil, you can remove those at this time, too.

Wet down the plot

If it hasn’t recently rained, you’ll want to wet down the plot before you start to work the soil.

You do not want the soil to be soaked and muddy. Not only will this make for a huge mess, it makes it much more difficult to work because the soil just clumps together.

If you have completely dry soil, it will be difficult to near impossible to work and can damage the soil.

So, you do want the soil to be decently moist before you begin working it. You’re looking for soil that is easily workable and breaks up when you work it, but doesn’t stick to your tools or look like a mud fest.

If you’ve had a recent heavy rain, you may need to hold off for a day or two.

Work the soil

This is the hard part. You can till it, which is what we did, but you’re only going to work the soil down to a depth of about 8 inches, which isn’t ideal.

Ideally, you want to work down to a depth of 12 to even 18 inches. We wound up doing this in the long run, but we used our rototiller to do the majority of the work and tilled twice to get down to the depth we wanted.

If you used a shovel to remove the vegetation prior to tilling, you already have the depth down where you need it. You’ll just work it over a little and call it good.

You’re not looking to pulverize the dirt, just aerate it so it can drain better. The number one predictor of well draining soil is oxygenated soil, so work up the dirt a little to create some pockets so it can drain.

Add in a thick layer of compost

On top of your beautiful soil you’re going to want to add a nice thick layer of compost. You’re going to want to make this layer fairly thick, I’d recommend 4″ or so.

You’ll want to take this compost and work it into your garden. This was our second go round with the rototiller. You can skip that step if you want, but we wanted to make sure it got worked in really well with the soil, so we tilled it all together.

Make sure you’re adding in well aged compost, especially if you’re planning to plant after you’re done making your beds instead of allowing them to over-winter. If you put manure or other hot organic matter on your soil, your plants will not thrive and may even die off completely.

Rake the soil

Once you’ve got it all tilled up, you’ll probably still have some chunky stuff and rocks. Especially if you made your garden plot where asphalt used to lay, but I digress….

It will also be mildly uneven. Or, maybe that’s just when I try to work a rototiller. You don’t want a lot of peaks and valleys in your garden, you want it fairly level so that water doesn’t stand in certain areas.

Take a rake and rake through your newly tilled soil to find any clumps and any large rocks and remove them.

I was gentle about this and used the back side of the rake for a lot of it just to push the soil around and level things out. The tilling process found a lot of the rocks for us.

Border the garden plot(s)

Putting a border around your plot with blocks, timber, or even that cheap landscape edging will help keep the weeds and grass out of your garden. It’s not essential, but it’s helpful.

The goal here is to keep the weeds from creeping back over the edges of your garden. So, dig it down a bit into the ground. Alternatively, you could mulch around the border, but you’re probably going to want something to keep the mulch in. This is, of course, optional, but it’s helpful none the less, so I’m adding it in.

Plant the garden bed

Once you get the soil worked, compost or organic matter added in and get everything raked out, it’s time to plant!

As long as you used well-aged compost, you’re ready to plant. Whether you’ve got seedlings you started or pick them up from the local nursery, you can plant.

Mulch the garden bed

Once you’ve planted everything, you’ll want to add a 3-4 inch layer of mulch to the top. I highly recommend using old bales of hay. Yes, you read that correctly. I use hay to mulch my garden if at all possible, not straw. 

Old hay, not fresh, new hay. The best way to get old hay when you didn’t get it last fall is to find a farmer that has some old hay that has been out all winter long.

You want old bales that have been left out in the elements because this allows the seeds to sprout and the bales to begin decomposition. The hay adds a wonderful bit of nutrients to your garden whereas straw is pretty much useless in that department.

However, you do not want to add fresh cut hay to your garden. You’ll wind up with all kinds of weed/grass growing all over the place. So, if you can’t get hay use straw or wood chips.

Another word of caution is to make sure that whatever you utilize for mulch wasn’t sprayed. It’s imperative to know your farmer and that they know what their fields are treated with. Some farmers are astonished to find that the chemicals they spray kill off vegetation when the hay or straw is placed in gardens.

Water it in

Once you have everything situated, it’s time to water it all. Watering a garden is an art. You want to water everything deeply. Kind of like a good drenching rain would do. The mulch on top will help keep the moisture levels where they need to be.

This year you’ll have a beautiful, productive garden with a bountiful harvest from a garden bed you prepared just this spring. Next year? you’ll have beautiful, nutrient-rich soil to garden in from the start. You’ve got this. Go get your garden on!

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Helen Driscoll

Wednesday 29th of January 2020

Thank you I am going to use planters for some small garden. Then I might go larger

Missy

Sunday 24th of March 2019

Hey! Thank you for a very informative garden post. We are starting our first garden this year! Did you start your seeds first and plant little plants or just sow the seeds into the ground?

Danielle McCoy

Monday 25th of March 2019

Hi Missy, some seeds are started inside, some are direct sown. It just depends on the plant. There are instructions on seed packets and I have a few posts on the topic of what needs to be started when and where.

Brenda

Friday 18th of May 2018

Hi Danielle! Thank you so much for this post! It is very informative. I live in Illinois and this will be my first time starting a garden and to be honest, its kind of overwhelming but your post makes me feel like I can do it! I do have a couple questions. If I prepare my garden bed this now (May) does that mean I will have to wait until next year to plant? Also, since there are so many layers, does that mean I don't have to test my soil? Thank you so much for imparting your wisdom!

Danielle McCoy

Friday 18th of May 2018

Hi Brenda, You can plant this year. If you mix in enough compost you should have decent results. Be warned that your yields won't be as high as they will next year, but you can still grow something. Next year, it will improve again... year after year after year you should see soil improvements with good management.

Do you have to test your soil? Of course not, but you'd be amazed at the information you can get. Testing it could help you this year as you can add some things (that aren't hot and won't kill your plants) to the soil to improve it and you'll know specifically what you need to improve. Adding some compost will help improve significantly all on its own though, so it's up to you. They sell test kits on amazon, or you can go through your county extension office.

Janet

Monday 26th of March 2018

This was so helpful, thank you!

What gardening zone are you in? I’m starting a new garden at our new house with all sand with a bit of clay on top. We are in Alaska and zone 4. I’m worried the cardboard wouldn’t break down with how cool it is.

Thanks again

Danielle McCoy

Monday 26th of March 2018

Hi Janet, thank you! We are in 5b in Indiana. The cardboard breaks down under the compost and all the watering. I think it would still work okay. An alternative would be to use newspaper, which is thinner and would break down more quickly. I worry about what weird things are in the ink, though. A lot of presses have the "end rolls" that aren't printed on that they have no use for that you may be able to snag.

Jessie @ This Country Home

Friday 2nd of March 2018

We're redoing our raised bed garden this year, like you, we didn't do it last fall. Thanks for the tip about using old hay and not straw. I've used it when building beds as part of the lasagna layer but my husband thinks that's why our beds had weeds-could be to that we have a lot of wind and seeds blew in. Do you have issues with the hay seeds sprouting?

Danielle McCoy

Friday 2nd of March 2018

Hi Jessie,

We do not have issues with the seeds sprouting because I always use hay that has overwintered and is usually partially decomposing by the time it is put down. It already seeded and sprouted in the fall before it gets put down. That's why it's imperative you use old hay not fresh cut :).

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