Planting a Garden from Scratch

Turning an overgrown yard into a bountiful garden can be a daunting and exhausting prospect, but only if you make it that way. Now that I'm starting my third garden and the first one as a homeowner, I've decided to share my progress along with some tips and lessons I've learned over the years - not as a garden designer, but as a gardener with mud-caked hands and lots of time to let nature do its job. For this segment I'll discuss digging, planning, trimming, composting and all of the things you should do to get your garden started off on the right foot.

Start Small

Despite what you may have seen on TV, no great garden ever happened overnight. It is, however, really easy to make a big impression by adding a few plants with personality to your entry. Before I had time to cover this hideous red mulch I was able to plant a foundation planting and place this special piece of escargot garden art from my friend Christina Salwitz. This is a beneficial snail because it scares off all of the real snails that would otherwise devour my plants... or one would hope.

The most important 'little' step you can make towards a great garden is good planning, especially if it's too cold or hot to do much else. Get a feel for your soil first, either by sending a sample to a local extension agent or by eyeballing it in the meantime. If it's sandy and dries out quickly or stays soggy with the consistency of play-do, plan on either building raised beds or choosing plants that will thrive in those conditions.

Walk around your new garden and try to imagine how you'll use the space. For example, I want my vegetable garden to be easily accessible so I'm planting it along the pathway in the sideyard and against the patio. The part of my garden that is too shady and hilly for veggies will contain both native plants and leafy tropicals. Down the center of that area runs a culvert, so I will be outfitting it with stones, moss and ferns for a naturalistic look. Outside the kitchen windows is where I will plant wildlife gardens so that we can see hummingbirds, songbirds and butterflies while we cook.

Plant Seeds (In Containers)

Climate and season permitting, planting seeds in trays and containers is an easy way to get a head-start before you've even broken ground on your garden beds. Since it's time to plant cool-season vegetables, annuals and herbs here in north Florida, I started sowing seeds of heirloom greens, radishes, carrots, broccoli and artichokes. Once the ground is primed for planting, I'll plant the seedlings in the ground along with some onions and garlic.

I wasn't yet ready to plant these white rain lily (Zephyranthes candida) bulbs from my friend Helen Yoest into the ground yet, but I did place them in a wide azalea pot so that they could get a head-start. The day we closed on our house, they bloomed for the first time. Leave it to rain lilies to bloom at the right time, right?

Mow the Grass

Even if you plan on removing the grass, mowing it will make doing so a whole lot easier. The problem with our lawn, however, was that it hadn't had a haircut in at least a month and was waist high in places - tall enough to give even my lawn tractor the heebie-jeebies. I eventually got a solid chunk mowed, but only after making several passes and taking it really slow. I didn't end up mowing the whole back yard; just the side where I will be planting gardens in the immediate future. The good news is that my Troy-Bilt Neighborhood Rider made the whole task really, really fun.

While we're on the topic, now would also be a really good time to get essential garden tools such as a shovel, pruning shears, a trowel, a hoe, a water hose and a nozzle. If money is an issue, see if a neighbor has one lying around that they can let you borrow.

Start Pruning

This isn't just about making things pretty. Sometimes you have to correct the errors of previous owners who may have planted their foundation plantings *right* against the foundation. You should make removing plants like these a priority because they encourage rot, mildew and termites - they also provide valuable materials for your compost heap. I started off by removing branches with my lopping shears and then removing larger limbs with my handy Corona Quicksaw.

Start a Compost Pile

The last thing a homeowner wants to do is shell out money, so why are there so many bags of so-called yard waste lining the streets on collection day? All of those clippings can be easily turned into mulch or compost... or a home for beneficial wildlife like this black racer snake!

It's amazing to see how many beneficial insects reside under a layer of leaf litter, especially when you're used to sterility beneath a layer of store-bought cypress mulch. Most of those creepy-crawlies play a valuable role in making your soil more fertile and aerated, as well as keeping your plants relatively free of disease and pests.

I started out with a simple pile but eventually spread it out over next season's garden bed to smother the grass and decompose. Compost breaks down more quickly if it's in small chunks, so I used loppers to chop up the branches once they've been placed on the pile. A chipper-shredder is on my shopping list because it shops branches into mulch with lighting speed.

Remove the Grass

Some gardeners prefer to dig up the grass, while others choose to smother it with cardboard and compost. I even saw a large instructional graphic at Home Depot titled 'How to Plant a Garden Bed' (or something like that) and it told customers to remove the grass by spraying it with chemicals, but I don't really think that's necessary. Personally I chose to start this season's bed with a shovel, all while preparing next season's bed using the 'no-dig' method. That way I only do half of the work!

(Those three Simpson's stopper trees will form the focal point of this garden room, by the way.)

Method One: Slow Dig

Digging a garden bed can be backbreaking work, especially when you're stuck with thick and vigorous turf like St. Augustinegrass... but it doesn't have to be that way. My own solution is to start by chopping up and loosening the turf and then let it weaken before I break it apart and toss the grass onto the compost pile.

Here's how it works. Every morning I head out to the garden with a spade and start chopping up the turf in straight parallel lines, lifting the compacted soil slightly so that the grass's roots will dry out. I also go back over the rows I cut the day before and chop them up further, in cris-crossing perpendicular lines.  I can keep doing this for days without even having to bend over, and only choose to start removing the grass once it has begun to die. At that point, all I have to do is shake the soil loose and toss the remaining grass and roots onto the compost pile that will become next season's garden bed.

After the turf has been removed, I cultivate the soil with a hoe, spade, shovel or cultivator tiller to kill off any sprouting weeds and keep the soil fluffy until it's time to plant.

Method Two: No Dig

But digging isn't always the best strategy, especially when you're starting out with a plot of especially tough grass and brush - or the spot tends to get soggy after a rain. This was my situation for much of the back yard, so it was the perfect opportunity to try something new.

The 'no-dig method is also called 'sheet composting' or 'lasagna gardening' since you're essentially laying down layers of organic matter in layers to compost directly where you plan to plant. You start out by laying down a layer of newspapers or cardboard to smother the existing grass and start building up layers of leaves, branches, grass clippings and just about anything else you would normally compost. I simply use loppers to break up the branches after I've spread them out over the bed.

The beauty of this method for new homeowners like myself is that there is no shortage of grass clippings and hedge trimmings to go around, and all I have to do is toss them on the pile. As I dig the current season's garden, all I have to do is toss the grass onto next season's garden.

One of the reasons I like the 'no-dig' method is because it doesn't disrupt the ecology of the soil much and allows special animals like this shy little pine woods snake to go about their business and eat my garden's pests. Isn't she a beaut?

Next up on my list is removing the amazingly-built dog house, planting vegetables all along this side yard, planting a privacy screen of natives along the fence (see the Simpson's stopper trees back there?) and - oh yeah - replacing that dilapidated fence. Stay tuned and tell me all about how you started your own gardens while you're at it!

Need inspiration for your own garden? Browse through my boards on Pinterest for some neat ideas that will give your imagination a kick-start. There's a garden for you out there - whether you choose to plant natives or exotics; vegetables or ornamentals; a cottage garden or modern one; or even all of the above! 


  1. It's going to be so exciting watching your garden develop and mature. My only piece of advice for anyone starting from scratch is plan, plan, plan, and then take small steps. Just what you're doing.

  2. So excited to see you begin your home garden!

  3. You moved in the very best time: all fall and winter to get ready for spring!

    The Big Box store tells you to remove grass with chemicals because they don't make money off recycled cardboard and homemade compost. Always consider what their motive is when you follow their advice..

  4. It was good read!Thanks for sharing your garden experience,really good tips.

  5. Pinterest you say? (As I clicks the "Pin" button on my favourites bar before heading off to check it out now like a funk soul brother...)

  6. Nice post for decor your home with plants and planters.


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