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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 moving that late in the year, me being 5 months pregnant, and it was hunting season we did not get to pick a plot and prepare our garden in the fall.
That would have been the best way, but it didn’t work out that way and that’s okay. You can prepare a new garden bed in the spring, it just takes a little more work.
How to Prepare a New Garden Bed
Wet down the plot
Once you’ve picked where you want your garden (see this post if you’re still deciding), you’ll want to make sure the area is moist. You don’t want it drenched to where it’s sticking to your garden tools, but you don’t want it so dry that it’s impossible to work with without creating a dust storm, either. If it hasn’t rained recently, go ahead and sprinkle the area with the garden hose. Just don’t go overboard.
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. Now my driveway needs re-graveled, but that’s a story for another day.
You’re going to want to dig up all the weeds and grass from the plot. It’s best to use a shovel, dig down 12-18 inches, and remove it 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.
Till the soil, but don’t over-till
You’re not looking to pulverize the dirt, just aerate it so it can drain better. I don’t recommend you till from the get go because it will just work all that grass and weeds into the bed. Tilling at this point will work up some deep down weed seeds, but it will be okay. The weeds will be far less than they would if you hadn’t dug it down first.
Just go over everything a couple of times to aerate the dirt a bit. The number one predictor of well draining soil is oxygenated soil, so work up the dirt to create some pockets so it will drain.
Rake it out
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….
Take a rake and rake through your newly tilled soil to find any clumps and any rocks. Tiny pebbles aren’t the end of the world, but you want mostly dirt in your garden, not huge clumps and rocks.
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.
Cover the bed
After you have the spot all prepared, take a bunch of cardboard or newspaper and cover the entire surface of your new garden bed. If you use newspaper, don’t use the slick ads. Just the newsprint itself.
This layer of cardboard or newspaper will help smother out any weed seeds that are left behind. They’re sneaky little boogers. Don’t worry about how to keep the cardboard or paper in place, we will talk about that in just a sec.
You can, however, wet down the cardboard/paper layer before moving on to the next step. You don’t have to, but you can.
Add in a thick layer of compost
On top of your beautiful layer of cardboard or paper you’ll want to add some awesome compost. You’re going to want to make this layer fairly thick, I’d recommend 4″ or so. This will help keep those weeds smothered.
Adding the compost on top of your cardboard is going to make it so you can plant directly in the compost. Which is awesome because then there isn’t any need to poke holes in the material you’re trying to use to keep the weeds from becoming a massive problem.
Don’t worry about your plants, their roots will break through that cardboard/paper no problem as the cardboard breaks down (and it will break down fairly quickly).
Mulch it up
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.
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. The deep watering will also help break down the layer of cardboard underneath the mulch and compost.
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!