Preparing a New Flower Bed

Growing tulips starts with good soil preparation. Photo by The Marmot.

When you first decide to plant a bed of flowers somewhere in your yard, it’s easy enough to just dig a few holes and drop in some small plants, seeds or bulbs, water them a bit and walk away. You’ll probably even get some flowers that way, in among the weeds. However, if you take the time to properly prepare the soil for your new flower bed, you will dramatically increase your gardening satisfaction.

It’s never too early to begin to think about what kind of flowers you would like to plant. For example, if you want a fern garden, you should choose a shady spot that has moist soil all the time. Ferns don’t like to dry out. If you’re growing tulips, though, choose a spot in full sun to part shade with well drained soil. It pays to keep plant differences in mind when choosing a location for your new flower bed.

Choosing a location for your flower bed is the first step in the process; actually laying out the bed is the second. Flower beds can be any shape and size you desire. Formal beds tend to have straight edges and orderly plantings, and informal or cottage gardens are more fluid and organic looking. Whichever your preference, it’s a good idea to take a garden hose and lay out the perimeter of your proposed bed, just to make sure you like the look.

Be careful that you don’t make your beds too small. Read the planting instructions for the flowers you’ve chosen for your beds and make sure you leave enough space so that your flowers aren’t too crowded. Be especially cautious of this when planning beds along a fence or building. A flower bed should be at least 18 inches wide, but 24 inches is even better.

Once you’ve chosen your bed location, you’ll need to prepare the soil. If there is grass growing in the bed area, you can either remove the sod with a shovel and fill the bed with organic material, use a broad spectrum herbicide to kill off all the vegetation and then till it under with a garden tiller, or build a raised bed over the existing sod and fill with organic material. The method you choose will depend on the look you are trying to achieve, and your stance on herbicides in your garden.

For the sake of this article, we’ll assume you’ve chosen to remove the sod with a shovel and fill the bed with organic material. The best way to add organic material to your flower beds is by working compost into the soil. You can make your own, or buy compost in bags at your local garden center. When buying, choose compost which is moist, not too dry or too soggy, and which has very little recognizable wood or bark in it. Remember, if you can’t easily work it into your soil, it’s of little use to you.

You can work the compost into the soil using a garden tiller or a shovel, but make sure you work the soil down to a depth of at least 12 inches. This will allow the roots of your plants some growing room. If you don’t already have sandy soil, add some coarse sand at this point. This will help ensure that your tulips have enough drainage to keep them from getting soggy.

As you’re working the soil, keep an eye out for critters which will not be welcome in your flower bed, like grubs and wire worms. Ridding your garden of these damaging insects now will save you a lot of trouble later.

You may want to have your soil tested at your local garden center. Soil testing will tell you the levels of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and pH. This information is helpful both in choosing the best plants for your location, and in determining the type and amount of fertilizer you need.

When you’ve finished preparing the soil in your new bed, it’s a good idea to water it and wait a week or so to see what grows. Chances are you didn’t kill all the dormant weeds, even if you used an herbicide to kill off the sod. Allow them a chance to grow, then pull them by hand before planting your flowers. After planting, apply a thick layer of mulch, and you shouldn’t have much trouble with weeds for the rest of the season.

Taking the time to carefully prepare your new bed for planting will not only give your tulips the best start, it will save you time and effort later—time that you can spend admiring your garden instead of working in it.

Photo by the Marmot