planning a garden bed

Why you should assess an area before planning a garden bed

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When I first moved into my current home, just over five years ago, I picked a sunny spot for my vegetable garden (it was evident the space had already been used as one) and installed two raised beds. The site got plenty of sun to grow lots of veggies and drained well. Since then, however, the tree canopy has expanded (I live on a tree-covered ravine), and that part of the yard now gets much less sun than it used to. Which brings me to an important point that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I look forward to spring: the importance of planning a garden bed.

Whether you are planning to dig in a new garden bed, or you’ve just moved in and you are assessing what to plant in an existing bed, you want to make sure you get to know the area.

A few tips for planning a garden bed

First of all, if you’re dealing with a blank slate and you want to dig, be sure to call your gas company to make sure there aren’t any hidden lines you need to worry about. During the summer months, I usually get a notice with my gas bill that says “It’s the law” and to contact the company first before digging.

Secondly, you want to assess your soil. Is it hard-packed or clay soil (that will need amendments), will it be easy to dig in or will you need a chisel? Does the soil drain well? When I was writing my book, Raised Bed Revolution, I plunked a raised bed in a wet-ish area of my side yard and I have to say that bed does not drain particularly well after a heavy rain.

Furthermore, if you’re planting veggies, you’ll want to evaluate the pH of your soil. Jessica wrote a great piece about why soil pH matters.

Next you want to figure out where the sun hits your yard. Some locations are obvious shade gardens and others get that full-on sunshine. Bringing it back to my two original raised beds, they now get less sun throughout the afternoon as the sun moves around my property because the trees have grown and create more dappled shade than I had before. I can still plant in those beds, I’ll just be sure to move the real heat seekers, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc., into new raised beds that I’m going to build around the side of my house that gets lots of sun. For raised beds, I always say you can put one anywhere, provided the location gets six to eight hours of sun a day.

If you and your yard are just getting acquainted, Paul Zammit, the director of horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Garden, once suggested to me that you draw a plan of your yard on graph paper and then record when the sun hits at 10 am, noon, 2 pm and 4 pm. I think it’s a great exercise even if you’ve lived in your house for a few seasons.

One last thing that preoccupies my thoughts about planning where my next raised beds will be dug in is the fact that the area where I’m going to build them is riddled with bindweed—aka the bane of my green thumb’s existence. A garden designer I met last summer suggested I cover the area in yard bags and mulch to smother and kill everything off. But I think I’m going to lay landscape fabric at the bottom of my beds, as well, just in case.

Any other tips I encounter as I plan, I will add to this list!

Tips and tricks for planning a garden bed

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12 Responses to Why you should assess an area before planning a garden bed

  1. mikethegardener says:

    Excellent “savvy” blog as usual. To Paul Zammit’s advice on sketching garden areas in sun at various times during the day, I would add doing that at various times of the year. One wants to make sure there’s enough sun (and not too much) for various plants at their critical growth stages.

  2. Pollenatrix says:

    I don’t know about raised beds for vegetables, but landscape fabric is not a good idea in a future perennial bed. The bindweed will come right up through the fabric anyway, and it will be a pain in the neck in years to come when you have to divide plants. Best to kill off the weeds first by laying heavy plastic tarp (old carpets will do the job as well) and solarizing the area. For new perennial beds I have avoid digging by laying down newspaper (wet it first so it doesn’t blow around) and several inches of soil and mulch over top. Voila! Instant garden bed.

  3. J Fox says:

    Bindweed will not be deterred by landscape fabric and the seeds can remain viable for decades in the soil. Better to spend a few years treating judiciously with herbicide.

  4. Liz says:

    Landscape fabric will NOT help with your bind weed problem and it will create it’s own problems. Your plants’ roots will grow down into it. When you try to pull tomato plants at the end of the season, the roots will be embedded in the landscape fabric and you will have to pull it all out.

  5. Liz says:

    The changing pattern of sun and shade is one has been a problem for my garden. A tip I’ve found useful is to snap photos to record the shade patterns throughout the day, and throughout the growing season.

  6. Carly Lawrence says:

    How do I know if an area drains well? I moved into my new home in January, and I am preparing a new raised bed location. I plan to use the cardboard technique, and I built a raised bed out of old pallets! It turned out great. But at the moment I am assessing the best place to put it..and I am unsure about the drainage. What are the pros and cons and if you could add any extra advice about this step, that would be wonderfully helpful! Thank you!

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Carly, I guess the most obvious way to tell would be after a heavy rain. For example, I put one of my raised beds overtop an area of my lawn that gets quite waterlogged after it rains. The raised bed doesn’t dry out as quickly. If you have a flat, dry area, you should be fine!

  7. Phoebe says:

    The best area in our back yard for a raised bed is on a piece of concrete that is no longer level (because of tree roots that have grown beneath it). How critical is it that a raised garden bed is on a level surface?

    • Tara Nolan says:

      I think a slight angle would be okay, but too much of an angle might mean that all the soil washes to one side in a heavy rain. There may be a way to add shims underneath to make the raised bed more level before you fill it with soil…

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