The best way to start a garden from scratch is to kill off the existing vegetation in the place either by mechanical means, through occultation, or by hand and then add some organic matter like compost. If you live in an area that receives ample water throughout the year making sure to kill off the existing perennial grasses and roots can be especially important. Whereas if you live in a more arid climate having access to water will be your primary concern before getting started.
For a beginner, this will be the lowest cost method to getting started and it pays off to start small and scale up if you can confidently manage your beginning space. The intricacies of gardening or farming will lead to many lessons about what works and doesn’t as your gardens evolve through time.
How to start only by Hand
Solely relying on hand to start your garden will be more labor intensive than using a tiller or tractor implements. Steps using a spade.
- Cut existing vegetation low to the ground using an Ego Power+ battery-powered string trimmer or a lawn mower.
- Cut into the existing vegetation using your spade and simply flip the grass over. You do not want to dig too deep and invert subsoil with topsoil. You just want to spade into the topsoil and turn it over.
- Next, we want to give it time to break down. Ideally, 6 weeks is what is needed to break down the plant matter to create a clean bed that will perform best for your vegetables, flowers, etc.
- One side note is that you can speed up this 6-week process using a 6 mil silage tarp laid out over the recently spaded ground for a quicker decomposition rate.
- For a very small space simply using a spade to turn over the existing grass or vegetation is the most cost-effective way to start your garden.
- Once your organic matter has broken down you will want to break up the likely soil compaction caused by rain keeping oxygen as a component of your soil mixture as well as allowing water to penetrate the next time it rains. Hopefully after planting if you time it with the weather in mind!
- Now would be a great time for a soil test before you add compost or any fertilizers to have an idea of where you are starting from. Additions such as compost or specifically lime will often paint a very different picture on a more in-depth soil analysis. For growers hoping to sell at the market one day, this is more important than if you are growing just for your consumption. As you won’t be buying anything in bulk so it may not make sense to have a full analysis done and simply use a more generic fertilizer solution such as a 40 LB bag of Coop Poop or chicken manure. A general rule of thumb to follow with fertilizers is to avoid using manure-based fertilizers on any crops with a day-to-maturity time of fewer than 60 days, especially those with leafy greens that may be in contact with the soil.
- For a new garden, especially if you have poor soil, compaction, and or a lack of topsoil you may want to add in some compost to help with water storage and to help the soil structure from getting super compacted the next time it rains. A little is better than none, but you do not need to add inches of compost unless you are trying to create a no-till or no-dig method for the garden.
- Next, we want to use a hand tool or wheel hoe to perform what we would call “secondary tillage” to create our seedbed. This is more important if you hope to run a seeder through the soil. Using a Hoss Wheel Hoe or a Hoss Stirrup Hoe depending on your budget we want to break up compaction and kill any weeds that may have sprouted since we spaded the soil about a month earlier.
- After our “secondary tillage” pass we are either ready to transplant, direct seed, or stale seedbed our garden. If you want to direct seed using a seeder then you may want to consider leveling out your surface with a 5 ft garden bow rake or any rake on hand.
Here I am performing “secondary tillage using a Hoss wheel hoe with an 8″ oscillating hoe attachment.
This plot since it was so big was prepared primarily in a different method than explained above. I used my tractor for “primary tillage”.
A tarp was also used to speed up the breakdown of the perennial grasses that were growing here before any disturbance.
If you have started planning your garden in the winter then you have time to use occultation to cut down on the hard labor needed to prep your garden space.
How to start a garden with occultation
Occultation is the act of covering the ground using a heavy-duty tarp or silage tarp. This kills the existing vegetation with a mix of heat and lack of oxygen and sunlight. It works very well over winter if you have already spaded your existing vegetation. If you want to skip spading altogether, you can achieve a clean seedbed by leaving your silage tarp in place for 8-12 months. Or on a small scale, you could also use organic mulch as long as you pile it on thick enough to smother any existing vegetation that may want to grow through the mulch. Once again when you pull off your mulch or silage tarp you will want to use your wheelhoe to perform “secondary tillage”. As a vegetable operation grows, rethinking the methods to create a garden naturally will change. As they say, time is money, and machinery is typically adopted.
Using a tractor or machinery to start your garden
There are many different routes to go with using a tractor or machinery to start your garden. Some potential machines include:
- 2-Wheel tractors
- The most common secondary attachments for 2-Wheel tractors include rotary plows and power harrows, or high-speed tillers.
- Compact tractors
- With compact tractors, there are many more options to start your gardens such as plows to discs, bed shapers, tillers, and even mechanical spaders.
- Independent Front Tine Gas-Powered Tiller
- This is a great solution for a smaller garden project.
The same general principles apply when we start our gardens with machinery. Steps to using machinery to start:
- The most common yet soil-exhaustive method for starting your garden is using a high-speed tiller. I don’t personally recommend a tiller for larger productions because all of your organic matter is burned up very quickly when you chop everything into smaller pieces. While it may create a fast seedbed. We lose soil structure, carbon, and soil life in the tiller zone and potentially spread perennial grassroots. Aggressive perennial grasses such as johnson grass can become your most common weed if tilled as you cut those rhizomes or roots up into 100 different pieces of potential plants.
- The less common method of today but more popular in the past is a rotary plow or moldboard plow. You will want to turn over all the perennial roots and plants in the space you wish to start your garden.
- After plowing you will want to allow time to pass for organic materials that were incorporated to digest or break down.
- With rain and time, a general rule of thumb to observe is that we do not want to operate heavy machinery when the soil is full of water or at “field capacity”. There is a magic moment before the soil is too dry and after it is no longer too wet to perform “secondary tillage”.
- Secondary tillage can be performed with a ‘perfecta’, discs or field cultivators. You do not want to go super deep with secondary tillage and if your tillage is not inverting soil layers that is preferred. My favorite secondary tillage method is using a Perfecta field cultivator. This action encourages the breakdown of the organic material we incorporated and firms the bed-top to lock in moisture and encourage a better air ratio in the soil.
- Secondary tillage can be performed a third time if needed but with a minimum of 8-15 days between the first pass. This is only necessary if your bed is still rather “trashy” or compacted before planting.
- Now it’s time to plant!
How to start a no-till (nodig) garden
A no-dig garden is a popular option as you do not need heavy machinery or tools to get started. There are several ways to get started on a no-dig garden. Yet central to all no-dig gardens is an initially huge investment in compost. A general guide to creating a no-dig garden:
- Cut down your vegetation as low as possible with a string trimer.
- Lay down 1-2 layers of thick non-colored cardboard with tape removed. Spray down the cardboard with water.
- On top of the cardboard add a minimum of 8″ of compost
- In-between your beds you can add woodchip path or ramerial woodchips if you have access to them.
- Plant directly into the compost and in time your cardboard will decompose in the process the grasses underneath starve out before your plants will be able to access the soil beneath the now composted cardboard.
Other important considerations
Consideration for where to start your garden is also very important. Having a South-facing garden for those in the USA will be a great start. If you do not have access to a south-facing garden or your garden gets fully shaded out for a significant part of the day then you may be limited as to what you can successfully grow. Observation is a key step to starting a successful garden. You should observe where on your property your garden would perform at its best and be protected from potential visitors such as rabbits and deer. Another consideration is the slope. Having a slight Southward slope is ideal. We do not have the most ideal cropland so have found the most parallel parts of our contours for our gardens. You also want to observe where your keylines are to the land. In other words, when you have heavy rainfall, do you have areas that are from small rivers if so be smart about starting a garden in its path. That would be the worst feeling to prepare your garden only to watch it wash away!
One last consideration is elevation. A garden in a valley will freeze your late-season tomatoes or peppers before the garden up on a ridge as cold air settles. Happy gardening!