Photo: Oxmoor House
A soil test is the smart way to assess your soil’s pH and any nutrient deficiencies. The results will help you determine what types of amendments or fertilizers are needed and how to apply them in the correct amounts. You can have your soil tested by a private lab or through a kit obtained from your local garden center or Cooperative Extension office.
Selecting a Site
Fruit, vegetables, and herbs almost universally require the energy of the sun to be productive, so it’s important to select a site that receives a minimum of six hours of sun each day, preferably eight hours. If your garden is close to a structure, such as your house, choose a spot on the west or south side, provided tall trees or an adjacent house or building does not shade the site in the afternoon.
Deep soil and good drainage are also crucial. If your sunny spot has compacted soil or the land is low and apt to be wet for days after a rain, consider building raised beds. The ideal size is 4 feet wide so the middle is easily reachable from both sides. Beds that are 4 x 4 or 4 x 8 feet are the most manageable; they can be built from stock lumber, work in a variety of patterns, and allow for neat and tidy configurations.
The height can range from 10 to 12 inches of mounded soil with no permanent edging to several feet tall—high enough to provide seating on the edge or easy access from a wheelchair.
The soil for a raised bed can be bagged garden soil or a mix of local topsoil and organic matter. Ask your garden center for brand or supplier recommendations. Many municipalities encourage composting by collecting organic matter and selling finished compost to residents at low or no cost—a great additive for large beds. Before filling, be sure to remove turf, loosen the soil beneath the raised bed, and amend it with organic matter so deep-rooted plants can benefit. Building and filling raised beds is heavy work in the beginning, but gardening will be easier in the long run.
Water supply is also essential. If there’s not a spigot nearby, call the plumber before you do anything else. Consider collecting rainwater runoff in rain barrels at your downspouts, too.
Once you decide where to grow, it’s finally time to break ground. Preparing the soil is essential to success. Mark off the space for your garden using spray paint or stakes and string. If there is grass, it’s best to remove it or kill it rather than turning it into the soil—it’ll be a constant weed-producing nuisance. If the area is large, consider renting a sod cutter and transplanting the turf to another part of your property. Otherwise, cover the area with a plastic drop cloth or sheet, weigh down the edges with boards, bricks, or stones, and then wait. The heat generated by the sun will kill the lawn in two to four weeks, depending on the time of year. Take caution: Before choosing a chemical solution to kill your lawn, read the herbicide label carefully. You don’t want to apply any product not labeled for use with food crops.
For an in-ground garden: Once the grass is gone, the next step is loosening the soil. Assuming you have average topsoil that is 4 to 6 inches thick, cover the area with at least a 2-inch layer of organic material, such as homemade compost, municipal compost, rotted sawdust, bagged garden soil, aged manure, or whatever is affordable and available where you live. Turn it in using a rototiller or a garden fork, depending on the size of the plot. If you already know the garden’s layout, till just the beds and simply cover the paths with mulch to save you time and energy.
For a raised-bed garden: If you are building above the soil in raised beds, you’ll still need to remove turf. It is possible to grow atop concrete; read online to find construction plans. Prefab raised-bed kits make for easy installation.