Whether you just bought a new homestead (like us!) or are expanding an existing garden, at some point you’ll have to start a new garden from scratch.
There it is – a big open lawn, or bare dirt spot, or area of your property you want to turn into a vegetable or herb garden. But where do you start?
You can see it, done, in your mind’s eye – but how do you get from here to there? How do you make sure you don’t make any mistakes now, that will make your life harder down the road?
Choose the Area for Your Garden
There are several very basic needs that every plant has – Food, Water and Sunlight. (I talk more about every plant’s basic needs in my post on Gardening 101) Choose an area that has good soil quality, is close enough to your water source to be watered by a hose, and that gets 6-8 hours of sunlight.
I’ve noticed, however, at our new homestead, that the ground temperature is often very high in the areas that get lots of sun. So while the plants need sunlight, they don’t need to bake. I’ve laid some thick mulch to help cover and cool the soil.
Test Your Soil
Before you know what to add to your soil, you’ll need to know what it’s lacking. Do a quick internet search for your local cooperative extension office for the one closest to you. The Cooperative Extension System is run by the USDA with help from universities and state and local governments.
For a small fee (usually around $10), they’ll mail you a kit to send off to get tested. They’ll give you pH levels as well as macro and micro nutrients – plus advice on how to amend your soil.
This will let you know what kinds of fertilizers, additives, or compost you should add while you’re getting started.
Prepare the New Garden Bed
After you’ve determined where you’ll be putting your new garden bed, you’ll need to prepare the area. If you have grass where your new bed is going, you’ll need to remove it. If you don’t, you’ll be battling grass that tries to grow up between your plants all year.
And trust me, the grass will win.
There are several ways to go about getting rid of the grass:
1. You can dig it out by hand and remove it
2. You can cover it and kill it
Covering it is obviously much less labor-intensive, but it takes longer. Digging it out by hand is harder, but it’s the only way to go if you want to plant something tomorrow or next week.
If you choose it cover it, there are several options available – you can cover it using a black tarp and the remove the tarp before you begin planting, or you can cover it using newspaper or cardboard. This method is preferred if you are starting your garden bed in the Fall to be ready next Spring. The cardboard and newspaper smother any weeds, while decomposing and providing ground cover.
For my next garden, I laid down cardboard in the Fall and then in the Spring cut holes in it to plant directly into the soil, while maintaining the cover.
Raised Garden Beds or Not?
The controversy between raised garden beds and not is an interesting one. And to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand.
On the one hand, raised beds keep you from having to stoop over while you weed and prune. They let you control exactly the type of soil/compost your plants have access to. Their design prevents grass or other pathway weeds from crawling back into your bed.
They also keep your good soil and compost in your garden bed, in situations where heavy rains could wash away your black gold.
The arguments against raised beds are compelling, too. For one, they require a lot of initial investment. The materials to build raised beds, plus the soil and compost to fill them can add up.
They simply aren’t big enough. Most plants will send roots down at least 18 inches, but many need much much more. So if your plants are going down further than the bottom of the raised bed, is there much point?
Plus, they don’t allow you to expand your garden very easily. For instance, this past year my Dad gifted us with 15 tomato seedlings and two cantaloupe. There simply wasn’t room for them in our old raised bed, but thankfully we were able to put them in the new bed at the new homestead. It would’ve been a terrible waste.
Once you’ve chosen a spot, killed all the weeds, and installed your raised beds (or not) it’s time to start planting.
While it may seem natural to till the soil to prepare it for planting, I can’t recommend enough against it. More and more we’re discovering that tilling soil actually harms the microbes and soil structure, robbing it of vital nutrients and water-retaining ability. Check out John Graham’s article on the USDA website here.
Instead, simply dig the holes for the specific plants you have, or direct sow your seeds.
In addition to your vegetables, think about where you can plant companion plants to attract pollinators and repel pests. Check out my Long List of Companion Plants for ideas.
I highly recommend mulching your garden beds heavily. Not only does it keep the weeds at bay, making your garden even easier to maintain, it helps your soil retain water, keep a cooler temperature, and prevents erosion.
If you choose to do a Back to Eden-type garden, the mulch will decompose over time, adding delicious compost to your soil. For more information on Back to Eden gardening, check out the video below.
Starting a new garden is always tough, but with a little planning and forethought, your maintenance will be a breeze. Good luck and happy homesteading!