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Native Plant Gardens DIY: Create a Garden Bed

One person, two hours, 3 tips!

corner of a native plant garden in early spring

With an 1/8th of an acre garden and a desire for lawn (think games, dogs and a family member who loves lawn mowing), possibilities for new swaths of garden bed are limited. When an opportunity arises, time is of the essence! Having created many a garden bed the hard way, digging up sod, the cardboard method is tried and true and so much easier. In just a part of a Saturday afternoon, you can have a new garden bed. The steps:

  • Mark Out the New Bed

  • Cover with Cardboard

  • Soak Cardboard & Add Ground Staples, if needed

  • Cover with Organic Material

  • Soak Again

  • Peek and Plant

Mark Out the New Bed

Marking the area with a hose or something similar makes it really easy to try different shapes and sizes. Since my new bed was to be centered by a tree, to start, I figured out where to position the tree. I then dug the planting hole. Once the hole was dug, I laid out the new garden bed with a hose. You don't necessarily need to know what you are going to plant in the new bed to lay it out. I just find it easier to envision the new shape when I have an idea of the height of plants in the new bed.

First tip: If digging is required, the best time to dig is after a soaking rain. The

ground is definitely softer and the digging is easier. This is particularly true for clay soils.

Despite knowing this, I can't count the number of times I have found myself wondering why it's so hard to dig a small hole or pull a weed out! Waiting for rain to dig, or weed, is totally worth it.

Second tip: Live with the new shape for a day or so. Take it in

from different angles. Is it in proportion to the rest of the garden?

In my case, the new bed is backed by a 20' deep corner bed. Using the rule of thirds, I tried to make the new bed at least 2/3 as deep as the bed behind it. I am actually not exactly sure how the rule of thirds works. I just know space designers always talk about things looking good when proportions are in thirds. A coffee table 2/3 the size of the couch it is in front of will look and work better than a smaller or larger coffee table -- rule of thirds?!

Cover with Cardboard

Cover the area for the new bed with cardboard. I collected boxes from a nearby alley. The process goes much faster with a box cutter. You want to make sure not to leave gaps between pieces of cardboard. Where boxes have flaps, I double the layers of cardboard. If any light gets through, the grass and any weeds will find it and grow.

Third tip: Remove strapping tape from the cardboard. If you don't, you will

find tape working its way to the surface long after the cardboard deteriorates.

Soak Cardboard & Add Ground Staples

Soak the cardboard really well. This will help it start to decompose. You can also add ground staples if you are in a windy area or an area that is likely to have kids or dogs running over it. These are inexpensive and reusable.

newly created garden bed using the cardboard method
Day 1: April 7th

Cover with Organic Material

Add your top layer of organic material. This can be mulch, compost, soil amendment, wood chips -- anything heavy enough to weigh the cardboard down and organic so it will decompose. To me, a minimum depth of 4" is necessary; 6" is better. With heavy clay soils, I use compost or some sort of soil amendment like Leaf-Gro or Bloom because I am always looking for ways to improve the soil structure.

Soak Again

Water the organic layer down, heavily. I like to jump start the decomposition process by watering the area every day for the first week or so. Over time, the organic layer may dry out and a piece of cardboard or two may stick out. You can either keep wetting it down or add another layer of organic material. The goal is to not allow any light to reach the grass.

Peek and Plant

Once the grass dies back, you can plant. Above, you can see that in just over a month the grass beneath the cardboard is already brown. It's ready to plant. Depending on rainfall and temperature, this can happen in as quickly as a couple of weeks or may take several months. I find the waiting process is a great time to visualize what you would like to plant. To plant, leave the organic layer and cardboard in place. You should be able to dig through to plant. It's that easy!

Happy Gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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