Makeover Step 9 – Preparation for Planting

Now that you’ve installed your hardscapes, it’s time to prepare the garden beds.

If you’ve chosen to excavate for each feature individually, your planted areas may still not be excavated.  If this is the case, you’ll need to excavate appropriately for your planted areas.  Excavating for plantings is a little different than excavating for hardscapes.

Preparing your beds for planting

There are several different ways to prepare a location to be planted.  First, you should only prepare beds for planting that you will be planting within a few weeks of preparation.  If you are installing your design over a long period of time, you should prepare each planting area just before it is to be planted.  A prepared bed that is not planted will quickly go to weed and need to be prepared again before planting.

There are several other methods for preparing beds, but we’re going to stick with the most straightforward approach here.  We think removing the grass and bringing in soil and compost is easy and almost foolproof.  If you are interested, here are some other methods:

  • Kill grass with herbicide, then add compost and soil
  • Kill grass by covering with newspaper and add compost and soil on top
  • Remove grass and bring in only compost, then roto-till compost into existing soil.

Feel free to investigate any of these methods and prepare your beds in the way you feel is best for you.

Remove the grass

The first step in our chosen method is to remove the grass.  Grass can be removed with a shovel or several other tools designed to remove grass.  You can even rent a special machine that cuts out grass in long strips.  This can be a lot of hard work depending on how big your beds are.  Calling a professional to prepare your beds is also an option.

When removing the grass, make sure you pay attention to the curves (if there are any) in your beds.  The line created where your beds meet the lawn are very important.  Walk back and see how the edge “flows”.  Keep working at it until it looks right.

Amending the soil

Once the grass is removed, you’ll be left with bare soil.  The easiest way to go from here is to add both additional soil and compost on top of what exists.  This will leave you with a raised bed that is very manageable to work in.  If you either want to save money on soil or you do not want to raise the level of your ground, you could chose to just bring in compost and then work the compost into the existing soil by roto-tilling or by hand with a shovel.  It’s your choice.  Either way you will need to add compost and you will need to create a “loose” soil base (6-8 in. deep) to work in.

If you choose to bring in soil and compost, you should plan on adding about 6-8 inches of material over the planting area.  This should be roughly one quarter compost and three quarters top soil.  Some garden centers sell mixtures of top soil and compost already mixed together.  This is a great option if you can get it.  If you add top soil and compost separately, just make sure they are mixed together  in the bed before planting.

This may all sound a little complicated, but it’s actually very simple.  Think of it this way.  Plants need a relatively “loose” soil to grow in.  Only weeds like compacted soils!  Plants also need organic matter (compost).  Your job is to give them both. So adding compost is a given, but creating the “loose” soil can be done by roto-tilling existing compacted soil or by simply adding new soil.

You will not need to fertilize your new soil at this time if you’ve amended it with compost.

Getting a good “grade’

Once your soil is prepared, you will need to rake it out into a smooth contour.  If your bed is an island, it should be highest in the middle and grade down to a few inches below the grass at the edge.  If your bed is against a structure, make sure the soil slopes down away from the structure, so that water will run away from the structure.

Be careful not to create any dams with your new raised beds.  Water will need to run off your property.  You can easily trap water runoff by creating raised beds in the wrong places.  This should have already been checked in previous steps, but check again to make sure water has a place to run off your property.

Stand back

When your beds are prepared, make sure you stand back and look at what you’ve created.  How does the whole project flow together?  At this point, the shape of your project (at least at ground level) is complete.  It should look great.  If it doesn’t, give it some thought.  This is the time to make any adjustments.  Hardscapes are almost impossible to adjust at this point, but your planting beds are very flexible.  Don’t be afraid to change their shape if it helps to bring the design together.

After site preparation, you will plant the large plants (typically trees and large shrubs) first, then featured planting areas (like flower gardens), then finally, any filler plants necessary to tie everything together.  We call this first planting of large plants, the “backbone” of the garden.

Next: install the gardens in your design in Plant the Gardens