Once you’ve chosen a location for your new garden, its time to prepare the area for planting.
For years, I’ve used newspapers to smother grass and weeds to make garden beds and paths. It works very well and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to create a new garden or a path.
If you do this in late summer or fall, the paper will have started to decompose by spring. As well, if you do this in the fall you can plant native seeds right on top of the soil at the same time.
Here’s how I do it:
- Cut the grass/weeds where you want your new garden.
- Lay a garden hose down in the shape of your new bed.
- Place layers of newspaper, leaf bags, or cardboard inside your garden hose shape to cover the entire area. Overlap the sheets of paper to thoroughly block sunlight.
- Wet the paper with a garden hose, so it moulds to the lumps and bumps of the ground. If you don’t wet the paper, it will take longer to break down, and will slip around when you walk on it.
- Cover the paper with about 5 inches of soil. It will settle over time, but will still create a slightly raised bed.
You can also smother turf grass and weeds using a sheet of black plastic, a technique called solarization. For information on this technique, check out the A Way to Garden podcast Reducing weeds: a 101 on solarization with Sonja Birthisel.
Digging up sod
You can also dig up the sod, but this is a lot more work. Sometimes though, when you’re excited and want to start, you just need to take advantage of your enthusiasm and get going.
In spring, this is the best way to create a garden that you can plant right away.
- Dig up clumps of sod with a shovel. Remove the dirt from the sod, so you can re-use the soil. I let the clumps dry up a bit, hit them with the side of a trowel, and shake the dirt out into a wheelbarrow. We tried a sod-lifter tool, but it just sliced off the tops of dandelions and other tap-rooted weeds. By digging out the sod one clump at a time, I could dig out the dandelion roots as I encountered them.
- Compost the leftover sod pelts.
- Beware that digging up sod disturbs the soil and brings a new crop of weed seeds to the surface.
Benjamin Vogt of Monarch Gardens in Nebraska has an useful overview of lawn removal methods called DIY Garden Bed Prep – The Good and the Meh to Lawn Removal.
Changing an existing flower bed
I have gradually been adding native plants to my older garden beds. To modify an existing garden:
- Tackle weeds before you start.
- Assess existing plants to determine which ones are good for pollinators as nectar or pollen sources. Keep and divide these plants to make larger groups. Drifts of each plant are best so pollinators can find them easily from a distance, and have lots of food in one spot.
- To make room for new plants, move or give away plants that have no pollinator value. Of course, it is okay to keep some plants that you really love, even it they don’t help pollinators (peonies, daylilies, etc), because this garden is also for you.
- Just because a plant is non-native, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Native plants are best for native pollinators, but introduced plants can be good enough while you’re waiting for your native plants to grow. For more on how I decide which plants to keep and which to compost, see Is it pollinator garden-worthy?