Yes, You Can and Should Garden II: Selecting Site; Preparing Beds and Containers

This is the second installment of a multi-part series on how to garden. You can read the introduction here.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Let’s prepare the places where you’ll put your plants.

You’ll have to learn a bit about your property.

Knowing your property (even in an apartment)

The first thing you need to know is your gardening zone. This is a matter of Googling your zip code and “gardening zone.” Gardening zones give you only one piece of important information. It represents the coldest temperature you ever get in winter. Different plants have different tolerances to cold temperatures. Some can’t deal with a frost at all. Others will pop right back up after a winter with -20F. All plants, seeds, and bulbs you buy will indicate in what gardening zones the plant will thrive. Gardening zones do not indicate your average rainfall, your summer humidity, your soil compaction, or other information very pertinent to which plants will thrive in your area. But it’s a start.

Now you have to pay close attention to the degrees of sun and shade your property gets. If you live an in apartment, check anywhere you are able to plant: windows, patios, stoops, roofs. In general, if nothing is shading your building, southern, eastern, and western exposures will be full sun and a northern exposure part shade. I have had four garden design clients so far, and every single one of them told me very confidently their shady spots and sunny spots, and each one of them was partly wrong. (Mostly, they all thought their yards were all full sun. One of them told me her yard was full sun, and was showing me pictures. I asked why there was no grass in a bare spot. She said that’s because of the tree over it. I asked if that didn’t mean it was shady, and she said, “It would be full sun if the tree weren’t there.” So. Count all shade, whether cast by your trees, house, fences, nearby buildings). So here’s what you need to do. Draw a rough map of your property. On a sunny day during growing season when you’re home all day, check your property every two hours (8 am, 10 am, noon, and so on) and mark off which spots are sunny and which are shady. Note, too, which are shady due to non-evergreen trees that leaf out in spring (which means those areas will be sunny in early spring). If an area gets more than six hours of sun a day, it’s full sun. If it gets between two and six hours, it’s part shade (there are hairs of difference between part sun and part shade and filtered shade and bright shade, but don’t worry about it too much). Less than 2 hours of sun, it’s full shade. There’s no reason you can’t make a garden in full shade; it will just affect which plants you choose. Note: an hour of noontime or afternoon sun counts more than an hour of morning sun. If your spot gets three hours of morning sun only, I might count that as shade. If it gets five hours of afternoon sun, that’s full sun.

Next you should figure out what your soil is like. If you get nothing else right, get your soil right. Nothing else will matter so much to your plants’ outcomes. (If you’re growing only in containers, you can skip this part.) Within a day after a rainfall, grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it falls apart immediately, you likely have sandy soil. If it clumps, but falls apart when broken, then you have loam or silt soil. You are lucky. If it clumps and stays clumped, you have clay.

You should have your soil tested for ph levels and other nutrients. You can contact your local extension service about how to get this done. Or you can just follow the instructions here and send it to the University of Massachusetts labs. They will give you specific advice on amending your soil. I have to admit, I usually skip this step, and everything has always turned out fine. But it’s a riskier move.

Next notice any problem areas. Areas that get flooded for more than an hour after a rainfall, areas where the lawn crisps without frequent watering, and areas near downspouts are all areas that can be helped by gardens. So you’ll want to include those in the land you devote to garden space. Slopes, too. If you have a serious slope that causes serious problems, consult a landscape architect. But you can deal with an annoying slope with some soil erosion, screened loam can be your best friend in these situations. You can either make terraces with stone walls, or plant it with perennials and shrubs that limit erosion.


No matter what your soil condition, compost is a gardening miracle that makes sandy soils more nutrient rich and retentive, and makes clay soils less compacted and more permeable. Every garden should start with a hefty dose of compost. You can buy bagged compost (lower maintenance) or make your own (frugal-er and greener).

a DIY compost bin with wood slats and chicken wire.

a DIY compost bin with wood slats and chicken wire.

Here’s a brief aside on how to make a compost pile. Caveat: the internet is littered (ha) with sites on how to make compost. People are extremely passionate about compost. You can get really into this if you like, but my aim (as ever) is low-maintenance. Choose an area in your yard that is protected from wind. Some people will tell you to put it in a sunny location, some in part shade. For me it’s worked either way. It gets done a little faster in sun, but a partly shady spot can ensure it’s not visually intrusive. Compost bins are usually on the less-attractive side, but some people like the eco-chic look. You will need a bin. You can buy these. You should buy one if you have certain disabilities or anticipate having trouble turning a big pile of compost with a pitchfork or shovel. You should also buy one if you’re more into low-maintenance than frugality or reclaiming salvaged materials, etc. In that case, get a compost tumbler. If you’re a DIY type, simply use a large, well-ventilated container. An easy homemade version is a garbage can with many holes drilled into it. Make sure you drill holes in the bottom and prop it up off the ground (with bricks or whatever) so it can drain. Leave the lid off. You can use a crate with an open top and bottom and spaces between the slats. Size-wise, about 4 x 4 x 4 works well. Then start building. In general, you want to layer what are generally known as browns and greens. Greens can be your kitchen scraps, grass clippings, or plant debris (such as flower deadheads, the subject of a future post, or weeds – but not if the weeds have seeds attached!). If you removed the piece of plant because it was diseased, then do not add it to your compost. If you use kitchen scraps, know that your compost bin is a vegan. No dairy, meat, eggs. Your compost bin will make a happy exception for bagged bonemeal and bloodmeal, found at garden centers (I usually add them). It’s a good idea to grind your food in a blender or food processor first, although certainly not necessary. Coffee grounds and tea leaves, although actually brown, are for composting purposes green. Browns can be shredded leaves (mow over them with a mulching lawn mower), shredded newspaper without color ink, shredded cardboard. If you add some greens, add some browns. They should be mixed together. If, like a lot of people, you find yourself adding many more greens than browns, you can keep a pile of straw on hand to add whenever you add green stuff.

Every so often (the more you do it, the faster you will get compost) you have to mix up your pile. Like once every few days to every few weeks. Turn the tumbler, or dive into your compost bin with a pitchfork or shovel. I find it easier and surprisingly neater to dump the stuff out onto a tarp and mix it that way, but YMMV. If you do the garbage can, secure the lid on and roll it around. Return it to the bin. During dry spells, make sure the compost heap gets water.

If you buy compost, make sure that if you live in an area where your soil is likely to be salty (such as a coastal area), you should use a plant-based compost rather than rotted manure. I can’t make enough compost to keep up with my gardening. So I use my own compost, supplemented by the bagged compost that is produced my county’s green-cycling program. I add bagged worm castings to it. You can of course set up your own vermicomposting, but hey, this is supposed to be a low maintenance garden.

I would avoid using human or pet poop.

If you are preparing containers, the low-maintenance option is to buy bagged potting soil. Put it in your container. Make sure your container has drainage holes in the bottom. If it doesn’t, you can drill them. Voila. Economical and not very high maintenance option: mix together one part peat moss or coir, one part perlite or vermiculite, and one part compost. Now you have potting soil. I also mulch my container plantings, so even if you’re only container gardening, read the section on mulch, too.


A word on mulch. The three things I absolutely cannot imagine gardening without are compost, mulch, and my Japanese weeding knife. Mulch protects plants from winter frosts, prevents soil temperatures from fluctuating, suppresses weeds, prevents some soil erosion, and helps conserve water. Low-maintenance route: buy bagged. This is what I do. I use shredded hardwood un-dyed mulch – cheaper than most others, reasonably nutritious, degrades into compost, and does all the basic things that you’d like mulch to do quite well. Bark chips don’t degrade well, and I avoid them. Cedar or cypress bark smells and looks nice, but it over-harvested, so I avoid it. Another option is straw. I’m not so into it, since I find it unattractive (others disagree) and it can house rodents. I may use it as a winter mulch this year, though, and see how it does. Still another option is river rocks. Drawbacks: hard to move plants around. Looks very nice in a rock garden. I used it for my containers of succulents. Greener and cheaper option: you can make your own mulch. My yard does not provide enough resources for this. Shred your dead leaves or collect pine needles. If you go the dead leaves route, let them rot for a bit, but rescue them before they become compost. Pine needles look cool. It used to be thought that it acidified the soil, but the thinking is that it does not. Some people suggest using compost as a mulch. I have no clue why this such a popular suggestion. Compost uncovered by mulch washes away and fluctuates with temperature. Organic mulches eventually become compost, but they are not yet compost.  Some places suggest you ask tree-trimmers for excess woord chips. Improperly aged wood chips can harm your plants.


Bed placement

Backyard with curvy borders that retains some lawn, from Better Homes and Gardens

Backyard with curvy borders that retains some lawn, from Better Homes and Gardens

Next, figure out your beds (if you’re not doing containers). Here are some basic rules. Any part of the yard you don’t regularly use can become a garden. You should plant all around the foundation of your home. The borders of your property are other obvious spots. Usually, people do not use their front lawn much, and it’s a perfect opportunity to turn swathes of lawn into garden. Use gentle, slow curves to make your beds. You can mark them off by laying a garden hose, dribbling flour along the line, or spray chalk. Avoid straight lines. Straight lines, along with perfectly trimmed boxwoods, are a formal garden look, and definitely not what you’re going for in low maintenance. (I also think it’s less homey). If you’re in a suburban or rural area, definitely try to include at least one eating or seating area, even if it’s only a bench or a hammock or a couple of Adirondack chairs. Think also, about making some paths. There should be paths to all the different parts of your lawn to which you regularly go. You can make a path from mulch, pebbles, pavers, or just leave a grass lawn path. But the idea is to invite yourself and others into all the parts of your lawn.

If there’s one mistake I see again and again on everyone’s lawn, it’s beds that are too small. This is true for aesthetic reasons as well as environmental reasons. Foundation planting are almost always too small. In general, with a yard that is .2 acres or greater, beds should be at least 4 feet wide, or 2/3

Bed far too small for a tree.

Bed far too small for a tree.

the size of the height of whatever the garden borders (such as a house or a fence). Of course, island beds that don’t border a fence or wall are dandy, too, but should be greater than 4 feet wide. And the trees! Those poor trees with their sad little constricted dog collars. A tree should be part of a much larger bed including other plantings or at least groundcover or mulch. If your soil is plain awful or you want to get a jump start, look into building a raised bed, either with wood or a dry-stack stone wall. The stone wall, if you don’t have stones on your property, can be on the expensive side, but it looks much snazzier than wood and can last for centuries. Literally centuries. Also cool because you can put plants to spring out from between the stones and use others to spill over the edge. It’s a surprisingly easy DIY project. If you have a disability that limits movement, look into getting a raised bed built on legs or high enough that you have access to it.

A happily collar-less tree as part of a curved raised bed made with dry-stack stone wall.

A happily collar-less tree as part of a curved raised bed made with dry-stack stone wall.

So here’s the absolute easiest way to make a bed from lawn. It is frugal, green, and low-maintenance (woohoo!). Only drawback: delayed gratification. In the fall (or before then, if you want), lay down some cardboard or newspaper (black-and-white) on the spaces you want to turn into garden bed. If you use cardboard, start earlier rather than later so it has time to degrade. Wet them thoroughly so they don’t fly away. Then cover everything with compost at least three inches deep. Then cover that with one to two inches of mulch. You don’t need to build a raised bed around this – it will compact. The newspaper or cardboard prevents light from reaching the lawn, which will kill it. Then the dead grass is a green and the newspaper or cardboard is a brown, so you get some extra compost. Some people suggest elaborate “lasagna gardening” layering techniques. It’s too fussy and totally unnecessary. In spring, turn the the bed at least 6 inches with a pitchfork or rototiller. You now have a garden bed.

Even easier but much more expensive way: hire a landscaping company to do it for you. You get instant gratification, too.

More difficult but cheaper – dig out the sod. Another instant gratification route. You should note that it’s difficult work. Once you’ve dug the sod, add 3 inches of compost to the bed. Till it with a pitchfork or rototiller to To compost the sod, put it a layer in the bin grass side up. Cover it with shredded newspaper, cardboard, or straw. Then place the next layer grass side down. Next layer is grass side up and begin again. You end up with a ton of good compost.

Finally (and this will be controversial), if you have a disability or for some other reason cannot or will not do the above, use glyphosate to kill the areas. This is the one of the very, very few situations when I would recommend a chemical use. Glyphosate is not such good news ecologically, but if it’s used one time and helps someone create a garden who could not otherwise do so, then I think benefits outweigh risks. Use as directed on the areas you want to turn into bed. Wait two weeks for the lawn to die. Then cover with three inches of compost and till.

And now you have a bed. Next we’ll talk about what to put in it.

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16 thoughts on “Yes, You Can and Should Garden II: Selecting Site; Preparing Beds and Containers

  1. Nice job, Rose.

    And the easiest compost bin of all is a couple yards of chicken wire, in a circle, held closed with a few twist ties.

    I have a neighbor with one like this, she grows clematis on it. After the frost, she cuts one side back enough to open it, clean the old leaves out and spreads them over her perennial beds for winter blanket, and then rakes the leaves from the yard and puts them in the bin for the next fall.

    Rose, are you familiar with the garden books by Ken Druse? Eye and imagination candy. His website (which I just discovered has a podcast!):


  2. Use gentle, slow curves to make your beds. You can mark them off by laying a garden hose, dribbling flour along the line, or spray chalk. Avoid straight lines. Straight lines, along with perfectly trimmed boxwoods, are a formal garden look, and definitely not what you’re going for in low maintenance. (I also think it’s less homey).

    A possible countering opinion – Too many curves and weird angles/corners make the remaining lawn a bit of a hassle to mow (you can’t get good straight back and forth lines and get into a “rhythm”), which is work you do MUCH more frequently than working in the beds. So be careful in getting too creative with the beds.

    Trust me on this, my backyard looks kind of like the one on the picture above and while it’s cool looking, mowing/edging/trimming the grass takes longer than it should for a lawn that size. It’s also harder to set up for outdoor games that require symmetrical fields (baseball or soccer or volleyball or badminton, say. Cornhole or horseshoes is fine).


  3. Random thoughts…

    I like the idea of composting, but I end up throwing all my veggie scraps out the back door for the squirrels. It’s easier and I like watching them.

    Stone, as you note, is expensive. A cheaper and greener option is to use old concrete. Using plants that grow over the edges, it’s very hard to tell it’s not stone. The trick is to contact construction companies and let them know you’re interested. The difficulty is that the supply is very unpredictable, and when they happen to have it, you have to be willing for them to drop a load of concrete in your yard/driveway that day, whether you’re ready to deal with it or not. So it’s not for everyone, but a friend who is an architect did it to deal with a steep slope in his backyard, and it looked great by the next summer as plants filled in.

    Rose, what about areas that are deep shade, as in never touched by direct sunlight (<1 minute of sun per day)? A northern exposure perhaps, or the back of my yard which is so tree shaded that it's literally never hit by sun when the trees are in leaf?


    • Yes. Stone is not for everyone, but it’s just so lovely. I always dreamed of having a place with a mossy stone wall – I never knew I could build one. We have a very tall concrete retainer wall as one part of the border of our yard. Kinda ugly, but I just send vines up it for the growing season.


    • Is there never even dappled sunlight or light reflected in from nearby areas. For example, if the shade is cast from one direction and the other side is next to a light area, that is different from the deepest darkest overgrown woods. There are a couple of options, but you have to go into it with a sense of we’ll-throw-something-at-it-and-see-what-works. I have an area that’s never touched by direct sunlight, but is nearby light areas and gets reflected light, and regular old shade plants do fine.

      If you were in a warm zone, I’d suggest cast-iron plant (apsidistra). I just add that in case anyone in a warmer zone is curious. Otherwise, things to try are (in more or less the order that I’d try them):


      Brunnera “Jack Frost” (this has the advantage of beautiful silver foliage that lights up shade areas – needs moisture)

      Dryopteris celsa (handles dry soil, moist is better)

      Polygonatum odoratum

      Dicentra spectabilis (any kind except “Gold Heart – chartreuse foliage in general, e.g., in hostas, doesn’t do well in super-full shade — keep in mind that dicentra goes dormant in summer, so you might want to plant it near hostas or something that cover the foliage midsummer — prefers moist)

      Asarum splendens

      Trycirtis sinonome (prefers moist, can handle dry)

      Winter Jewels Hellebores (posionous, if that matters)

      Vinca minor (some varieties are invasive – check to see which aren’t in your area)

      Hostas – the bluer the variety, the more likely to be happy.

      Disporopsis pernyi – (prefers moist – this is hardy to zone six, so would be extra risk for you)

      Epimedium x youngianum – there are a few of these running around – I don’t know if one is more shade tolerant than any other, but I think youngianum is more tolerant than other epimediums (epimedia?)




      Wax-leaf begonia


      • The last 8 feet of yard barely even get dappled light. It’s the east side of our yard, and across the property line is a line of trees large and small. It’s great because the other side of the fence is a very very deep yard, and the 50′ or so across the boundary is a sort of untended “waste.” So when we look out at our yard, it looks like it ends in forest.

        The south side of our yard is lined with mature trees, so throughout the day only the north side get sun.

        We do have vinca back there, which is spreading nicely, but I’d like some vertical plants as well. I like hostas, but we have a lot of them along our south side fence. I’m just looking for something different to add variety.

        I’ll look up those other things you mention and see what strikes my fancy. Thank you.


      • Oh, I just looked up dryopteris. I have a surplus of that in a couple of shady areas. It really fills in nicely. Along with a huge hydrangea it fills in n the weird NW corner of the house, where there’s a 10′ setback from the front of the house to the north wing, and no direct sunlight hits. Last year I killed most of it stomping around fixing the foundation beam and residing the house, but it’s rebounding nicely this year. I love the way it looks, too.


  4. I’ll just throw this into the mix, though I appreciate that it’s a bit too rustic for most people:

    Pig has a plow at the front of his face. It developed to root up underground tubers and fungi. It’s terrific at taking overgrown areas, and literally rooting out the rocks, the roots, the junk car parts, etc, in preparation for future planting.

    Now I realize most of us do not want a pig. But for those that want the meat, and can bear to have a fellow creature root up an area and bear to part with piggie, sending him to the the freezer after her work is done, this is an awesome way to reclaim an overgrown yard.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled and civilized gardening. Oink Oink.


  5. Good point. One problem I’ve seen is that people make the curves too tight (actually, I think that is the case in the picture above). So, as Glyph says, not too many weird angles and corners. And I totally agree you should leave as much lawn as you use. If you play games, etc, on it, then keep the lawn for it. At the end of the day, gardens should help keep you outside, not inside.


  6. The location I am in (S. Texas) takes a sever solar load in full sun. The hard pan clay is only about 12″ deep then beyond that, calcium carbonate rock.

    The combination of solar loading and compacted shallow soil have a detrimental effect with the ability of the soil to retain rainwater as well as supplied water.

    Bed preparation:
    To prepare a bed in these conditions I trench to near 30″ depths. To backfill I lasagna layers of plant organics, sand and ditch silt. A fair amount of rabbit waste and charcoal is useful if it can be found. If I have significant quantities of weed matter with seed, It will be placed at the bottom of the trench with a light sprinkle of vinegar.

    The trench beds will eventually become infiltrated with clay after about 3-4 years, which will require another application of organics to prevent the “hard pan creep”.

    From chipping nearly 24″ depth of rock from the trench operation I find an abundance of white rocks near 4.5″ diameter. In beds that are exposed to full sun all day I stack the rock above the lasagna. This “large white rock mulch” has also worked well for the dozen or so fig trees I have planted in full sun.

    When stacking/placing the rock I will assure that there are access holes to water through. This allows the water to go directly to the soil without coating much of the rock surface.

    I first tested the rock mulch after seeing a program about how the people of Easter Island mulched. I noticed the rocks they were using were about the same size as from the trenching. You would think the rocks would lead to compaction, but from the worm/bug/microbe/lizard/frog activity It remains less compact than the soil outside the insulation zone.


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