Trading grass for gardens
Preparing a new garden usually starts with removing turfgrass – the default landscape plant in a typical yard. Spring is a good time to do that because the ground is soft from winter thaw. Just don’t start digging until things have dried out a bit. If the ground is soggy and the soil wet enough that it packs into a sticky ball when you squeeze a handful of it, wait a few days. Working wet soil forces out air pockets and ruins soil texture, giving you something more akin to concrete than black gold.
Before going any further, determine if there are buried utility or landscape-lighting lines in the area where you plan to dig. Utility companies will mark locations. Be sure. You don’t want to run into any subterranean surprises.
Get started by using a hose or rope to mark the boundaries of your new bed. Then spray-paint along that line and get the hose/rope out of the way before you trip on it.
Next, separate the future garden from the rest of the lawn by cutting along the line with a sharp, long-handled tool, such as an edger, spade or ice-chopper. Consider making a parallel cut 6 inches in so you’ll have a visible trench all the way around.
- Option 1 (quick) is to manually strip the turf. Use a spade to cut under and lift up sections at a time. Use the pieces to patch bare spots elsewhere in the yard or compost them.
Or roll up the sections like carpet and set them aside to use later. After loosening the soil, the sections can be flipped upside-down on top of the beds and mulched over with chipped wood or bark.
- Option 2 (quick) is to rent a sod-cutting machine. This is a power tool with a horizontal blade that separates turfgrass from the ground. Basically, it’s a mechanical version of Option 1.
- Option 3 (for the patient) is to cover the lawn with black plastic topped by an inch of mulch. By fall, the grass underneath will be dead. Then you can remove the plastic and the dead grass.
- Option 4 (for the patient) is the least-work method. However, it’s useful only when you’re starting with reasonably good soil underneath. First, remove that 6-inch strip of turf around the perimeter of your new bed. Then lay whole sections of newspaper and 2 to 3 inches of mulch directly over the remaining turf. The newspaper and mulch will smother the turf and let it compost in place. Ideally, allow 4 to 6 months of smothering time before planting. (Note: Many yards in subdivisions were heavily graded before construction, and the soil underneath is likely poor. It may even be only a few inches of topsoil over compacted subsoil.)
Your plants will thank you if you can loosen the planting bed to a depth of 10 or 12 inches and work 2 or 3 inches of compost, mushroom soil, chopped leaves, rotted cow manure and/or similar organic matter into the loosened soil.
It’s far better to prepare whole beds rather than digging and improving individual holes for each plant. When you improve a whole bed, the soil is uniform throughout, the drainage is better, and it gives plant roots free reign to spread unimpeded in all directions.
When you’re done, you’ll have slightly raised beds. Taper the soil down to just below ground level around the edges to make a “lip” that helps hold mulch in the bed. If you’re planting lots of small plants, it’s easiest to add 2 or 3 inches of mulch to the bed first and then go back and plant. Preen Mulch Plus is a great way to maintain moisture and prevent weeds from growing.
For larger shrubs and evergreens, you can mulch and plant in either order.
Keep those new plants well watered the whole first season, and you’ll find yourself mowing less and admiring more.