Spring is a fun time for adding plants to your gardens and creating new planting beds. It’s easy to fall in love with new plants as you browse your local garden center, and chances are you’ll come home with some new and exciting additions to your garden. In my dreams you’ve already done your homework and have planting beds already prepared for your new charges. If not, you’ll need to park your new plants in a shady spot and focus on making a proper home for them.
Planting your latest finds isn’t just about “digging a hole” and stuffing the plants into them. Making new garden beds is a ten-step process. You need to get rid of existing grass and weeds, loosen the soil, and make sure there’s enough food for the plants you’re installing, and protect against weeds taking over before your new plants can succeed. Before you mulch or plant new plants, be you need to be patient and prepare your garden beds properly.
Compacted soil is the biggest reason plants fail to thrive. You should make the soil you’re planting in as close as possible to the rich, well-drained container mix the plant was grown in at the nursery. Plants breathe through their roots, so air is the most beneficial ingredient in good garden soil. There’s nothing you can add afterward that will help plants breathe.
Another enemy is weeds, particularly established perennial weeds. Stripping the sod off the top just removes the best topsoil you have and leaves deep-rooted weeds like thistle. Tilling in live weeds just makes more, healthier weeds. Instead, kill them completely with Roundup. Wait patiently until they’re dead straw. Now their crispy dead foliage will actually improve your soil when you till them in.
Your soil is probably lacking in trace minerals, beneficial microbes and nutrients. Mixing them into your soil from the beginning works much better than adding them later. We use old-fashioned meal-based fertilizers like Plant Tone and Holly Tone, which have gentle slow-release plant food so they won’t burn tender new roots.
Peat moss adds organic matter to the soil to keep it from sticking together. It also mixes in lots of air, which is beneficial to plants. Tilling with peat moss is like making a soufflé or whipping up whipped cream; by adding air you increase the volume. We call this “making fluffy dirt.” It helps plants build healthy root systems quickly. It’s magic. Here are the ten steps:
1. Outline your new bed, painting a line around it with marking paint.
2. Dig a three-inch deep trench, one shovel wide, around your bed.
3. Kill the existing weeds and grasses. Spray them with Kleenup or Roundup and wait a week or two until they’re completely brown. You may need a specialized weed killer for nutgrass, ground ivy, clover, wild violets or other, tougher weeds. If your first spray doesn’t kill everything, spray again and wait.
3. Scatter fertilizer on the ground, four pounds per 100 square feet.
4. Spread three inches of peat moss over the entire area.
5. Deep-till the whole bed until you have fluffy topsoil six to eight inches deep.
6. Rake the soil away from the edges, making a “gutter” along the edges so your mulch can be evenly thick, and mounding up where the largest plants will go.
7. Do all your planting while the soil is nice and dry and fluffy, trying not to pack it down.
8. Rake the area smooth, getting rid of clumps and trash, so that you can mulch without mixing “crumbs” with your mulch.
9. Clean up all the dirt and dust around your new bed, including adjacent walks and foundations, so you won’t pollute your new sterile mulch with dirt and weed seeds.
10. Mulch right away as soon as you’re finished planting, so weed seeds don’t get the sunlight they need to germinate. Be generous. It takes three inches of mulch to create darkness at the soil below, and complete darkness is the most effective weed control. Do your cleanup before you mulch, so soil and mulch don’t get mixed.
Following this step-by-step process will save you time, effort and money in the long run, and eliminate the frustration you feel when your new landscape projects don’t thrive. If you’re realistic about the time it will take, and do it right the first time, your landscaping will look better and take less time to maintain.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.