How to prepare soil for flowerbed? *new to gardening* please help

ScrappinMom(z8 Oregon)May 16, 2004

Hi I'm new to gardening--just bought our first house. The previous owner obviously must not have liked to garden because there's nothing... only grass, crabgrass, clover, and a ton of other weeds to contend with.

I'd like to have a little flower garden along my fence in the back yard. The soil is clay I think (not too sure on this). It's kinda sticky when wet. Is there a certain thing I should do to help it? There's tons of gurbs in the dirt (yuck--I hate them). The only thing I can think of is mixing peat moss into the soil...

Any help appreciated!


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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Hi Lisa...I'm sure you don't have a whole lot of time with a new house and a new baby.

If you want to make a start, and have some color in your yard, do what you can to get some organic matter, compost, composted manures etc into your planting area. If your soil feels sticky when wet, you most likely have the same clay base that most of us are dealing with. It's high in nutrients and fertile but a little heavy, and can drain a little slowly. Peat moss is good too, but be careful not to go overboard with it...too much in your bed and you'll never wet it again if it dries clear out, sheds water.

If your start up budget is low, Home Depot has some very well composted, odor free steer manure for just under $1 per bag; I've been top dressing (mulching) established shrub beds with it this year and it is great quality for the price. Mulching with it both improves the texture of the soil over time (worms will incorporate it into the soil), it provides some additional fertility, buries weed seeds so they don't germinate.

If you want to get really serious about creating a bed with a longer term vision, the following page has a wonderful recipe for gardening in clay...appropriate for your location (and mine)

Here is a link that might be useful: Improving clay

    Bookmark   May 16, 2004 at 10:21PM
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ScrappinMom(z8 Oregon)

Just wanted to thank you for answering my question. We went ahead and got the steer manure from Home Depot (thanks for the suggestion!!!) and some peat moss and rotatilled it in. Geez, a corner of the yard was soooo wet it smelled (yuck!). I think the lack of drainage caused the stench--I'll have to get a little bit of sand for that area--it's the worst part of the flowerbed. I'm not sure why it's worst than the other area but it is.

I watered that whole area a couple of weeks ago and noticed that the spot where I dug a whole the water just kinda sat there...

Anyhoo, thanks again! It seems like it's taking us forever to get anything done with our baby around. Only 1 pair of hands instead of two!


    Bookmark   June 1, 2004 at 2:29AM
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aka_peggy(Central Md 6b)

Another thought. Please go over to the "soil, compost & mulch" forum and read the FAQ's. Read about, "creating a new garden bed without tilling" or "interbay mulch." These methods are low impact ways to create rich soil over time without much work. The folks that frequent that forum can be very helpful to you as well.

Watch out tho...they're kinda wierd:) They steal leaves from curbsides and beg coffee grounds at restuarants for making compost, lol!

In essence you'd be layering any and all compostables anywhere you want a new garden bed. This will smother the weeds while adding nutrients to your soil and making it lighter. Grass clippings, shredded leaves, coffee grounds, tea bags, manures (if you can get em) straw and the like layered over wet newspaper (newspaper is easier to deal with when it's wet)or cardboard. This mixture also attracts earthworms to your soil and the worms will add their castings...or poop. great stuff for the garden!! Also shredded leaves make a good soil conditioner.

Let me say also that newspaper makes an excellent weed suppressor. I use it thru-out my garden beds and around trees and shrubs. I top it with a 2-3" layers of shredded bark mulch so no one sees the newspaper. Cardboard works just as well but takes a little longer to break down. However, I've also planted right thru the C' board and the paper. All this cuts down on my labor so much.

If you don't get the newspaper, you probably know someone who does. Ask them to save all but the slippery ads, don't use those. 10-12 pages is generally enough but more is best. There are many ways of obtaining newspaper and cardboard. Recycle stations for paper and (behind) mattress stores for larger pieces of C'board.

Good luck with your new home and gardens!

Here is a link that might be useful: Soil, compost & mulch

    Bookmark   June 18, 2004 at 10:39AM
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Lisa, I just bought a new house with two trees and bermuda grass in the back yard. The front had a very bad landscaping job that I imagine came with the house (four years old). The front was just planted in the clay and the left over sand the contractors must have thrown in there. I too did not have a clue what to do with the sticky mess called clay. I gardened for 30 years in Indiana and moved to Oklahoma last year, this March we bought this house and yard of clay and I feel like a newbie all over again. The best advice I've found is in the soil, compost and mulch forum. Also if your state has a forum try there, I found the OK forum very helpful. When I describe my soil they know exactly what I am talking about. All the advice you've been given so far is good. If you aren't coffee drinkers, try Starbucks, most give away grounds. Since my husband and I run on coffee I don't need to get anybody elses, I sprinkle them on my beds every day because everyone says they help with clay soil. Do you have cotton burr available there? That is what everyone in Ok uses to break up the clay. I tilled in compost, peat moss (lot's of back and forth argument about that) and cotton burr in early April. I didn't expect much from reading postings, they say it takes years to improve clay but my garden is beyond my expectations. One more hint, our clay had a very high PH, it's very nutrient rich but they get locked up because of the PH. PH tests are very inexpensive and easy to use. The coffee grounds and peat brought mine down quite a bit already. We've had lots of rain and right now I have areas that are nothing more than soil soup. Just be patient, all the beautiful gardens you see started out just like yours. Soon that little one will be right beside you in the mud. I have a picture of my Lisa sitting in the mud in a diaper covered from head to toe with mud. She is a very talented newbie gardener today. Oh and one more thing don't be shy about asking questions, no such thing as a dumb question. Also some of us are empty nesters and love to give advice.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2004 at 10:42AM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Lisa's clay has a low PH and usually high nutrient content - it's just a little heavy without being amended....Most of us are dealing with acidic soil, perfect for rhododendrons, evergreens, most perennials here in the Pacific Northwest...and, it's supplemented with ample amounts of mildly acidic rain too.

Cotton burr brought a smile, absolutely not available here with our mild winters and very mild summers...

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 12:37AM
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Come to think of it, all the years of gardening in Indiana and I never heard of cotton burr till I moved to Ok. I am sorry Lisa I hope I didn't confuse you. I didn't realise MorZ8 is from the same region. It was raining again today and I just felt chatty.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 5:11AM
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I'm going to get on my soapbox again. I live in central Missouri but grew up and lived in cotton growing country until I was almost 30. Cotton and tobacco are the most highly poisoned crops in this country and considering that many of those chemicals are systemic, I wonder if there aren't residues in the byproducts--ie, burrs, oils used for food, etc.--and I avoid them. I have enough trees in my yard (yes, I'm one of those folks who pick up bagged leaves from the curb) plus I have goats and sheep that waste a percentage of hay that I use as mulch instead of potentially toxic materials. Their manure is pellets about the size of a marble and are not as hot as cattle, horse and hog manures and far easier to handle.

I have decent soil, a little on the clay side, so when I want a new flower or veggie bed, I lay down old feed sacks (brown craft paper, 3 layers when I split the side to lay them flat)then layer on old manure first then waste hay, leaves and grass clippings, depending on season and what's most available. When the layers subside a bit, I open holes, plop in the plants, water well with compost tea at once followed by more at 2-3 week intervals and plain water between until the plants are established. I guess I'm the laziest gardener around because all this soil prep kills my back, even when I use a tiller. Sometimes the site doesn't lend itself to tilling or even digging as in the shade garden I built last week that had a river birch at one end and a pine at the other. Before that, I set out some bales of molded hay to form a hollow rectangle. I filled the middle with fresher manure, waste hay and grass clippings until it was mounded about 2' higher than the tops of the bales and watered it well. When the mound cooked down, I planted some cantaloupe seedlings in the edge between the bale and compost and stepped back. You can't see the bales now for all the growth and the vines are bearing a good number of baby cantaloupe now. They are so vigorous and healthy, that I've not seen any pests on them.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 9:07AM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Jeanine, it was raining here yesterday too - we have that in common. There was more forecast for this morning so I didn't water as's beautiful, sunny, and bright, and we have to be at an early dinner 2 1/2 hours away (planned when I thought it would be raining) and must leave the house by 1 PM. I'd rather be here in my garden; Can't win with this coastal weather...

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 11:33AM
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Coming from a long line of soapbox ranters a good rant never fails to amuse me. You should hear mine about the way people feed their children today then drug them to counteract the effects, but I digress. Faced with 100% clay soil in a new yard, and a small homemade compost pile I thought I chose the lesser of a lot of evils. Thanks for the food for thought. I'll rethink this before I prepare my vegetable beds this fall.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 2:15PM
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Oh, my stars, Jeanine! I'll get on that soapbox right beside you on how parents allow their children to eat. Their behavior could take some improvement. I used to allow Cub and Brownie troops to come visit the farm but the children were so poorly supervised and kept "in line," so to speak, even though there were plenty of adults present that I had to stop it. I was afraid one of them would wander away from the group and get hurt. Today it seems that no one is responsible for his own acts or for his minor children. The sad thing is that the children really miss the opportunity for seeing farm animals and to tell the truth, I miss enjoying their sense of wonder and their innocent and very funny questions and comments.

End of that rant too!

    Bookmark   July 3, 2004 at 4:21PM
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shellywilley(6/7- Delaware)

Hi, Lisa,
First year, just buy plants, and enjoy them.
Now, until next spring- each time you cut the grass, dump the clippings in one place. When you prepare vegetables and fruit, dump them in the same place. Cover this pile-very simply and cheaply- with a black plastic "yard" garbage bag. Pile on your autumn leaves, and get your neighbor's leaves, too- the key is to cover with the plastic. This composts your discards so fast that you won't believe it! If you have clay soil, go to your local home improvement store and buy a 10 pound bag of "contractors", or even "play" sand. Mix it in well with your clay soil, and especially your composted veg discards. Possibly, your community gives away composted leaves that they pick up each autumn. It's important to cover this with plastic and let it sit for a year- covering is EXTREMELY important, to kill the weed seeds.
The manure thing is great- if you have access to straw to mix with it, (well "rotted") even better. The important thing is to mix organic material- and the sand if you have clay soil. Best thing is that the organic stuff is free- save all of the "vegetable refuse" you would normally throw away-potato peelings, vegetable "trimmings", the unattractive outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage- soft tomatoes, bad radishes, eggshells. Pretty much any vegetable discards will do. Just make sure that it hasn't been cooked, or contain salt or vinegar. And after many years, I learned that covering the "pile" is the key.
If you have REALLY heavy clay soil, I have friends who did this- their soil wasn't only heavy clay, but marshy and wet- they collected old matresses- not with springs- tilled up, dug down about 3 feet, laid the matresses down and covered them back up with soil. This gave them incredibly good drainage, and they had one of the best vegetable gardens I've ever seen.
I wish you luck, hope I've been of help. I live in Delaware, 3 miles from the beach, and have spent 8 years amending the soil here, making it so good! ( I be proud) Don't hesitate to contact me directly ( I'd love to hear how you make out, and I have lots of agriculturally adept friends who will be more than happy to share with you.
Hope to hear from you, Lisa- we'll all be happy to be made to feel knowledgeable and important by having the opportunity to share with you!
ps- I meant to spell it all correctly....and did you get that covering it all with plastic is important?

    Bookmark   July 6, 2004 at 12:51AM
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