How to Start a Flower Bed

How to Start a Flower Bed

There are lots of reasons to build a new garden bed in your yard. You may want to add to the beauty of your yard. Perhaps you miss some favorite plants you had at a previous property. Your reason will have a big impact on the design, so it’s important to determine your priorities. This project may seem like a big undertaking, but not to worry! We’ve come up with some helpful tips on how to successfully start a flower bed to display your beautiful blooms!

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Plan Your Flower Bed Design

The first step to starting a flower bed is planning and designing. Before setting things in stone, consider these aspects when planning: 

  • Location
  • Shape and Size
  • Retaining Wall or Edging
  • Diggers Hotline
  • Removing Sod
  • Alternatives
  • Perennial Flower Garden
  • Cottage Garden
  • Sculptural Feature
  • Order Seeds and Plants

Walk your yard and decide where you want your flower garden. Determine how much sunlight the area you choose is exposed to. This will be the most important factor when you choose the plants for your new garden. If there are some plants there already, decide if they will stay or be moved. If there are some flowering bushes, you may decide to keep them as the back level of your new garden bed. However, low growing flowers that will be hidden in the back of your new garden would benefit from being dug out and replanted in an appropriate spot towards the front.

flowering bushes garden
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Once you have decided on the location of your new flower bed, mark out the design on the lawn. Use landscape paint, a long hose or even just flour to outline the edge. Stand back and see if it matches the vision you had in mind. Your garden can have straight edges or be curved. It can be any shape you want! This is your opportunity to see what looks best. Use this time to determine the size of your garden. The larger the bed, the more opportunity to plant not just a greater variety of plants, but also different height levels. A typical perennial flower bed that you see in garden books is a minimum of 10 feet deep. That size won’t be possible if you have a small yard. However, if your garden is located across the corner of your lot, that diagonal into the corner may be deep enough to give space for a flowering bush or some tall flowers to anchor the corner.

Now that the design or shape of the garden has been determined, you will need to decide if your garden will be a raised bed or at ground level. Both have advantages and disadvantages. A raised bed will cost more, as generally you will need to build some sort of retaining wall. This can be wood, bricks, pavers or rocks. Once built, you will need to purchase soil to fill the beds. A raised bed is a good solution if your soil is particularly poor or very rocky. A ground level bed will benefit from some type of edging to keep the grass from creeping back into the garden. These are usually plastic or metal vertical strips. Some gardeners prefer an edge of pavers or bricks to act as a barrier, but also to make mowing easier with the wheel of the mower riding on top of the bricks.

digging garden area

Start Digging

Now that the planning is complete and supplies are purchased, it is time for the labor to begin. Before you start, make sure you call Diggers Hotline to verify that there are no underground utility lines, like gas lines or electric power lines, where you are going to dig. Once you call, the utility companies are mandated to check your property within three workdays. This service can prevent liability for damage and more importantly prevent a tragic accident. 

Majority of the time, a new flower garden will be replacing a lawn, so the sod needs to be removed or killed. There are several ways to eliminate sod. It can be manually dug out. A flat shovel works best for this job. Slice into the sod on the predetermined edge of the garden. Work the blade horizontally a minimum of three or four inches below ground level to get most of the root system and as far as the blade will reach. Remove that slab of sod and continue until the bed is exposed and all the sod is removed. Keep the blade of your shovel sharpened so it will cut through the roots as easily as possible. Obviously, this is still a labor-intensive method. If you have a large section of lawn to remove, it may be worthwhile to rent a sod cutter. These machines have a horizontal blade that slides under the sod and, using a sawing motion, cuts the sod free. After removing the sod, work up the soil and remove any debris like large stones or sticks. Add compost and rich garden soil to prepare the bed for planting. Cover it all with a thick layer of mulch and you are ready to plant.

Another method to eliminate the sod is to smother it. Place a layer of cardboard (or you can use multiple layers of newspaper) over the grass. Wet it down to help hold it in place and spread a thick layer of mulch on top. The cardboard will prevent light from getting to the grass and it will die. The best time to do this is in the fall. Let it sit until spring. By then, the grass should be dead and you just cut holes through the cardboard or newspaper to plant your flowers. 

A variation of this is to combine both methods. Remove the sod and then cover what remains with the cardboard. Add a thick layer of amended soil covered with another layer of mulch. The cardboard acts as a barrier, and you will be able to plant immediately.

planning a raised bed

If you plan on a raised bed, build your retaining wall first. Cover the grass inside with cardboard or use weed barrier cloth. Add a good garden soil amended with organic material, topped off with a layer of mulch, and you are ready to plant.

Doing all the preparation in the fall is beneficial in many ways. For one, the heavy labor of digging sod and shoveling dirt is much easier in the cool fall months than in summer. The vegetable garden is winding down and the grass is going dormant, so there is more time for a new project. By having your garden sit for the winter, it gives a chance for any weed or grass you may have missed to grow enough for you to discover it and easily remove it before you plant your flowers. Before you plant, you also have the opportunity to have your garden soil tested. Check the pH as well as the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus levels.

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While you’re waiting for spring, look at your garden from different windows in your home as well as outdoor seating areas. Fine-tune which plants will be the focal point of view from these different angles. Network with friends and family—especially your gardening friends. They will be able to tell you what grows well in your area and, depending where you live, what plants do well in the severe winter cold or the extreme heat and humidity of summer. They may be willing to share a division of their perennials that are ready to divide.

Pick Your Plants

By this point, you should have a clear idea of what type of garden you want to have. Your ultimate goal may be to have a garden exclusively composed of perennial flowers. Most gardeners are unable to plant the entire garden in one season due to the cost. Quality perennials are a significant investment, however they pay for themselves by lasting for years and sometimes generations. They also can be divided when they outgrow their current location, and those divisions can be planted in other parts of your garden or yard. If you have more than you can use, you can pay forward the generosity of your friends who shared their plants with you by sharing your plants with new gardeners. 

investing in perennials
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Remember that perennials are not in bloom all season. Most have a blooming period that lasts a few weeks. The garden plan should include perennials that bloom at different times during the growing season so there is always a plant that is starting its bloom when another ends. There should always be something in bloom. This trait of perennials also increases the importance of the foliage as that is the part of the plant that is on display for the entire season. Look for contrast in leaf shape and color. For instance, the spiky leaves of an iris next to a mound of pink or lime green heucheras and some feathery grasses have great textural and color contrast providing interest even when there are no flowers blooming. In those first couple of growing seasons, you may want to use annuals to fill the spaces where perennials will eventually be.

Many gardeners prefer to have a mixed border. This type of garden includes perennials, annuals and maybe even some herbs and vegetables. There may be some flowering shrubs like roses or hydrangeas as well. An example of this is the cottage garden. This is a less formal garden and all the plants hold hands. Each plant has its own space so they’re separate from their neighbor, but the leaves and branches touch when they grow. This gives a very full, lush look to the garden. It is a much less formal garden than the type of perennial beds where plants are intentionally kept far enough apart so they barely touch each other.

Add Unique Finishing Touches

garden with stone centerpiece

Lastly, if you intend to add a non-plant feature into your garden, this is the time to decide where you will locate it in your garden. If you want a water feature like a bird bath or fountain, you will need a way to access it without disturbing your flowers. If you want a sculptural feature, it needs a spot in your garden where it can be seen, and it should be surrounded with flowers that aren’t so tall that they hide it from view.

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Start Your Flower Bed Successfully

It’s never too early or too late to plan a flower bed. Be on the lookout for this year’s new plant and seed catalog. Every year around the holidays, the new catalogs for the coming year are available both in print and online. Besides the favorite classics, there are always new varieties, new colors and new sizes of plants available for the first time. Begin the planning process today so your new flower bed will be blooming in no time!


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