9 Things to Know About Starting a Garden From Scratch
Debra LaGattuta Reviewed on 11/30/20 by
Debra LaGattuta is a certified master gardener with decades of experience with perennial and flowering plants, container gardening, and raised bed vegetable gardening.
The Spruce / Autumn Wood
Gardening can easily become a lifelong hobby with no limit to the sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, and horticultural knowledge you can develop. However, to be successful and efficient gardeners, several aspects of gardening are important to know and consider before you create your first planting bed .
01 of 09
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
Establishing a new garden bed often means sacrificing a portion of the lawn. You can kill grass (or other ground cover) with chemicals, though this is often harmful for you and the environment. Here are several effective organic methods to remove grass and the roots that go along with it.
Sheet Mulching (Layering)
Known as sheet mulching or layering, this method involves laying down an organic material, such as newspaper or unwaxed cardboard, to smother the grass. Sheet layering can take several months to kill grass, but it is typically effective. It is also organic and not harmful to the environment because both the grass and the newspaper or cardboard simply break down and can be mixed into the soil. Because it's a lengthy process, it might be best to sheet layer in the summer so that the area could be ready for the following spring planting season.
Start by defining the area for your planting bed and lay a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper over the area. Ensure that any seams overlap by at least 6 inches. If you're using newspaper, make sure the sheets have black ink only (no color), and layer them at least 10 sheets thick. Then, add a layer of compost 3 to 4 inches thick over the paper or cardboard to hold it down. Wood chips will also work.
In warm climates, the grass will break down in about 3 or 4 months; in cooler climates, it might take an entire growing season. Once completed, add a thick layer of compost over the top of the planting bed. .
Another natural method to remove grass is solarization : killing grass and weeds by utilizing the heat of the sun to bake the soil to a high temperature.
Start by mowing the grass in the planting area as short as possible. Then, hose down the area to dampen it thoroughly. Next, cover the area with a clear plastic tarp that's been cut to the desired size of your new garden space. Weigh down the edges of the plastic (with bricks, for example) to keep it in place. With a moderate amount of sun exposure, the ground beneath the plastic can heat to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This will scorch living grass, weeds, and seeds, and kill soil bacteria.
Within approximately four weeks, the grass should be dead and beginning to break down. You can then dig the dead grass into the soil, adding compost or other soil amendments if you wish, and plant your garden bed.
Manually removing grass is a lot of work, but it is great exercise and entirely natural. It's also very effective.
Moisten the lawn area thoroughly a day or two before you plan to remove the grass. This will soften the turf and loosen the root system. Next, use a sharp spade to cut the lawn into 1-square-foot sections. Remove each section by sliding the spade beneath the segment and levering it up and out of the ground.
Place the unwanted grass sections in a compost bin, use it to re-sod bare areas in your yard, offer it to your neighbors, or discard with other yard waste. Be aware that unless your composting process delivers sufficient heat, some grass seeds will likely survive and might sprout new grass when you eventually use the compost in the garden.
02 of 09
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
Healthy soil is the foundation that makes any garden a success, and most plants have an optimal soil type in which they thrive. Common issues with soil that can affect the health of your plants include:
Nutritional problems: Plants derive all of their nutrients from the soil they're planted in. Perform a soil test on your garden bed to determine its nutritional content . If the results suggest a deficiency, you'll need to add the necessary amendments to remedy the problem.
Incorrect soil pH: Soil pH affects a plant's ability to absorb nutrients. Some plants can tolerate a range of soil pH levels, from acidic to alkaline. But soil that is too acidic or too alkaline can adversely affect a plant's growth and productivity. A soil test can determine the pH level of your garden soil.
Incorrect soil type: Soil type refers to the texture and composition of the soil. For instance, some soil contains too much clay , causing drainage problems. If soil is too sandy, it drains water before plant roots can make use of it and does not contain enough organic material to provide the right level of nutrition. It's important to know the type of soil in your garden bed so that you can amend it accordingly .
Furthermore, no matter how healthy your soil is, you can't go wrong adding compost to it when you first start a garden. Work the compost into the soil with a rototiller or manually with a garden pitchfork. Then, rake the ground level to prepare it for planting.
You do not need fancy compost bins to make compost. Once you have grasped the basic concept of layering organic materials and providing just the right amount of moisture and air, composting is quite easy. Tiny natural organisms will quickly turn organic waste into the most nutritious soil additive available.
03 of 09
Select the Right Plants
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
As you select plants for your garden , you need to do your homework to learn about a plant's specific requirements to ensure you choose the right plants for the right location.
It's important to understand that plants commonly used in garden beds and landscapes generally fall these categories:
Herbaceous annuals : plants that go through their entire lifecycle in one growing season and must be re-planted every year. Many summer-flowering plants fall into this category, including marigolds , impatiens , petunias , zinnias , and cornflowers . In addition, some plants that are perennials in warm climates can be used as annuals in colder climates.
Herbaceous perennials (and biennials): plants that return every year, their foliage dies to the ground in the winter but the plant re-grows from its root system the following spring. Some perennials are very long-lived, such as the peony , daylily and false indigo , while others are relatively short-lived, such as the lupine , columbine , and delphinium . Plants categorized as biennials can be considered very short-lived perennials. They spend their first year developing foliage, flower in their second year, and then die. Foxglove , hollyhock, and sweet william are examples of biennial plants.
Woody trees and shrubs: plants that do not have the soft herbaceous stems of annuals and perennials. Instead, they have woody stems and trunks. Rather than dying back and re-growing from ground level, these plants sprout their new growth from a main trunk or main branches. All common trees fall into this category as do many shrubs.
Vegetables, fruits, and herbs: plants that are generally defined as those that produce edible seeds, fruit, stems, foliage, or roots. Most are annual plants, though some are classified as biennials ( carrots ) and perennials ( rhubarb , asparagus , strawberries ). Some are woody shrubs and trees, such as blueberries , peaches , and apples .
Another important fact in selecting the right plants is to know their cold hardiness, which starts with learning about USDA hardiness zones . The hardiness zone map divides the U.S. into 13 areas, and plants are assigned zone numbers based on their tolerance to cold temperatures. For example, a plant rated cold hardy in Zones 7 thru 9 won't survive in a colder Zone 4.
In addition to the climate, plants have specific sunlight and moisture requirements for optimal growth and health. It's ideal to group plants with similar sunlight and moisture needs together to provide them with the right amounts of sun and water. You can't plant sun-loving and shade-loving plants together in full sun and expect the shade-loving plants to survive.
If there's a chance you might not remember the names of what you've planted, consider labeling your plants by writing their names on a small wooden stake and placing the stake next to the plant. That way, you'll be able to remember their name should you need to look up anything about their optimal growing environment. Plus, some gardeners like to keep a journal that maps the plants and layout of their garden each season.
04 of 09
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
In addition to understanding the basic requirements about the plants you selected for your garden, you'll also need to develop some skill at garden design . This is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are a few standard design aesthetic tips to consider when deciding where to place your plants .
Take into consideration the mature size of plants when you first populate your garden bed. In general, a garden bed should be organized so the low-lying plants are in the foreground or used as edging, the medium-size plants are occupying the middle section, and the tall plants are in the back. The rules shift a little with an island garden, where it can be viewed from all angles. In that case, the center of the bed is planted with the tallest plants, and the low-growing plants are planted around the perimeter.
Garden designers frequently speak of plant form as a guiding principle when arranging plants. This essentially means that you should consider the overall shape or outline of the plants when arranging them in your garden bed. In general, if you seek a formal look, try to use precise geometric plant shapes, such as squared-off hedges and neat edging plants . If you want a more informal look, irregular forms are appropriate.
When garden designers use the term line, it often refers to the structures within the landscape or garden bed—the edges of the garden, for example. It also can refer to the directional impact of the plants. Plants can have general vertical lines (a columnar evergreen), or they can be spreading and horizontal (a creeping juniper). Straight lines and hard angles give a formal look, while curved lines offer a casual feeling.
The term plant texture refers to the fineness or coarseness, roughness or smoothness, heaviness or lightness of a particular plant. The texture comes from a plant's flowers, stems, bark, and especially its leaves. To create variety and visual interest, make sure to use plants with different textures.
Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
In addition to size, form, line, and texture, one of the most important considerations when choosing plants is their color —both of the foliage and the flowers. Landscape designers put considerable effort into creating garden color schemes , but home gardeners should not feel too much pressure to follow technical design principles. Simply pay attention to the colors you're working with so that you like the ultimate look of your garden.
Warm and Cool Colors
An easy place to start is by understanding warm and cool colors, which have different attributes:
Warm colors include shades of yellow, red, and orange. They are said to excite viewers.
Cool colors include blue, purple, and green. They are said to calm and relax viewers.
This color theory can be used to create a garden suitable for a specific purpose. For example, a meditation garden can be planted with relaxing cool colors, while you might want to plant flowers with warm colors around a deck intended for parties and entertainment.
Unity and Contrast
Designing a garden with colors all within the cool family or the warm family is a means of creating unity. On the other hand, you might want to contrast warm and cool colors. Using complementary colors—color pairs found opposite one another on the color wheel—can add visual interest. For example, purple and yellow are frequently used in a complementary, contrasting color scheme.
06 of 09
Planting and Transplanting Techniques
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
Proper planting technique—whether it be via seeds or potted nursery plants—is critical for good results. Seed packets will contain detailed information on planting depth, seed spacing, days to germination, and days to plant maturity. The information that comes with nursery plants is more sparse. In general, potted specimens require a planting hole roughly twice the size of their root ball, planted at the same depth as it is in the pot, a deep watering at planting time, and regular watering intervals as the roots take hold.
Consider soil temperature; it's critical when deciding the right time to plant.. Planting too early in the season when the soil is cool might result in a sickly plant all season long or seeds that won't germinate. But the same plant or seeds will flourish when started weeks later when the soil has warmed up Soil temperature is especially important for flowering annuals and vegetables; many are classified as being better suited to cooler or warmer soil.
I's common for gardeners to move plants around if they are not thriving. Or, perhaps they want the garden space for something else or they decide they don't like the design. Whatever the reason, many plants can be successfully transplanted . Follow the transplanting advice for your specific plant and wait patiently for the plant to adapt to its new location..
07 of 09
Rebecca Smith/Getty Images
Weeds are a gardener's enemy, so it's important to arm yourself with some facts about them. First, you should know exactly which weeds you are dealing with.
This knowledge will continue to come in handy long after you start a garden. Weeds will pop up again and again in spite of your best efforts to prevent them. Many sources of information are available to help you identify weeds. Gardening books and university extension service websites often have photos of common weeds and offer tips on controlling them.
Furthermore, experienced gardeners quickly learn not everything that seems to be a weed is a weed. Many plants, especially annual flowers, freely self-seed in the garden. So if you automatically remove every seedling you don't immediately recognize, you might be sacrificing plants you would enjoy. For instance, snapdragons, petunias, cosmos, aquilegia (columbine), foxglove (digitalis), and marigolds are just some of the flowering plants that self-seed. But at the same time, this self-seeding tendency can become a nuisance because plants are growing where you don't want them, effectively turning a flower into a weed.
08 of 09
Landscape fabric is a synthetic textile that is installed on top of a planting area to prevent weeds from sprouting. It works by blocking the sunlight that is necessary for weed seeds to germinate. Holes can be cut in the fabric to insert garden plants, and optionally the fabric can be covered with mulch to hide it. Because the fabric is porous, water drains straight through to the soil. To prevent grass and other plants from invading your new bed, lay down some edging , as well.
A good place to use landscape fabric is in a shrub bed. When planting a group of landscape shrubs , simply lay down some fabric and cut holes in which to plant your shrubs. The bed should stay fairly weed-free for years.
Densely planted garden beds aren't practical for landscape fabric. For example, if you are creating a cottage garden , the plants are usually packed tightly together. It might be impossible to cut that many holes in a sheet of landscape fabric for that style of garden. Another example where landscape fabric is not practical is a vegetable bed planted with root crops such as beets or carrots.
Continue to 9 of 9 below.
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