Building a garden plot on your land can be one of the most satisfying things you can do to contribute to your own food security along with improving your property, but many who have never gardened before may be intimidated by the idea of making a start out of a bare lot. Fortunately for them, it’s quite easy to get started building a garden plot that is suited for either vegetables or flowers (or preferably both).
So how do you build a garden plot? To build a garden plot, a location must be chosen, and the grass smothered or removed. Compost and mulch are added to stop weeds and leave an area suitable for planting. To avoid damage to the soil, garden plots can be built without tilling, this prevents disturbing biomes beneath the soil’s surface.
This step by step guide will go over the ins and outs of building a garden plot from planning to planting. Keep reading to find out exactly how to proceed in order to end up with a garden you can be proud of.
Determining a Location for Your Garden Plot
Before you begin to pore through seed catalogs, the first thing you need to do is figure out where you’re going to start your garden. The optimal location for a garden plot is determined by several factors:
Lay of the Land
Growing on land that is steeply sloped can be a challenge, as this can lead to soil erosion and other related issues; growing on land in a flood plain can lead to a very watery garden during rainy weather. You want to avoid growing in any areas of obvious run-off where water will either be washed away before it can soak into the soil or will stand in wet weather.
Very few species of plant like either of those living conditions other than a few tenacious varieties of marsh flowers or other specialized species, so a garden plot located where the soil washes away or water stands will not grow traditional fruits, vegetables, or flowers very well.
Find a relatively flat area with decent drainage to build your garden plot.
How much sun a plot of land gets throughout the day is vital to figure out when planning where to locate your garden. Many types of fruits, vegetables, and flowers will not grow without several hours of direct sunlight a day, so planting your tomato garden in a shaded area is going to guarantee a poor tomato yield.
On the flip side of that, planting temperature-sensitive plants such as lettuce in garden beds that receive a lot of hot direct sunlight can lead to premature bolting and wilting, so plan your garden beds accordingly.
Certain parts of your yard may have better or poorer soil consistency. If previous owners have had a garden in past years, those areas of the yard where the garden was located may have been amended over a period of several years to a better richness for growing things, but may also harbor microbes and diseases from previous crops if enough time has not passed between plantings.
While it might be tempting to look for a location where you don’t see many weeds or grass growing to make building the garden bed more simple and to take up a bare spot in the yard, be aware that any barren parts of the yard are barren for a reason, the soil there is obviously poor, which means without significant amendments you won’t be able to grow much of anything else there either.
Choosing a smart site for your garden plot is crucial, as it is a lot of physical labor and time to put the garden plot in. The last thing you want to do is waste all your hard work on a garden plot that won’t perform well and will only result in you having to start from scratch in a different location for the next season.
No matter where in the yard you decide to locate your new garden plot, you’ll want to make sure it’s at least reasonably close to a source of water. Otherwise, you’re going to be spending a lot of your gardening season hauling watering cans of water back and forth to the garden plot.
Consider building your garden plot near a sprinkler system line, that way you can tap off the line and water the garden along with your yard.
Believe me, that’s a routine that will get old fast once the hot season hits and the garden requires more water than you can reasonably tote to it. Instead, try to locate your garden plot where a hose can easily be hooked up and extended to the garden bed.
While it might seem like a good idea to start a garden plot for shady vegetables under a tree, you need to keep in mind the logistic problems that trees and shrubs can cause when putting your garden plot in.
Not only can these plants have extensive root systems that can make planting a pain, but these same root systems can also leach vital nutrients from the soil, leaving you with a garden bed that is less productive than it could be.
Here’s a helpful video explaining the best locations for garden plots.
When Is the Best Time of Year for Building a Garden Plot?
A garden plot can theoretically be undertaken during any season of the year except maybe winter, when the weather often proves too wet, cold, snowy, or frozen to make much headway in the garden. If you’re getting your first garden going for the following spring, the best time to start a new plot is in the fall.
If you have some decent weather in the winter, you could get a lot of work done on your garden plot though. You can even grow certain plants through winter. Check out my article What To Grow In Your Garden During Winter for some ideas.
Preparing a garden plot in the fall can allow you to amend the soil well and give any freshly applied manure or compost plenty of time to age and leach into the soil.
You can also put down pieces of cardboard or other barriers on the ground in the fall to prevent the new growth of weeds and grass in that area in the spring, which prevents the necessity of sod removal before amending the garden plot.
Marking Out the Boundaries for Your Garden Plot
When you first plan out a garden, you’ll want to measure out the garden plot with a measuring tape and make sure each side of the plot is even. Most garden plots are formed into a square or rectangular shape. Marking out definite boundaries for your garden plot has several benefits:
- It makes the garden look more orderly and aesthetically pleasing
- It allows you to accurately measure for garden fencing
- It allows you to accurate space your plantings
- It allows visitors to see exactly where the garden starts and help them avoid trampling small plants and seedlings on the periphery
- It keeps invasive garden plants such as vining tomato or mint from taking over the yard
Fencing in a garden may be useful to keep out animals, to protect a garden from vandalism, to define garden boundaries or just to help organize a garden area.extension.uga.edu/publications (source)
When planning where the boundary of the garden plot will lie, it’s best to start with temporary boundaries such as stakes and garden twine until you determined that the boundaries are even. Once the boundaries of the garden plot have been laid out, more permanent boundaries can be put into place either in the form of landscaping pavers or fencing.
To lay out your garden plot, you’ll need the following:
- Garden twine
- Garden stakes
- Scissors (for cutting twine)
- Measuring tape
- Pavers or garden fencing (if desired)
Fencing is a good idea directly around the garden plot even if you’re already planting in a yard with a fence. Not only does this act as an additional deterrent against any varmints such as raccoons, possums, and rabbits that might raid your vegetable patch, it helps establish footpaths around the garden and keep more vigorous plants from spreading out into the yard.
To determine how large to make your garden plot, figure out exactly what plants you want to grow and how much space each plant will need. It’s important not to over-plant for the yield you can reasonably harvest and preserve to get the most out of your efforts.
If you are planting a garden in a spot that is not completely level, it is important to build any unlevel spots up into a flat, even surface. Otherwise, any water you add to the soil will only cause run-off and erosion down the grade of the slope. Use the level to ensure that the ground is relatively even before committing to that spot as a garden plot.
Removing the Sod on a Potential Garden Plot
If you are trying to install a garden plot in an area where there is currently grass growing, you’ll have to undertake the step of removing the sod over the spot before you can plant anything there.
One of the major disadvantages of having to remove sod physically is that it is somewhat disruptive to the soil structure in the topsoil, and requires that nutrients return to the soil in the form of compost.
If you’re going to be removing sod to build a garden plot, it’s a good idea to make sure the lawn is well watered first. This step done a few days in advance will help soften the earth and make it much easier for you to get the sod up without having to strain. Be sure that you leave a day or two between this step and the actual sod removal or you’ll be dealing with a muddy mess.
Once the lawn has been pre-moistened, cut the sod into strips of roughly twelve inches across to make it easier to remove. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a specialized tool such as a sod cutter, but sod can be removed with a simple shovel.
A much simpler method for removing the grass over a potential garden plot rather than pulling up the sod is to smother the existing grass with cardboard or some other kind of landscaping barrier that will prevent grass and weeds from coming up in the warm season.
This step is best undertaken in the fall so that the barriers to new growth are already in place and established for the following spring.
For more information on clearing out areas for planting without tilling or other destructive soil practices, watch this video.
Building a Garden Plot
So you marked out your garden plot and either removed the sod or prepared the earth to be bare for the spring by placing bed covers. At this point, you’re ready to begin building up your garden plot.
Test The Soil
Before amending the soil in your garden plot, you’ll want to take a soil sample to be tested. This will not only tell you whether your soil is alkaline or acidic, but it will also tell you whether you are missing any significant nutrients in the soil that will need to be added back in through soil supplements like lime or fertilizer.
Add Compost And Topsoil
Whether you remove the sod or smother all grass and weeds out, you’ll still need to distribute an even layer of compost and topsoil mixture over the top of the garden plot.
We use a large bag of nutrient rich compost found in most home improvement stores.
Fresh animal manure is a good source of fertilizer but should not be used in a garden plot right before planting to avoid burning the plants. Instead, fresh manure should be added and allowed to age for several months before adding topsoil and seedlings.
Adding mulch is a crucial step to finishing off the build on a garden plot since without mulch the bared earth left by sod removal will lead to both soil erosion and the inability to retain water. This will cause the garden plot to waste far more water than it would otherwise and makes it harder for plants to have consistent access to it.
Creating A Border
Once the soil has been adequately amended, you’re at the point where you’ll want to put up your garden’s border, whether it’s a decorative barrier for organization purposes or a tall garden fence designed to keep out deer and other pests.
Once you’ve established all these parts, congratulations! You now have a completed garden plot suitable for most types of fruits and vegetables. This kind of basic plot can be used to grow most traditional backyard vegetables.
If you don’t want to create a border or would prefer a raised garden bed, I recommend the 4×4 Garden Bed with Grow Grid (link to Amazon). I like these garden beds because they can be attached together, making your garden as big or small as you need it to be with minimal work on your part.
Here’s a cool video showing you how to edge a garden bed with bricks.
Additions to the Garden Plot
There are things you can add to your garden plot once you have the soil and boundaries established that will give you an advantage when it comes to growing certain kinds of vegetables or flowers. Here are a few of the additions you can make to your garden plot once it’s been established:
Arbors are a good way to train vining flowers and plants vertically to reduce the amount of space they take up in the garden and keep them from smothering other plants grown nearby. Types of garden plants that can be grown on an arbor include peas and vining flowers like morning glories.
Trellises can be placed alongside the garden’s fencing or can even be used in place of garden fencing to give heavier vining plants like cucumber a place to crawl. Some heavier plants might require training up the trellis with ties and slings in order to make sure that plants aren’t pulled down off the trellis by the weight of their fruits.
For plants that require a deeper planting, raised beds can be a good way to give these plants the space they need while minimizing damage to the soil structures underneath the raised bed. Raised beds are a good choice for growers in poor soil conditions.
Cold frames are year-round structures that act like miniature greenhouses and can be used to get an early start on seedlings in the spring. Cold frames are also a good way to grow winter greens and other transitional crops.
If you have fencing around your garden, plants can be added to it as a good way of adding some flowers to the vegetable patch. Not only do flowers help attract pollinators that can improve the production of your garden, certain kinds such as marigolds, basil, and mint can also act as a form of natural insect repellent.
These accessories to the garden plot not only allow you to get more produce from your garden plot during the growing season, but it can also help you extend the growing season, so that you can harvest vegetables a majority of the year.
Maintaining a Garden Plot
After building a garden plot, it’s important that the plot is maintained to ensure the health and vitality of the plants being grown there. Here are a few tips on how to maintain your garden plot after you’ve built it:
Don’t rip everything up in the fall:
At the end of each season, don’t pull up plants unless you’re making space for new crops. Instead, let plants die off naturally and clear away debris at the end of the season, leaving the root systems intact. This will prevent any damage to the underlying soil structure or the microcosms of beneficial bacteria and fungi living within it.
Continue to compost:
Starting a compost bin and periodically adding compost to the garden along with fresh mulch will keep your garden from leeching all of the nutrients out of the soil over the season, and will make sure that the soil quality of the garden plot continues to get better as the garden matures.
Cover bed at the end of the season to prevent weed propagation:
After the plants from the previous season have died off and the debris has been removed, cover the bare garden plot with bed covers or cardboard to prevent new weeds and grass from colonizing the area in the spring. This will make it easier to restart the garden for the next growing season.
Consider a worm bin:
Along with composting, raising worms to incorporate into your garden’s soil is one of the best ways to improve soil quality over the course of the year. Worms can even be grown as a side gig to be sold as fishing bait or live pet food as a way of offsetting the costs of your garden.
Rotate your plants each year:
Make sure to mark where each type of plant is located for each growing season and plant different things in that area in the following year. This helps prevent the build-up of botanical diseases that can lead to bacterial wilt and plant viruses that can lead to total crop failures.
Avoid tilling to preserve a mature soil structure:
Adding new compost and topsoil and mulch to the surface of the soil rather than digging up the topsoil allows the ground to be improved gradually and naturally over the course of the seasons without disrupting the microcosm of the soil. This can lead to much healthier soil over time, with less vulnerability to weeds and increased resistance to disease.
If you take care of your garden plot from season to season, you’ll see that the produce it puts out only becomes more and more vigorous as the soil is gradually improved.
Composting for a No-Till Garden Plot
When you’re building up your garden plot, one of the best ways to continue to improve the crops grown from that plot is to build up the soil, and one of the best ways to do that is to compost.
Composting has been a pillar of organic gardening for centuries, and with good reason, it’s one of the easiest ways to add a rich variety of nutrients to the soil without the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Objects that can be added to a composting bin include kitchen debris such as vegetable peelings, overripe fruit, old shredded newspapers, dead leaves, and other organic materials.
Things that should not be added to the compost include foods such as meat or dishes that have been cooked with animal fat. Not only will these foods eventually smell atrocious in the compost bin as they decompose, but they will also attract pests to your compost such as maggots and stray animals.
One of the simplest ways to compost for your garden plot is to buy a Tumbling Compost Bin (link to Amazon). These devices can be rotated in order to speed up the decomposition of the compost inside and prevent the accumulation of moisture and bad smells.
Mulching for a No-Till Garden Plot
Mulching is arguably one of the most important aspects of building a garden plot. This is the final step after adding topsoil and compost, and is vital for a garden plot for the following reasons:
Bare earth becomes very hot from direct sunlight, and this, in turn, can negatively impact the root systems located right below the earth’s surface. This will stunt the growth of more sensitive plants. Mulch helps to keep the roots of your plants cool by acting as a buffer between the summer sun and the soil.
Helps retain water:
With no sod to hold water, most of the water sprayed onto bare earth either evaporates or runs off. Mulch helps keep water where you want it—at the base of your plants. Keeping the ground more uniformly moist also aids plants in their attempts to leach nutrients from the soil.
Helps prevent weed infestation:
Mulch keeps weed and grass seeds from being able to reach the bare soil for germination, which helps reduce competition between your garden plants and native plants. This also means you have fewer weeds you have to pull, lessening your impact on the soil below.
Prevent soil erosion:
Without grass to hold the water, most of the rain and other water that hits bare earth just runs off of it, carrying away vital topsoil nutrients with it. Mulch prevents this by allowing water to slowly saturate the surface of the soil instead of running along its surface.
Helps prevent plant diseases:
One way that soilborne plant diseases are transmitted is by water splashing infected dirt up into the lower leaves of the plant. Mulch prevents this by keeping dirt from coming into direct contact with incoming sources of water.
Mulch should be laid down in a layer of roughly four inches and can be made of many organic materials, including wood chips or straw.
Because mulch will degrade gradually over the course of the growing season and be absorbed back into the topsoil, it should periodically (once or twice a season) be replaced and raked back over the surface of the garden for best results.
Garden Plots Are a Long-Term Investment
It might seem like the bulk of the work involved in building a garden plot is involved in the first process of clearing the land and planning out the plot and adding soil, but that isn’t the case. The truth is, building a garden plot is a years-long process that involves careful observation and amendment of the soil each growing season.
Building a garden plot lasts for years after the initial boundaries are laid. For real success in building a garden plot, the garden requires a long-term investment of the gardener’s time, energy, and resources. In exchange, it will continue to produce for generations to come.