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Tips for how to make a new garden bed

“[I]f you are preparing a flower border or vegetable patch for cultivation, you should dig it as well as possible before beginning planting.”

— Monty Don, “The Complete Gardener,” 2009

British gardening author Monty Don goes on to state why digging a new garden bed is important. Digging provides gardeners with an opportunity to add compost and other amendments well beneath the soil’s surface. Digging allows gardeners to break up dense clods and remove stones and other obstructions so plant roots can grow more freely. And digging allows air into compacted soil, which improves drainage and increases microbial activity.

Most gardeners have heard that tilling garden soil is detrimental because it can break down the structure of soil, tear apart mycorrhizal fungi networks below the surface, harm earthworms and other soil organisms, and release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

I balance these perspectives about digging by always digging new garden beds, and then disturbing the garden soil only minimally thereafter. I agree with Don that it’s essential for a healthy garden to start with fine tilth — soil so light that seedlings could be planted out with your hands instead of a trowel.

I learned my lesson the hard way about the importance of digging a new garden. When Jerry and I converted some of our lawn into a pollinator garden a few years ago, we didn’t dig part of the new bed deeply enough, and we’ve struggled with compacted soil and grass roots ever since.

Nowadays, the only exception I make to digging a new garden bed is for lasagna beds, also called sheet mulching or sheet composting. Lasagna beds are created by layering organic materials and leaving them in place over the winter to decompose. In the spring, the result is humus-rich, moisture-retentive garden soil, full of micro-organisms and earthworms. These beds are ready for planting without digging.

This week, I began digging a new garden bed for native herbaceous perennials. Preparing the bed began last fall when weeds and other debris were cleared and the area was heavily mulched with rice straw. Now the straw was removed and set aside for mulching around seedlings later on, and an 8-foot-square plot was marked off with string and stakes.

Don offers a useful tip: If mud cakes to the bottom of your boots, then your soil is probably too wet to work with effectively. A little surface mud stuck to my boots, but the soil a few inches farther down was dry enough to dig.

I dug a trench the length of the bed that was one shovel blade-length deep (Don calls this a spit) and one shovel blade-width wide. To dig, I pushed the shovel blade into the soil vertically and brought up one large chunk of soil with each spit. I put all the soil from the first trench into a wheelbarrow and moved it to the outer edge of the new bed.

The next step was to add compost (and other amendments if needed) to the trench. Then I began digging a second trench right next to the first one, adding the soil to the top of the first trench as I dug. I added compost to the second trench and then started digging a third trench, again adding soil to the top of the second trench as I went. I pooped out after the third trench, but I’ll continue the same process until the last trench, which I’ll fill with the soil I dug from the first one. This circular process for digging a new garden bed is arduous but satisfying.

For removing lawn grass to make a new garden bed, Don recommends first stripping grass from the plot in rows, and then using the sod pieces in place of compost for the dug trenches. Alternatively, the sod can be hot composted to help prevent any grass seeds from sprouting.

If you’re not diggin’ the idea of digging, then the expense of building raised beds and bringing in soil from elsewhere might be worthwhile. However, it’s a good idea to be informed about the composition of the soil you’re buying, and be sure to factor in the environmental costs of processing, packaging and transporting that soil to put into your garden. You might decide to hire someone else to dig the garden bed, instead.

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and my Irish ancestors who farmed for a living, I end this week’s column with a stanza from a poem called “Digging” by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. He admires his father’s and grandfather’s hard work, but prefers to dig with his pen, instead. According to Heaney:

“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, digging down and down

For the good turf. Digging.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.