Preparing Growing Beds for Spring
The snow is coming. Whether it is this weekend or later, it will come. However, before you surrender to the cold and holiday season, I want to give you an idea: What if those flower or vegetable gardens that you didn’t have the chance to do this summer, you did the prep work for now? Some of the best ways to prepare for new growing beds (or cleaning out old ones) is done 6+ months before the planting begins, and that’s right about now!
The goal is to plant our vegetables, flowers, shrubs, trees, etc. in soil that is relatively free of weeds, rich in nutrients, and loose so that new roots can easily grow into it. Let’s start with the weeds. The lowest labor way to kill the unwanted greens is to cover whatever you want to die with something that won’t allow light to come through. This could be sheets of plastic you have laying around, old carpet, cardboard, layers of newspaper, or anything really big (think of grass dying if someone parks their car in your yard for too long). The more-labor, less-objects way to do it is to take a shovel and flip all of the grass/weeds upside down. This can be done in squares like sod or one shovelful at a time. The goal is to put the green side in the dirt so the plants can’t get sun and the roots in the air so they can't get water. This also benefits the soil by having all that dead plant material there to work like compost. We do not recommend using weed killers (like Round-up) because most of them will also kill the microbes in the soil which your future plants depend on for helping take up nutrients.
The next part is adding nutrients to your soil. The way to add the most nutrients is to add 2-4 inches of compost or manure. This can be kitchen scraps or any type of manure you have on hand. Because it will sit in a rather thin layer over the winter, it can be completely fresh or "green" because it has all winter to break down. That brings us to the next option, adding mulch. Although not as high in nutrients, any type of mulch, whether it be wood chips, a shredded wood mulch, or straw will break down and add fertility to the soil. It will also suppress weeds from coming up in the spring and provide a home for the small insects of the soil.
All of the above suggestions also take care of the last goal of loosening the soil. The mulch and compost are organic materials and not easily compacted, and they provide a home and food source for insects (such as earthworms) which dig tunnels and spread around the organic material loosening the soil further.
Now to summarize and make easier to follow:
You can do any one or all of the above steps, in any order as long as it makes sense to you. Ideally there will be three or more layers: a barrier layer to kill weeds, a mulch layer, and a nutrient layer. You can do more than three layers by repeating any of them and creating a “lasagna” (see option 4). Here are some possible ways to follow the steps:
Option 1) Turn over grass, put on a few layers of newspaper, add whatever kitchen scraps and leaves you have sitting around, then add 2-4 inches of shredded mulch.
Option 2) Put on the area manure, a layer of landscape fabric, and finish with 4” of mulch.
Option 3) Put down black plastic or cardboard, add 6” of mulch, then remove the plastic or cut through the cardboard before you start to plant.
Option 4) Put down a layer of yard waste, a layer of newspaper, a layer of manure, a layer of straw, a layer of kitchen scraps, a layer of landscape fabric, and finish with a layer of wood mulch.
Any of these options will give you a nearly weed-free area with more nutrients ready for planting in the spring. Believe me, your plants, the environment (and maybe your back) will thank you for not using a weed killer and some dirt in the spring to make a bed right before planting.