PHOTO: Geoff Maddock/Flickr
Jesse Frost
March 14, 2016

There are few endeavors more exciting than starting a new garden. Of course, there are also few endeavors more intimidating if you’ve never done it because it’s not as easy as just turning over a bunch of sod and planting some tomatoes. There’s nuance to it and many considerations that should be weighed. While there’s no one right way to do it, here are some things you should consider when starting your garden from scratch.

Choosing A Garden Spot

Because gardens have historically been found on hillsides, rooftops and anywhere in between, it’s perhaps easier to say what a garden spot shouldn’t have than what it should. A garden plot should not:

  • Have invasive grasses: Get to know Johnsongrass and Bermudagrass, as they’re difficult to get rid of and would love for you to till up the soil around them so they can spread faster.
  • Be in a floodplain: A lot of people love to plant in “bottoms,” which can be the best soil, but if your garden spot regularly floods, all of your effort will be for naught. If you don’t know the area well, ask your neighbors about the last time it flooded.
  • Be too steeply sloped: A little slope is OK—even preferred if facing south—but if it’s too steep, you’ll need to terrace.
  • Be too shady: Don’t forget about sunlight. Most plants need at least six hours a day to grow, preferably more, so an acre in the hollow surrounded by giant oaks might not be ideal if you’re wanting to grow tomatoes.
  • Have lots of rocks or heavy clay: In fact, if you have the time or desire, consider getting a simple soil test before plowing to better understand the soil’s pH and nutrient content. This will also tell you if there’s lead contamination, which is very common in urban areas.

Clearing Forest For Garden

If all you have is forestland to work with, this could easily be an article on its own, but let’s do the simplest breakdown:

  • First, cut the useable trees, but cut them high on the stump—about 1 to 2 feet—so a bulldozer can easily plow the stumps out. If you’re not experienced with a chainsaw, please hire a professional for this)
  • Next, hire a bulldozer. This can cost between $70 and $120-plus an hour, so plan accordingly. Tell them your goal is a garden, and ask them to be easy on the topsoil. Because you will lose some topsoil no matter what, ask the operator to pile the debris in a location where you can easily retrieve it later.
  • Once the garden settles, there will be large holes where the roots were, so use a disc and a drag to level the dirt (or hire someone to do it).
  • Get a soil test—forest soil can vary widely in acidity levels—and compost well your first year (usually not required for new gardens) for the loss of topsoil. Expect to deal with some debris and roots for a couple years thereafter.

Working With Land Contour

If your garden plot is on a slope, think about if you want to plow. By plowing downhill, you’ll lose water and possibly soil, so plowing across the slope is usually more effective to maintain moisture and prevent erosion. However, if the hill is steep (more than a 10-degree grade), plowing the entire plot could be out of the question, as heavy rains could mean bad erosion. People with sloped plots often strip garden, leaving grass strips between plowed areas, or even terrace. There is no hard-and-fast rule here, though. Some farmers plow straight across hillsides, while others shape their gardens with the contour and plant in rows that curve around the slope. Look at your land and the climate, and then make your decision accordingly.

Maximizing Sunlight

Slope is the first determinant in your garden design. It’s optimal to face your garden to the south. In other words, a slight slope to the south will get the most sunlight if that’s an option for you. Also take into consideration where the trees are, where the sun rises and sets, and how to make the most out of that sunlight, especially in more northern climates.

Discing Versus Plowing

Discs are surprisingly gentle when it comes to soil preparation. They go a handful of inches into the soil and leave much of the soil structure in tact. But that said, they don’t always work well on their own to start a garden, as the sod can clog the discs and several requisite passes could cause compaction. For this reason, plows are a good precursor to the disc and work well in conjunction. Plow your garden plot first, then run a disc or tiller over it later. Generally speaking, plowing is done in the fall so the sod has time to break down a little, and then the tillage is done in the spring.

The Mulching Option

Many people don’t turn over sod at all when starting their gardens, but rather cut the existing grass as short as possible and layer mulch overtop (sometimes starting with cardboard). This is often referred to as no-till gardening. Heavy mulching will shade out the grass and weeds and encourage micro- and macro-organisms to break them down. Although this can be a much more environmentally friendly approach, there’s much to consider with no-till gardening. Your garden site and access to good, non-treated mulch may determine whether it’s right for you. Also, consider generally how wet the spot is and how much time you want to wait until planting—breaking down sod under mulch can take months and can keep the soil cooler for several more weeks into the growing season.

The Tarping Option

Unlike mulching, which cuts of sun but cools the soil, occultation is the act of placing something over the soil to cut it off from the sun while still warming it. Gardeners are increasingly gravitating to this idea to preemptively cultivate their gardens, but it could likewise be used to get a garden started.

As with mulching, mow the grass or weeds as close to the ground as possible. Then place large, woven silage tarps—available at most farm-supply stores—overtop. Generally speaking, these tarps are quite heavy, so choose the size appropriate to your physical abilities—it’s OK to have several tarps for one area. They should have at least one black side which will face the sun. Weight the tarps down and leave them there until the grass and weeds are killed. In the summer, this process may only take a month or so. In the winter, however, it may take several months.

Tilling

As with anything, there are upsides and downsides to tilling. The biggest upsides are that tilling beats the tar out of weeds and sod, and leaves you with a nice fluffy seedbed to plant into. The downside is that it disrupts the soil structure and loosens the soil so much that you may lose much of it to erosion from wind or rainfall. Moreover, if done at the wrong times, tilling can create a deep “slick” underneath the fluffy soil—a hardpan that won’t allow for desired water retention. Many farmers till with success, but it should be done minimally and when the soil is fairly dry. Till after plowed soil has sat for several months, and always start at the top of any slope you might be working with, moving across the slope and downward. This will slightly terrace it and help retain water.

Whether you’re installing your first garden bed or your fiftieth, the possibilities of all the things you’ll be growing in it is exciting. Use these tips to figure out the best formula for creating your plot, and soon enough, the growing season will be upon us.


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