Creating A Baseline Garden Bed

By Mark Wolfe

Whether you are starting your garden from scratch or renovating an existing landscape, the process of creating a garden bed is the same:

  1. Define the borders of your new garden bed.
  2. Clear the ground.
  3. Improve the soil.
  4. Plan for watering requirements.
  5. Add plants.

Follow these five steps to make the process simple and effective, as you tailor the space to your personal tastes.

Define The Area

Knowing the dimensions of the space at the start allows you to calculate all of your future needs such as: How much soil amendment? How to set up a watering system? How many plants? How much mulch? Both the square footage and the exact borders are important pieces of information for both planning and execution.

At this stage, mark the space on the ground and then measure it. Use stakes and brightly colored twine or a garden hose to mark the borders. Look at the area from different angles to be sure the shape and coverage give the effect you want. When you have it the way you want it, mark it with landscape paint so that it doesn’t get moved when you start to dig.

When the final border is painted, multiply the length times the width to calculate the square footage of the bed. To keep the math simple, break up odd shaped spaces into squares and rectangles and add the total area. If you plan on installing a border or fence, measure the perimeter as well. Guessing or “stepping it off” can lead to wasted time or costly mistakes later on.

Remove Existing Vegetation

Skim the vegetation, including the roots, off of the area before adding soil amendments. A border spade and garden rake are the commonly used tools for this part of the job. For converting lawn areas of more than a couple of hundred square feet, renting a sod cutter can be a huge time and energy saver. The machine undercuts the roots and makes slabs of grass that can be easily picked up.

Avoid the common mistake of simply tilling grass into the soil, because it harbors both weed seeds and perennial roots that will create weed nightmares. Instead, pile the vegetation in an out of the way spot where it can become compost. The heat it generates will kill weeds and the final product can be added back to the bed later.

Add Soil Amendments

There are several amendments you can use to improve your native soil, the most universally useful one being compost. Compost is made from a wide range of organic waste including sawmill debris, vegetable scraps, peanut and cottonseed hulls, coffee grounds, grass clippings, fallen leaves, manure and more. The beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down this organic waste are the building blocks of healthy soil.

Add at least a 3-inch layer to the bed to make notable improvements, such as improving drainage in clay soil or moisture retention in sandy soil. It takes approximately a cubic yard (a pile 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep), or 27 cubic feet, to cover a one hundred square foot space. For small spaces calculate 1 cubic foot of compost per 4 square feet of bed.

Till the compost into the top 3-6 inches of the new bed. The mixture of native soil and compost will gradual homogenize as earthworms and other soil dwellers tunnel through the soil. This newly improved soil is a great starting point for a wide range of plants including annual flowers, herbs, vegetables, perennials and even shrubs and trees.

Plan For Watering

Before planting, it is important to have a plan for keeping the bed watered. Small areas of herbaceous plants and moderately sized shrub and tree plantings may be easily watered by hand using a garden hose, or slow-release watering bags. More extensive beds may require some degree of temporary or permanent watering system such as sprinklers or drip irrigation.

Automated systems with timers, rain sensors and programmable zones are useful for large gardens and landscapes. Irrigation systems are most efficiently installed prior to planting. During a renovation where a sprinkler system already exists, zones or individual heads may require some sort of conversion. This, too, should be done before planting. The exception is for drip irrigation lines and emitters, which can be laid around plants prior to mulching.

Be sure to note locations of water lines to avoid damage during later work. If hard edging such as pavers, timbers, or metal edging is in the plan, install those elements after irrigation. This will help avoid re-works.


Let the new garden bed rest while keeping it moist for a couple of weeks before you add plants. Allow weed seeds time to germinate so they can be killed before planting. If weed pressure is heavy, this cycle can be repeated a few times before planting. This process, called “stale seedbed” can be an important step in minimizing hand pulling or the use of weed killers later on. After planting, add mulch to conserve moisture, stifle weeds, prevent erosion, and for an attractiveness.

Use this baseline garden bed process to achieve your garden dreams. Whatever your yard needs, its conversion is in your control.

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