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How to Make a New Garden Planting Bed

Planting bed
Planting beds with a walkway

A garden planting bed is a home to your annuals, perennials, and shrubs. You want a planting bed in which plants will thrive and you want a planting bed that is easy to construct and easy to maintain.

Making a new garden planting bed is a one-time investment in sweat equity. Once a new bed is made, if you feed the soil–which in turn will feed the plants, it will need only a modest amount of additional attention and support plants for many years.

Here are 10 easy steps to establish a new planting bed.

10-Steps to Make a Garden Planting Bed

1. Measure the area you have available for a planting bed for a garden. Is it a front yard, a back yard? How does it relate to the house, to the neighborhood? Use graph paper to map your garden and the planting beds. Draw a rough sketch or use the graph paper to make a formal drawing.

Pay attention to the scale of your beds and borders as you conceptualize and map them. They must fit your yard; if a bed or border is too small, it will get lost in the landscape. If it is too big, it may overwhelm the space. A landscape designer’s trick is to mimic the facade of the house in the garden–that is create spaces that are equal to the geometric parts of the facade–look at the number of windows and doors, look at the rectangular features of the facade and mirror those in the garden’s beds and borders.

2. Track the amount of sun the garden and individual beds get over the course of a day. Full sun plants need at least 6 to 8 hours of sun each day. Partial sun plants need 4 to 5 hours of sun each day or dappled sun all day. Make notes on your garden plan or map; note where it is sunny or shady and for how long. Be sure to include buildings, fences, walls, and trees in your plan. Note north, south, east, and west. Note the direction of steady or prevailing winds. Note where the soil stays wet or where it is always dry. Note where rainfall fails to drain on wet days. You will want to plant in soil that is well-drained; if the soil is not well-drained you will need to create mounded or raised beds.

3. Keep in mind that annuals and perennials need regular care. Shrubs and vines need feeding and pruning attention at least once and commonly twice a year. Keep the ease of access to plants in mind when designing and establishing planting beds. How will you attend to the plants in the bed? How will they be watered? How will they be pruned? If you have specific plants in mind, what is the size of each plant at maturity? Be sure your plan takes into account the sun and water needs and maintenance needs of each plant.

4. The length of a planting bed should not be longer than the length you want to walk from one end to the other. The width of a bed should not be wider than you can maintain. If the bed is too long it may be difficult to lug tools, soil amendments, and hoses to the other side. Don’t make the bed so long that you are tempted to jump or walk across it. Once a bed is established, it’s best not to step into it; stepping into a planting bed can compact the soil. Consider if you will need stepping stones or raised paths in beds to reach all of the plants–especially plants in wide borders.

Digging over a new flower bed before planting in a garden

5. Once you have conceptualized your planting bed or garden, use wooden or metal stakes and garden twine to outline each bed. You can also outline a curvilinear bed with a garden hose or with garden marking chalk. With the ground actually marked, now you can further visualize what the finished bed will look like.

6. Be sure to leave room for paths or walkways in the garden and between planting beds. If you are using a wheelbarrow or garden cart, a path about 72 inches (1.8 m) wide should be wide enough to maneuver the cart. Make each path wide enough for you to turn around in comfortably. A path can be scraped bare soil, grass, groundcover bark, stepping stones, flagstone, or wooden concrete. A garden planting bed should be easy to work in all weathers; make sure the path material is suitable for all weathers as well.

7. A planting bed can be a ground-level bed, a mounded bed, or a raised bed. The soil in a mounded or raised bed will warm more quickly in spring and will be well-drained. A mounded or raised bed should be at least 4 to 6 inches higher than the surrounding ground. You will need to move garden soil from the paths into the beds or bring soil and planting mix to the raised or mounded bed.

8. If the ground has never been used as a planting bed before, clear away all sod and grass, weeds, rocks, and stones. Make sure there are no hidden utility lines beneath the bed. You will likely need a wheelbarrow, shovel, spade, and steel rake to prepare ground that has not been planted before..

9. Turn the soil to a depth of a shovel blade—12 inches (30cm)—and remove any pebbles or rock and old roots. If the soil is heavy with clay, you may want to double-dig the bed to a depth of 24 inches (60cm)—two shovel blades deep. Pulverize dirt clods. Add aged compost, commercial organic planting mix, and aged manure to the planting bed. Turn the amendments under to the at least 12 inches deep and rake the bed smooth. If you have not done a soil pH test, now would be the time to check the pH. If additional amendments are needed to lower or raise the pH, add them at this stage.

Once A planting bed is established you will never deep dig it again. You will simply add aged compost and planting amendments across the top of the bed to feed the soil. Rainfall and irrigation will carry compost and amendments deep into a bed that has been well-worked to start. A good plan is to feed the soil at least twice a year by adding 2 to 3 inches (5-8cm) of organic planting mix or a combination of aged steer manure and aged compost. Spread these across the planting bed and nature will work them into the soil.

Planting in a new flower bed
Adding plants to a new bed

10. Now that the planting bed is prepared, you can set plants in the bed. Set container-grown plants in the bed before you actually plant them. Double-check the spacing to be sure you leave enough room for each plant to reach maturity. When all checks out begin planting. If you are going to add a drip irrigation system, do so after plants are placed.

Also of interest:

Designing with Perennial Flowers

Designing with Shrubs

Improving Garden Soil

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