Preparing In-Ground Beds
If you will be growing your garden in an in-ground bed, you need to do some soil preparation before planting. There are a few different ways to create an in-ground bed, depending on the tools and materials you have access to.
Before we get started, however, it's helpful to discuss the basic gardening tools you need in order to work with soil:
Craigslist is a great place to find used gardening tools for cheap. You might also be able to borrow tools from a local non-profit gardening organization.
Basic gardening tools: spade, gloves, and trowel
It's also important to understand that digging and lifting are very labor intensive activities that have the potential to harm your back and other muscles. To minimize the risk of muscle strain, keep your lower back as straight as possible when bending over and lift loads with your legs instead of your back muscles. I've also found that digging with a spade hurts my back less than digging with a shovel. Check out this article for more tips on preventing injuries while gardening.
There are two different methods you can use to create an in-ground bed: the traditional method and the “no-dig” method.
Traditionally, gardeners would prepare their soil by tilling (digging up) their garden. They would then form long rows for the plants to grow on with walkways between the rows. The idea behind this is that tilling aerates the soil, which helps plant roots grow more easily.
If using the traditional method to create an in-ground bed, you should first use a lawn mower or a weed whacker to clear the grass and plants from your gardening area. Then you can use a machine called a rototiller to dig up the entire area of your garden to a depth of 1-2 feet. Rototillers are expensive, but you can rent them from a business or borrow them from a local non-profit gardening organization. They are particularly effective for breaking up very hard soil.
Alternatively, you can dig up the area by hand using a shovel, spade, or garden fork. If you dig manually, go slow (dig over a period of several days if necessary), take frequent breaks, and don't strain yourself! Try to remove as much of the grass roots from the soil as possible as you dig. Flip each shovel load upside down. If your soil is very compacted, you might need to go over the area multiple times to thoroughly break up the soil (see video below). Mix any soil amendments into the top few inches of soil.
While the traditional method is still popular with many gardeners, the gardening world has recently begun to focus on the downsides of tilling. In our soil health post, we learned that soil is full of complex networks of fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms which make nutrients available through decomposition. Tilling completely disrupts these networks and the beneficial services they provide. Furthermore, earthworms and other organisms already aerate the soil naturally by tunneling through it.
As a result, some gardeners have argued that soil is healthier when it is left untilled. This has given rise to a movement called no-dig or no-till gardening. In no-dig gardening, people build up the soil in their garden by piling organic materials on top of it each year and leaving it alone instead of digging and mixing it in right away. Organisms living in the soil break down and mix these materials into the soil over time.
The no-dig method of creating an in-ground bed is straightforward. First, remove any large weeds or woody plants from your future garden bed, then cover the area with 5-10 layers of newspaper. Cover the newspaper with a thick layer of mulch and use a hose to get the area wet. The lack of light and oxygen will help to kill the grass underneath (grass is annoyingly tough, so it may not all die, but it’s a good start).
Covering grass with newspapers to prepare a no-dig bed. Image by Local Food Initiative (unmodified).
It's best to start a no-dig bed early and let the newspaper sit for at least several weeks in order to smother as much of the grass as possible. The newspaper and mulch will begin to decompose and become incorporated into the soil underneath.
However, if you are short on time and need to plant soon, you can complete your no-dig bed early by immediately adding more organic materials on top of the mulch. According to no-dig expert Charles Dowding, you need at least 4-6 inches of material total on top of the newspaper to keep the weeds and grass underneath at bay. Your organic materials can be straw, grass clippings, pine needles, chopped up leaves, or composted manure – whatever you can get your hands on! You can obtain many of these materials in bulk for free or cheap by scouring your neighbors' yards, searching the farm and garden section on Craigslist, or visiting your municipal yard waste facility. Finish the bed with a few inches of topsoil or compost. Then plant your seedlings directly into the organic materials. You can dig individual holes through the newspaper for larger plants if necessary.
So which method do you choose? There are pros and cons to each. The no-dig method uses much less labor, but it also requires a good amount of organic materials. The traditional method creates a neat dirt surface for planting, but it does not kill weeds as well as the no-dig method because some seeds and roots will remain near the surface of the bed, ready to regrow at the earliest possibility.
If you are able to access mulch and other organic materials, I recommend the no-dig method. It is a lot less work and keeps your soil structure intact.
Once your in-ground bed is ready, you can transplant your seedlings!
As always, if you have any questions or tips to share, please comment below!
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