If you are preparing beds for landscaping
around your house this article should simplify the process for you. I
say that because of everything that is written about this subject,
some of it is accurate, some of it is just plain wrong, and much of it
is much more complicated than it needs to be. I like to think of
myself as simple Simon. I find the easiest, yet most effective way to
do things, and they work.
Let’s assume that the area where you are planning your bed is now
planted in grass. How do you get rid of the grass? Chemicals or no
chemicals? Chemicals are easy, so we’ll look at the chemical method
My favorite chemical for killing grass and weeds is RoundUp, and used
properly it is effective. Rule number one: Read the label on the
package, and mix the chemical exactly as recommended by the
manufacture. Rule number two: Assume that every plant that the RoundUp
touches is going to die. It is a non-selective herbicide.
The first thing you need to do is mark out where your planting bed is
going to be. Spend some time on this step. If you are landscaping
around your house, give careful consideration to what is going to be
planted in the bed, and then decide how large each plant is going to
be when fully mature. You can keep plants trimmed to a certain size,
but be realistic when you make these estimates. Trust me when I tell
you, this is the number one mistake made by Do-it-yourself
landscapers. People are just afraid to make those beds large enough.
Typically, a bed should never be narrower than 42”, and corner beds
should be 12’ in diameter. Islands. If you make those little tiny
island beds that I see everywhere I am going to come over to your
house and snap you with a wet towel! The island bed in your front yard
should be 20’ to 40’ long, and a minimum of 12’ in diameter on at
least one end. The easiest way to mark out your planting beds is to
buy a can of marking paint at the hardware store. Unlike most spray
paint, this only works when the can is inverted, and it is designed
specifically for painting lines on the ground. They even have cans
that spray chalk instead of paint. I’ve always used the paint, it
holds up better if it gets wet.
Once you have the outline of the bed established and marked, mix up
some RoundUp and spray all the grass and weeds inside the bed area. Do
not put RoundUp in a sprayer that you intend to use for other
purposes. You need a sprayer that is dedicated for the use of
herbicides. When applying the spray, be very careful not to let the
spray drift onto the grass and other plants that you do not want to
To minimize spray drift, adjust the spray nozzle so the spray pattern
is narrow and the droplets are larger. A wide, fine spray pattern is
sure to drift outside of the intended area. Also keep the pressure in
the sprayer quite low. Pump it just enough to deliver the spray. High
pressure causes the spray to atomize and drift. Apply just enough
spray to wet the foliage. If you have liquid dripping off the blades
of grass, you are applying too much. More is not better.
Once sprayed, be careful not to step in the area that has been
sprayed. Many a people have had golden foot prints across their lawn
because they forgot and walked through what had been sprayed.
This is the difficult part, and the part that many people do not get,
so pay close attention. The only way that the RoundUp can possibly
work, is if you leave it alone. Did you get that? Once you apply the
RoundUp, don’t do another thing with that bed for 72 hours. That’s
three very long days. I know you’re anxious, but this is the price you
pay for not planning ahead.
RoundUp is a systemic herbicide, which means that it has to be
absorbed by the plant, then trans located throughout the plant. It
takes three days for that to happen. If you go digging and chopping,
you might just as well skip the spraying step. Go build a compost bin
while you’re waiting.
After three days the weeds and grass are going to look as healthy and
happy as ever. Don’t let em fool ya. They’re as dead as dead can be.
Providing the RoundUp didn’t get washed off by rain within the first
24 hours of the waiting period. Now you can dig and chop to your
However, the only digging that I do is to go around the edge of the
bed and strip the sod back about 15”. Just peel off about 1” and flip
it into the center of the bed. This makes it easier to edge and mulch
the bed if you get the sod out of the way. Now for the non chemical
Mark out the outline of the bed as described above. Strip the sod back
15”, just like above. Since you aren’t using any herbicides I would
dig down about 1-1/2” when removing the sod from the edges. Take the
sod you stripped back and lay it in the center of the bed upside down
and pack it down firmly. Now take newspaper or brown paper grocery
bags and cover the entire bed area. Use 9 layers of newspaper. No
matter what method you used, chemical or non chemical, you are now
ready to fill the planting bed with topsoil.
Put 8 to 12” of good rich topsoil in the bed. Make sure the soil is
higher in the back, closest to the wall, so the water drains away from
the building. If you are creating an island planting make the center
of the bed the highest point. Make sure the topsoil you buy is well
drained and rich in organic matter. Buying topsoil is a tricky game,
you’ve got to be careful and shop around. Topsoil is one item that you
do not want to order over the phone, sight unseen.
This is what you are looking for when buying topsoil:
Topsoil that is rich in organic matter will be very dark in color. If
the soil is light in color it is probably just fill sand. The other
thing you’ve got to watch for is how well drained the soil is. Topsoil
that has a clay base is poorly drained and sticky, and your plants
will not be happy at all. They might even die if they are too wet.
Once a clay based topsoil dries out it gets very hard.
Today most topsoil is run through a screener to remove the clumps,
rocks, roots, and sticks. There is nothing wrong with buying
unscreened topsoil, especially if you’ve visually inspected it, and
have found it to be of good quality. Actually, really good topsoil
shouldn’t have to be screened, but there is little of that quality
topsoil to be had.
When you visit the yard where the soil is stock piled, scoop up a
handful of the topsoil and run it through your fingers. If it seems to
be grainy, it is probably good soil. But if it appears to tiny round
balls, that can be smashed between your fingers, it is probably a clay
based soil that will trap water during rainy seasons, and get as hard
as a rock when it’s hot and dry.
Pay attention to how the soil is screened. Some machines just shake
the soil over a set of screens to separate the debris, and others
actually shred the soil. If the soil needs to be shredded, you don’t
want it. Look closely at the pile that the raw soil is coming from. If
the soil in the raw pile is as hard as a rock, that’s what the
screened soil is going be once you get it in your beds. If it appears
to be fairly loose, it’s probably good soil.
Put 6-8” of topsoil in your beds. You are now ready to plant. Did you
notice that I didn’t get into rototilling and all kinds of extra work.
Nor did I suggest that you add bone meal or any of those other goodies
that the garden centers sell. I skipped the part about checking the Ph
too. Ph is important, but I’ve found that good topsoil almost always
has a suitable ph.
I’ve got a confession to make. In almost 30 years of growing,
planting, landscaping and the like, I’ve never tested the ph of the
soil on any project that I was working on. Is that smart? I don’t
know, but I’ve been successful in my efforts, and I have landscaped
several hundred homes and grown tens of thousands of plants.
It’s something to think about. What I’m really trying to say is don’t
get caught up in too many details, and be careful who you take advice
from at those garden stores. Many of those sales people were flipping
burgers last week.
Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article. Visit his most
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