How to Build a New Landscape Bed

Good soil prep is the key to a successful landscape bed

Every gardener gets excited by the thought of finally getting their hands in the soil and planting out the newest plant acquisitions. The joy of finally getting to see the garden come together in spring is certainly a rewarding experience. However, the key to success starts before the first plant even sees the garden. Building a new bed for shrubs, flowers, or vegetables where only lawn or weeds were before will take some work—but will bring enjoyment for years to come.

Safety first

The first step before you dig is to check if there are any buried utility lines on your property. Located underground is a complex network of pipes and wires for critical services such as electricity, natural gas, communications, water, sewage and other utilities. Unsafe digging can damage equipment. If you plan to dig anywhere – from large construction jobs to home projects – smart digging means calling 811 (Pennsylvania One-Call ) before each job. This is the first step in helping you to dig safely and avoid damaging critical utilities. Pennsylvania One-Call at 811 will help you to locate gas, electric and other underground utility lines. It is important to call no more than ten days prior to digging to ensure utility lines are properly marked.

Design and Layout

You may find it easier to design your landscape bed on paper first. This helps you to be certain of the dimensions you wish it to be and space available. Beginners are prone to underestimate the space needed for the plants that they wish to plant, so bigger in the planning stage is definitely better.

The next step is to physically layout the bed in its location. Use a garden hose to form the perimeter of your bed. A hose is flexible enough to make curves and straight lines and strong enough not to blow away. A garden hose can be moved and reshaped until you find exactly the right shape and size for your bed.

Out with the old

Next you will need to remove the vegetation (grass and weeds) from the area to be used. The easiest way is to spray on all purpose herbicide like Roundup in the designated area. This will kill all grass and weeds but will take about a week to take full effect.

If you cannot plan ahead nor have the time you can rent a sod cutter at a machine rental store. This will cut and lift the vegetation with little soil disturbances as is done to produce commercial sod. After the machine passes, the grass is easily lifted and can be placed in refuse bags and put into a compost pile.

The most important factor for good roots and plants that thrive is good soil preparation.

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States

Soil Preparation

The roots of a plant are the foundation on which that plant thrives. Good roots will generally mean that you have a happy, healthy plant that can survive the rigors of spring and summer and grow well. A poor root system means your plants cannot grow to their full potential, and they are left vulnerable to damage from insects and disease. The most important factor for good roots is good soil preparation. If you are a beginning gardener, properly preparing your soil can be daunting. However, there are some simple steps that you can take to get your beds ready to be planted.

Once the grass is removed, good compost or hums, such as Soil King Leaf Mold, should be tilled into the soil at least 8″, and up to 18″ deep. This is important to help break up the heavy clay soil that is common in our area. The addition of humus allows for more air and water penetration, moderates water and drainage temperature levels, provides nourishment for plants and soil organisms, and acts like a sponge to hold nutrients from being leached deeper into the soil.

For most beds, lime should also be added. Lime or concentrated calcium acts as a catalyst so that the maximum amount of food is available to your plants.

Lime acts as a catalyst so that the maximum amount of food is available to your plants.

Dana Gasper, Greenhouse Manager

Working the soil

Once the existing vegetation is dead use a tiller, spade, shovel or garden fork to turn the bed over. With a brand new bed it may be difficult to get your tiller to break into the soil, so turning the bed over with a spade or shovel first may be best. When working the soil, you want the soil to be damp, but not wet. If the soil is too wet it will clump when you turn it over. If the soil is too dry it will be very difficult to dig and harmful to the soil. If you turn over a spade full of soil, it should break apart and look moist without sticking to your tools or dripping water.

A tiller will often turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. It is good to get down at least 12 inches (the depth of a spade or shovel) when turning over a bed, another point in favor of the shovel. If you are really motivated turning over the soil to a depth of 18 inches is even better, although it is a lot of work. This is often called double digging. Turning over the soil will expose weed seeds that were previously buried to light, causing germination. You can control the germination of these seeds by applying a thick mulch, like pine needles or bark products over the bed or you can treat your bed with a weed and feed product like Preen to help deter germination.

After tilling, the soil should be lightly raked with a bow rake. This will help settle the soil. This should not be done so hard as to re-compact the soil. After the soil is settled, yards of screened soil with compost added should be applied on top of the bed at the depth of at least 3-6″. One yard of soil will cover fifty square feet (5’x10′) at a depth of six inches — use this as a guide. Soil will settle, so be generous in your estimation.

If you are not ready to plant, place a coating of Preen on top of the soil. This will suppress weeds until you are ready. You will disturb this layer when you plant, so be ready to reapply Preen.

My extravagance is my garden – it’s the first thing I look at every morning when I wake up. It gives me so much pleasure.

Ina Garten, American author, host of the Food Network program Barefoot Contessa

Plant and maintain

When you plant, use Bumper Crop and Fertilizer. We highly recommend Bumper Crop Organic Plant Food since it combines an exclusive blend of marine residuals with quality organic ingredients that provide plants with a complete balance of nutrients. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, organics are longer lasting for sustained plant performance. Bumper Crop ingredients include kelp, fish meal, alfalfa meal, feather meal, worm castings, lobster and crab meal, potassium and epsom salts.

After plants are planted, use a new layer of Preen and a layer of mulch or landscape fabric and mulch. After you plant the bed you may still want to add a layer of compost to the top of the soil. A layer of mulch or compost on the top of the soil will help keep weeds from growing, makes for a neater look overall and will also help maintain moisture in the soil.