New Garden Bed – Soil Preparation

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For many so-called gardeners, their idea of garden preparation is to scratch the dirt, plop on $1.47 worth of seeds and then wonder why the plants look terrible later in the year.

A garden is like any other worthwhile project. You need to think about it and have a plan. It takes work over an extended period of time and only then will you realize great results.

Consider these steps.

1. Location, location, location.
Just as in real estate, location is very important.

1a. Sunshine
The first question you might ask yourself is, “Where should I put the Butterfly Garden? ”The answer is usually, “Wherever you get the most sunshine.” Butterflies prefer sunny areas and usually the flowers they feed on prefer sunny areas too. In general, the more sun, the better, but four to five hours a day will do just fine for many plants.

1b. Drainage
Is the area well drained? Does water have a tendency to sit or does it drain well? Butterfly plants usually don’t like to sit with their roots submerged in water, so if you’ve got a wet, swampy area, you’ll have to fix that situation. It’s most easily remedied by adding lots of peat moss and mounding the dirt. You can add gypsum if you have clay soil to help drainage. You can also surround the area with timbers or concrete wall blocks and then add enough extra dirt and organic matter to raise the level above the surrounding soil by several inches.
(Note . . . some plants like wet, swampy areas. Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, is one.)

1c. Viewing
When planning your garden, take into consideration how easily you can see it. My latest butterfly garden is directly off the patio and visible from the breakfast room. I can look outside while sitting at the table and see beautiful butterflies and flowers in a truly lovely setting. Ideally, you’ll place your garden where you can enjoy it for a good part of the day.

#2. Is Water Available?
New plants need a fair amount of TLC – Tender Loving Care.
Plants need good soil, sunshine, but most important they need to be watered on a regular basis – especially the first month. When you’re looking at possible locations, take into consideration how close a water source is. You need to be able to reach it with a hose and sprinkler. If you don’t have water close by, there’s a good chance your expensive plants might not make it.

3. Mark Out Your Garden Area with a Hose.
Aesthetically, curves are more pleasing to the eye than squares or rectangles. One of the tricks I use, is to get out the hose and lay it on the ground where I want the butterfly garden to be and then play with the design until it suits me. I then use landscape paint and follow the hose design to outline the border for the garden.

3a. Size Does Count.

Bigger is not better. In gardening start small and once you can take care of and control that small area then add on. Starting with too large an area is discouraging and you can quickly fall behind in taking care of the plants and weeding.

4. Herbicide the Area.
Buy a herbicide to kill off all the vegetation in the area. I recommend “Roundup” as it will kill the grass and weeds and then breakdown and disappear when it’s time to work. It usually takes at least ten days to work and you may need a second application. (Note- there is a new brand of “Roundup” which contains a persistent killer which lasts for 3 months – you DON’T want this type.)

5. Take off the Grass.
Take off the top layer of dead grass and weeds with a flat shovel or go to your rental center for a special machine if you have a large area . Compost this material and it can be added into the garden when it has decomposed.

6. Analyze Your Soil.
Check with your local nursery to see who does soil analysis in your area.
Usually the local university extension service provides this type of analysis, although it may take over a month.

Your other option is to buy a PH meter (test for soil acidity) and a soil test kit at your local garden store.

7. Add organic matter, fertilizer and other amendments to your soil.

IMPORTANT – Make sure you call the utilities and find out where all your lines are buried first. You don’t want to disrupt your phone service or cable TV.

Unless you happen to live next to a river bottom, the odds are your soil is good for throwing pots but not much else. You’ll need to add lots of peat moss, humus/compost and composted cow manure. Don’t add in raw plant material at this time. It will take too long to break down and use up nitrogen the plants need. Gypsum is also a good additive to break up clay soils. At this time you can add fertilizer and lime/sulphur to change the soil PH. Fertilize with 10-10-10 at the rate of 1# per 100 sq. feet.

The best place I’ve found in the St. Louis area for compost, good soil and mulch is St. Louis Composting – near I-44 and 141.

When the soil dries out, rent a tiller and invite a strong, husky friend over and challenge him to ride the tiller for an hour or two. This is not for sissies. On brand new soil, it will be a rough ride.

8. Adjust the levels of the bed.

By shoveling soil around, you can raise or lower each section of your garden to help provide for drainage and walkways.

9. Place all your potted plants in your garden to get a sense of how everything will fit.

Every plant that goes into the garden will grow to a certain size depending upon a number of factors, but genetically a four-foot plant is going to try and grow to four feet.
A miniature/dwarf plant will never be a towering giant. When you design your garden, take this into account and plan accordingly. One of my front-yard butterfly gardens is directly in front of the house. I want to make sure that people walking by will not only see the plants, but will also see the house, so I put smaller plants in this area. This takes a bit of experimentation, but that’s what makes butterfly gardening fun.

In general, layer the lower growing plants in the front, so they can get some sunshine, and the taller growing plants in the back. In a round or near-circular design, with lots of sun, you might plant the taller plants in the center and the lower growing plants layered out toward the edges.

10. Add Borders.
I’ve put a border around all my butterfly garden areas. I’ve used wood, concrete stone edging and even plastic fencing. The edging accomplishes three things. First, it finishes off the garden area and makes it look more professional. Second, it tends to keep kids and dogs out. Two of my front yard areas are next to the sidewalk and I used to constantly find dog prints, kid prints and even bicycle tire tracks going right through my flowers. Putting a plastic fence around two-thirds of the area stopped those problems. Third, a border also makes it easier to control the grass and weeds which have a tendency to invade the butterfly garden.

11. Mulch the Garden.
Mulch has a number of advantages for new gardens.
It keeps out weed seeds, holds in water and helps to control erosion.
There are a number of choices available, but I’d stay with organic products which will break down and add to the fertility of the soil.

As you can see, garden preparation takes a little thought and a lot of work, but it’s time well spent and you’ll be rewarded with both beautiful flowers and butterflies.

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