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Preparing New Beds
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preparing new beds

Before You Plant, Dig a Little Deeper
What you should do before putting your plants to bed

By George Weigel, Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

In an ideal world, you could just dig a hole in the yard, drop in your new plants, add water and watch the glory happen. But here in the real world, that's landscape genocide.

Few gardeners in this state are blessed with really good soil, so unless you improve your lousy clay or packed shale, your plants will struggle.

You'll save yourself lots of replanting and aggravation later by doing a good job of bed preparation up front. This is no time for shortcuts.

Getting started
A good place to start is by taking soil samples to see if you'll need to adjust the soil's pH (acidity level) or add any particular fertilizers. Mail-in, do-it-yourself Penn State kits are available for $9 at county extension offices and at many garden centers.

Next, mark off your new bed with a hose or rope. Both are perfect for outlining gentle curves. Spray-paint the outline when you've got the size and shape you like. Then cut an edge along the painted line using a sharp, flat-bladed tool, such as a spade or ice-chopper.

If you're working on an area without grass — say, replanting an old bed or dealing with a neglected, weedy patch — first get rid of any unwanted plants or weeds. Pull them or dig them if you're an organic gardener, or spray them with a kill-everything glyphosate herbicide (i.e., Roundup) if you're not. Give glyphosate 10-14 days to work, and by then it will have killed most plants, roots and all.

In a lawn, take out a 6-inch strip along the inside of your lawn to separate the remaining lawn from the future bed. Then either spray the future bed with glyphosate and till the grass after it browns or strip off the live lawn with a spade or rented sod-cutting machine. (Use stripped-off pieces to patch lawn elsewhere or compost it.)

You could just till up live grass or weedy beds, but the potential problem is that pieces of turf or weeds may re-root and pop up after planting the new garden.

Once the coast is clear, loosen the bed about a foot deep either with a tiller or by hand-digging with a digging fork. Then add about 2 inches of organic matter and work that in until it's blended well with your native soil (or clay, shale or subsoil, as the case may be). Also add any lime, sulfur, fertilizers or other amendments recommended by the soil test.

Compost made from a variety of decayed plant materials is the single best type of organic matter, but composted municipal leaves, mushroom soil, well rotted cow or horse manure or bagged peat moss or peat humus also are fine.

Organic matter adds nutrients to the soil, but more importantly, it improves soil drainage in wet years, and it adds air space to encourage root growth. Your plant roots will thank you later for this royal treatment.

Save your plants from weeds
Before planting right away, you might consider a "weed sucker punch." By tilling and digging, you've no doubt stirred a lot of buried weed seeds to the surface, where it's prime real estate for weed sprouting. You even may have introduced new weed seeds with the compost or manure.

Instead of planting right away, water the improved bed and wait a couple of weeks for the weeds to come up. Then ambush them by pulling, lightly cultivating or spraying.

Once that big initial wave is out of the way, you'll have fewer weeds to deal with when the weeding gets a little trickier with new plants in the way.

Landscape plants can be added as soon as seven days after a bed has been sprayed with glyphosate.

On a steep slope, you might want to skip the sucker punch and at least mulch lightly right away so you don't risk having the loosened soil washed down and out by a heavy rain.

Use 2 to 3 inches of mulch over all beds in the end. You can either mulch first and then open up planting holes as you go or plant first and then mulch around the planted plants later.

Bonus tip: Get extra weed protection for free by putting down wetted sections of newspaper over the bare ground first. Then top it with 2 inches of mulch. For even more weed protection, apply a coating of a granular weed-preventer over top of the mulch.

Finishing touches
The finished product should be a neatly edged, slightly mounded garden bed that will become a horticultural haven instead of a newly dug plant grave...assuming you don't forget to water.

Soil scientists advise limiting the addition of organic matter to no more than 10 percent if you're planting a single tree or shrub in a hole (i.e., 1 inch of organic matter worked into the top 10 inches of native soil).

If you improve the soil in a hole more than that, roots tend to grow until they hit the unimproved surrounding soil, then circle back where the going is easier. Water also tends to drain quickly through well improved soil, only to back up when it reaches the slower-draining surrounding soil. That impeded drainage can lead to the rotting of plant roots.

By digging and improving entire garden beds rather than one hole at a time, this "simulated pot effect" can be avoided. At the very least, loosen the soil in any hole to a width of at least three times the width of the plant's pot or root ball before planting.

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