How to Start a Flower Bed
Are you a new gardener and wondering just how to, literally, dig in? There are so many ways to garden.
You have the choice of growing flowers in containers, built “raised beds”, or in the ground. My preference is always in-ground. Native soil offers a reservoir of mineral nutrients and soil biology, it acts as a reservoir for water so you use less water, and soil stays cooler in the hot summer. Plus, it’s cheaper!
Here I’ll teach you about starting your garden in the soil you have in your yard. My instructions are for a bed that is planted to get the maximum amount of flowers growing in the smallest space. It is intensively planted and requires soil that is intensively prepped. It applies to growing both annual and perennial flowers, vegetables, and herbs.
Soil preparation is the key to growing great flowers. The bulk of the work is up front, so be prepared to work up front. But the rest is mere maintenance. And with good maintenance, you’ll have a bounty of flowers, or veggies, or herbs forever.
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Choose your best spot
First you will layout where your beds will be. That all depends on the space, sun, access to water, and how much you want to grow.
Sun is super important. Full sun is defined a 6 or more hours of direct sun. Part sun refers to 4-6 hours of direct sun with most of that in the afternoon sun, but it doesn’t have to be consecutive hours. Part shade also refers to 4-6 hours of direct sun, but that should come from morning or late afternoon sun. For most cutting flowers, you will need full sun. Part sun works for some.
For a bed in a flower and vegetable garden a rectangular shape is easiest to work with both for preparing and for ongoing maintenance. For a bed in a landscape, the shape will be varied based on design needs.
Determine the length of the bed that will get full sun, and figure on a 4 or 5 foot width. Most people find 4 feet easiest to be able to reach into the center to plant, seed, and harvest from. Some can work with a 5 foot width. I always choose 4 feet.
Clear the bed and the paths that will be around it from weeds or whatever is already growing there (see the ways to do this here). I like to have 2 foot wide paths. It gives me enough space to walk a wheelbarrow down along the bed. But sometimes I’m pressed for space and I really want to squeeze another bed in, so some beds get a 1 foot wide path.
You probably already know what kind of soil you have; clay, sandy, or loam. Many people believe their soil is horrible and impossible. But all soil can be improved and made wonderful. It takes working with it at the right moisture content and plenty of organic matter.
Gather your amendments. These will be the organic matter you add to the soil. Organic matter will add microbes to the soil and will supply food and habitat for the microbes. The microbes, in turn, feed your plants. So keep in mind this mantra: feed the soil, not the plants.
What kind of organic matter? My favorite has always been aged horse manure. I have been fortunate enough to have had free sources of manure that has been professionally composted. Another time I lived next to a horse owner who gave her horses premium feed so that the manure had no weed seeds. That was truly deluxe. Both were easy to work with and gave me very productive gardens. So seek out these types of sources near you, if you have them.
You can use good compost you’ve made or that you can purchase.
Currently, I rely on bagged composted products. They are the easiest for me to get. They are all certified organic and are comprised of forest products, composted chicken manure, and other goodies like kelp meal, bat guano, and rock phosphate. These are good, they’re full of organic matter and, as composts, they contain rich populations of soil microbes. They even add mycorrhizae to the products to get you started.
Always use organic fertilizers, they feed the soil and the soil then feeds your plants. For a flower bed, one with a higher P (phosphorous) will support root and flower development.
There is an amazing ecosystem in the soil and, believe it or not, the plant roots are the directors of it. So we need to supply the organic matter and some of the nutrients that may be low in your soil. The roots and the microorganisms take it from there.
If you use chemical fertilizers, the soil’s ecosystem weakens and dies out, and the roots take in the fertilizer (like candy). But when the fertilizer is used up they need more fertilizer, and on into a never ending cycle.
By feeding the soil, the roots and the microbes do all the work for you. It’s a self-sustaining system. Just feed the soil with organic matter like compost, aged manures, and some organic nutrients like kelp meal, bone meal, feather meal, fish bone meal, etc. (See more on soils).
Lay it all down
Sprinkle the fertilizers onto the weed-free, pre-moistened soil, then layer that with 3 inches of your organic amendment. Water well.
If you have the time, this is a good time to let everything sit. The surface of your soil starts to meld with the organic material. Moisture is held in. If I do this in the fall and let everything sit over winter, our rainy season, when I start to dig in the spring, the soils is easier to dig and already teeming with life. The organic amendments keep weeds from growing and there is a nice lack of a boundary between the amendment and the soil below.
Water--get your soil moist
Get your soil moistened down to about 2 feet. This is easiest after a rainy season. If you live in a dry region like I do, and one that is quite drought-stressed, too, then waiting till the end of the rainy season makes your work so much easier—and cheaper.
But resist working the soil until it has dried out a bit. If you work it when it is either too wet or too dry, you break down the soil structure. And that takes years to repair.
This is what you want to look for: when you can form a ball of soil and it holds together, and when you push on it, it crumbles apart.
Digging the soil
I strongly recommend not using a rototiller, it can damage the soil structure and breaks apart the mycorrhizal structures that help your plants grow. And it doesn’t go very deep. And I don’t recommend “turning” the soil. Soil has a profile of organic matter and microbes. We don’t want to disrupt a good thing.
But to make it able to feed the plants we want to grow, we do need to add more organic matter, loosen it up, and oxygenate the soil.
What I do to accomplish this is a modification of the original double dig method. This method was touted by John Jeavons in his book How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine.* He developed the biointensive gardening method which relied on double digging.
This double digging is quite a workout. But when I did it and completed a bed it was beautiful, and was raised 5-6 inches above the original surface. It was ready to plant. And the plants I planted took off within a week and they were noticeably happy! I had extremely good success growing this way.
But, double digging is fairly disruptive to the top layers of the soil, though Mr. Jeavons sought to minimize that. And we now know more about how mycorrhizae in the soil help our plants. So after having double dug SO many beds (and suffered knees), I developed a modification. But first, start with the best tool for the job.
The very best, and only, tool for the job
The indispensable tool to use is a good digging fork. It must be wide enough to put your foot on it to let your weight sink it into the soil. And the tines should be sharp enough to readily pierce the soil. (Always be careful with it, though!)
The tool I use is a Bulldog spading fork. I got it decades ago and it’s still my seriously most important tool ever! Or you can get a Spear and Jackson’s fork. Your fork will be used for starting gardens and for maintaining them, so get a good one. It is a tool worthy of the money you’ll spend on it.
The Spear and Jackson digging fork is made very similarly to my Bulldog. It will last you a lifetime, as long as you take care of it (don’t leave it outside), and don’t make it do work it’s not meant to do (life pry our big rocks). It’s for the soil.
The Spear and Jackson has tines that pierce the soil easily and have enough room for your foot to help push it into the soil.
You can read more and get one here.*
Remember that you’re digging to loosen, aerate (add oxygen), and incorporate amendments.
This makes it easier for the roots to grow and find nutrients and boost the growth of soil microbes.
Here's how to dig
Instead of double digging, I fork the top layer of soil to the depth of the fork tines, or a bit more.
Sink the fork straight down to at least the top of the tines. For some soil this can be easy, for others it may require extra oomph. Put your foot on the fork and wiggle it from side to side and forward and backward until it’s deep enough. If you can sink it a bit deeper, that’s even better.
Once your fork is sunk, rock it forward back and forth just a bit to open up the soil. See the amendments trickle down into the soil depths. Start at the bed center and work back to the edge of the bed. Next go back over it and wiggle the fork back and forth at a right angle to the first time, just a few times.
Plan to do this so that your foot that stays on the ground steps on undug soil and not on freshly dug soil.
Be sure that any larger soil clumps get broken up pretty well and larger rocks removed. If you’ll be direct sowing seeds into this bed, you may need to go back over and mix the top several inches a little more thoroughly. You’ll want the seeds to have contact with the soil and not just the amendment.
Work your way down the bed and go to the other side and repeat to finish the bed.
Next rake the surface so it’s smooth. The edges of the beds will be sharply sloped at first. But over time, as the organic matter in the soil builds and the tilth improves, the edges will become more rounded and will provide even more planting space.
You now have a raised bed
Since digging loosens and aerates the soil it will raise its level, too! This is what I believe is the initial source of the term “raised beds”. But the term has come to mean something entirely different now, i.e. built “beds” that are more like large container gardens.
Don’t ever step on the beds! This will compact the soil and you’ll be back to square one or worse. You’re on the way to developing a good tilth for your soil, with organic matter and aeration. Train everyone to stay on the paths and not step on the beds. I trained my two little boys and they got it.
You're ready for planting!
If your soil is still moist, you can go ahead and sow seeds or plant plants into the soil. If it’s dried out a bit, then water gently as described below
After planting, water with a fine nozzle to achieve a “15 second shiny”. This is where you water enough to let it soak into the soil without pooling up. Water only enough to let the water shine on surface for 15 seconds. Once that is soaked in repeat, and a couple more times, to finally moisten the top 3-4 inches of soil. Keep this moist (but not wet) until you have germination and/or an obvious sign that your plants have taken root.
You plant you plants closer together since you have aerated and raised up your soil and
Since your soil is well aerated and raised up, plant roots will have more room, enough nutrients, and good aeration so you can plant plants closer together. This can really increase your production.
One technique to increasing productivity in your beds is to plant in staggered rows. Plant in rows so that plants form a series of triangles alternating with inverted triangles.
Now you’re on to maintenance
Once seeds have germinated and plants have their roots flourishing in the new soil you can change your watering routine. Aim to water deeply and infrequently. That is, water to get the soil moistened down deeply. Then stop for a while and let the soil dry out a bit. The roots need oxygen in the soil. Too much water suffocates the roots and starts breaking down some of the organic matter into alcohols, which is toxic to roots.
How often you need to water will depend on where you live, temperatures and weather, and soil quality. You just need to check by inserting your fingers into the soil. Or, by watching the plants’ behavior, like wilting that does not recover with cooler nighttime temperatures
As the plants grow, and with the tighter spacing you have, the plants’ foliage shades the soil and keeps it cooler and moist. This acts as a living mulch.
Once you have started harvesting flowers and foliage lay down a layer of compost around the plants, but not touching, about an inch thick. It can be your own compost or a bagged product like composted chicken or steer manure, or my favorite, aged horse manure.
Do the work up front and reap the rewards
Now you have the technique for digging a garden bed. It is a lot of work up front, but after the initial digging and growing season your soil will be so much easier to re-dig to loosen up and add more organic matter to it.
I moved to a new location a year ago and have had to start from scratch. I’ve just completed digging all my beds. It’s late spring and all my plants are and seeds are now in and growing! Yay! And I’ve been already harvesting some of my early blooming perennials, and my Alstroemerias (my favorites)!
So, get through that hump of work to start your flower bed and you’ll reap a bounty for the long, long run.
*I earn a small commission when readers purchase the products I recommend, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products and services I have experience with and feel my readers will benefit from. And this enables me to spend the time needed to give you good information… to grow your flowers!