University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
STARTING NEW GARDENS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Fall is a great time to start new gardens. The soil is often less wet
and more workable
then, there is usually more time then than in spring or summer, and you
after this past season if you have the time to maintain another garden
new one if your first). By preparing
beds now, they'll be waiting and ready for spring planting when you go
shopping. There are two main methods to
start new garden beds—by layering or by digging.
Layering is simply that, adding
layers of topsoil or compost on top of an existing area. It can be
done most anytime, even if the
ground is wet or frozen. To help hold
the layers in place, and to provide a finished look and easier
consider building a frame around the area 4 to 6 inches high. Rocks,
new or recycled wood, paving stones
and similar can be used.
The first step in layering is
controlling existing vegetation. If
there are a few main perennial weeds, such as dock and dandelions with
taproots, hand dig them out first. If
there is existing weak turfgrass, cover first with a layer of about 10
of newspaper. Wetting these first in a
bucket helps them stay put while you arrange them and before covering.
If there is vigorous turfgrass or many
perennial weeds, mow or weed whack low.
Then cover with a layer of about 20 sheets of newspaper or a layer of
cardboard pieces. If you don't have
enough, a few minutes at the local recycle center on a weekend or
neighbors should yield enough newspaper and cardboard from those
them. The newspaper and cardboard
smother most weeds, and will break down to add organic matter to your
Once the newspaper is down, cover
with 3 to 6 inches of heavy materials such as soil or compost, 6 to 8
chopped leaves, or 8 to 12 inches of lighter materials such as
(not weedy hay). Keep in mind these
layers will settle during winter. Best
is to alternate layers of heavier and lighter materials. If the ground
is mostly bare to begin with,
you may get by just spreading about 4 inches of soil or compost on the
An alternative to the layer method
for existing turfgrass is to remove this layer with a sod cutter you
at equipment rental shops. It undercuts
the turf a couple inches deep, which can then be removed in rolls or
strips. This works best on soil that
isn't rocky. Once removed, replace with
a couple inches of compost or new soil.
Consider this method for large areas.
second method for establishing garden beds is the traditional digging
approach. This requires more work but
provides more exercise! Dig, weed, hoe,
or otherwise remove existing vegetation.
Then till or dig the site. Keep
in mind this may bring many weed seeds to the surface, ready to
season. Fall is generally a good time to
dig a new garden bed, especially with clay soils, as they tend to be
more workable then.
When digging, especially if a
compacted or heavy soil, dig or fork the soil deeply to 8 to 12
inches. This will allow plant roots easier
penetration. Remove rocks and roots and
large clods of soil as you go. Work
backwards through the bed, so you are not stepping on the loose soil
dug up. When done, add a layer of
organic matter such as peat moss or compost, and work in by hoe or
surface smooth. If a heavy clay soil,
add some of these materials prior to digging as well, in order to work
deeply. Finally, add a layer of mulch to protect the surface from
rains and settling snow pack.
If you have a site with only a few
weeds or light grass cover, perhaps you can try a combination
of the methods. Dig or till the area
lightly, then add a few inches of mulch or compost. This approach
involves a bit more labor than
simply layering, but also requires less layering materials—a key point
have to buy such, or haul materials a long distance.
For either digging or layering,
first test your soil for acidity (pH) and nutrients. Your local
Extension office, and many garden
stores, have soil test kits from your local university. You may find
other soil testing kits using
colored liquids. If buying these, just
make sure they are from this season and fresh, as sometimes the
go bad over time and give inaccurate readings.
These aren't as accurate as the university tests, but can give good
estimates of what is needed, especially if you want to do a lot of
Lime to correct an acidic soil takes
a while to work, so is best added now in fall before digging or
layering on top
of it. Other needed nutrients, according
to the soil test, can be added in spring on the surface or when
More tips on fall landscaping
activities, as well as on plants and design, can be found in the book
"Fallscaping" by Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohen.
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