Things to Know When Starting a Garden From Scratch

Mom and daughter gardening in the yard.
Image Source/DigitalVision/Getty Images

 To start a garden from scratch, you first need to clear away unwanted vegetation (brush, grass, weeds, etc.). Then you must take stock of what you have to work with. That means finding out what the soil is like in the area where your new garden is located, as well as how much sun the space receives.

Once you know what you have to work with, you can begin improving your soil, choosing plants, planting them, and taking steps to promote their well-being.

  • 01 of 12

    Removing the Grass and Unwanted Vegetation

    Nice grass (image) is beautiful but a lot of work. The hydrangea backdrop adds to the scene.
    David Beaulieu

    For most of us, establishing a garden bed means sacrificing a portion of the lawn. Traditionally, this means removing a lot of grass and the roots that go with it. 

    Layering involves spreading newspapers to smother the grass. It is used by many gardeners when they are faced with the need to get rid of grass to start a garden.

    Another method of killing grass is solarization—killing grass and weeds by utilizing the heat of the sun to bake the soil to high temperature. 

    While most people will convert lawn areas to make room for a garden, that's not always the case. If you are reclaiming land from the woods or an overgrown pasture, you will have to resort to more drastic measures. This job may call for long hours of heavy work (decide ahead of time whether you will do the work yourself or hire somebody). At the very least, you will have to kill the bulk of the weed seeds that are already in the ground.

  • 02 of 12

    Understanding Your Enemy: Learn Your Weeds

    The dandelion bloom (image) is one of the most recognizable weed flowers. Some even like it.
    David Beaulieu

    Everyone knows that weeds are a gardener's enemy, so it's important to arm yourself with some facts about them. Weeds are tough foes, and while there is a wealth of information available to help you do battle, you first have to know exactly which weeds you are dealing with.

    This knowledge will continue to come in handy long after you start a garden. Weeds will pop up again and again, in spite of your best efforts to prevent them. Dealing with weeds is as natural as breathing for gardeners, so the more you know, the easier you will breathe. 

  • 03 of 12

    Learning About Garden Soil

    Image of a friable soil.
    David Beaulieu

    To garden successfully,  you must understand that soil is its foundation. Common issues with soil that affect the health of your plants include: 

    • Nutritional problems. It is from the soil that plants derive all of the nutrients they need. Have a soil test taken, and if the results suggest a deficiency, you'll need to add the amendments necessary to remedy the problem. (
    • Soil pH. Soil that is too acidic or too alkaline will have trouble growing plants. Your soil test will also give you information on your garden soil's pH.
    • Soil typeThis refers to the texture and composition of the soil—does in contain too much clay, causing drainage problems; or is it too sandy, allowing water to drain through it before plant roots can make use of it. 

    Provided the soil is adequate and providing the necessary nutrients, plants are affected by three principle things: 

    • Sunlight. Light is necessary for all plant growth, and while some plants will tolerate varying amounts of shade, your garden needs some sunlight in order to thrive. 
    • Water. To thrive, plants need the right amount of water—too little, they will die of thirst; too much, they will drown.
    • Pests and diseases. Plants are susceptible to insect and animal pests, and like any living thing, they can be affected by a virus, bacterial, or fungal diseases. 
  • 04 of 12

    Understanding the Basics of Composting

    Tumbler compost bins (image) are cleaner than other types. This makes them good against rats.
    David Beaulieu

    No matter how good your soil is, you can't go wrong adding compost to it when you first start a garden. Work the compost into the soil with a rototiller or by hand, then rake the ground level with a steel rake, to prepare it for planting.

    You do not need fancy compost bins or "Master Composter Certification" (there really is such a thing) to make compost. Once you have grasped the basic concept of layering brown and green plant materials and providing just the right amount of moisture and air, composting is quite easy. Tiny natural organisms will quickly turn garden refuse into the most nutritious soil additive available. 

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Using Landscape Fabric to Prevent Weeds

    Landscape fabric

    Landscape fabric is a synthetic textile that may be laid down on planting areas to block weeds from sprouting up. It works by blocking the sunlight that is necessary for weed seeds to germinate. When laid over a planting area, holes can be cut in the fabric to insert desirable plants, then the fabric can be covered with mulch to hide it. Because the fabric is porous, water drains straight through it into the ground. 

    A particularly good use of landscape fabric is in a shrub bed. When planting a group of landscape shrubs, it is easy to lay down a sheet of landscape fabric prior to planting, then cut holes in the fabric to plant the shrubs. When you are done, you have a shrub bed that should stay fairly weed-free for years.

    Other types of garden beds may not be as appropriate for landscape fabric. If you are opening up ground for a cottage garden, for example, perennials and other flowering plants are usually packed quite tightly together. It can be awkward to cut many dozens of holes in a sheet of landscape fabric in this kind of garden bed. Other garden styles that call for less dense planting, though, can benefit from landscape fabric. 

    Cover your landscape fabric with mulch afterward, both to protect it and to disguise it. To prevent the grass in any bordering lawn area from invading your new bed, lay down some edging, as well. Edging will frame the new bed.

  • 06 of 12

    Putting the Right Plants in the Right Spots

    Image: Montauk daisy flower.
    Montauk daisy is a smart selection for seaside communities. David Beaulieu

    You can use a lot of creativity when designing with plants. But your design must always be informed by a healthy respect for certain limitations. Specifically, certain plants should be matched with certain conditions. It all begins with knowing what your planting zone is and buying plants suited to that zone.

    That is a good start, but your planning does not end there. For example, when you start a garden in a sunny spot, choose plants that will take a pounding from the sun and still thrive. Likewise, if you live in a seaside community, do tempt fate by trying to grow plants that dislike salty soil. Instead, select a plant known to tolerate salt, such as Montauk daisy

  • 07 of 12

    Understanding Plant Types

    Image showing how elephant ears (black) contrast in texture with cosmos.
    Grow elephant ear in partial shade. David Beaulieu

    It is important to understand the basics of different plant types—perennials, annuals, ground covers, vines, shrubs, and—and how they are best used in the landscape.

    When considering a plant for your garden, consider questions such as: 

    • How is the plant best used in the landscape? What are the plant's outstanding features?
    • What are its light requirements? Is it a sun plant (such as Montauk daisy) or a shade plant (such as elephant ear)?
    • What maintenance is involved in successfully growing this plant?
    • Are there pests and diseases I should be aware of?
  • 08 of 12

    Planning a Color Scheme

    Image of a large, colorful rock garden in Maine, USA.
    David Beaulieu

    The ground is prepared, the plants have been selected. Now it really gets fun. Because you're at the point in this project where you can put your landscape design ideas to work.

    Don't feel any pressure here to blow the world away with the latest designs. Remember, this garden is for you, so the goal is to please yourself! The average homeowner will be most interested in having color in the landscape. To that end, the color will be a primary factor in deciding which flowers to plant

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Learning the Basics of Planting

    High-quality ornament in a garden.
    David Beaulieu

    Transform a grassy area into a planting bed of shrubs and perennials. You can do this by removing the sod with a shovel or by killing the grass with newspaper.

  • 10 of 12

    Understanding the Art of Transplanting

    Image of pink rose of Sharon flower with deep pink throat and prominent stamen.
    David Beaulieu

    Installing a tree or shrub in your new planting bed? Protect your investment! Learn how to transplant your tree or shrub properly. Many of the same principles apply to installing other types of plants in the ground (annuals, perennials, etc.).

  • 11 of 12

    Controlling and Preventing Pests

    Groundhog in profile, with green grass in the background.
    The groundhog is a medium-sized garden pest. Images

    All gardens are faced with insect and animal pests, but good gardeners do what they can to avoid major pest damage. In some instances, you can take preventive measures. If you know that your region is plagued by deer pests, for example, select deer-resistant plants. If you have seen bunnies hopping around in your yard, surround your new planting beds with rabbit-proof fences. You can also work out a companion-planting plan.

    But in many cases, you will just have to adjust as the need arises. Prepare yourself with knowledge about a variety of pests in your region, so you will not be caught off-guard. 

  • 12 of 12

    Stay Organized, Keep Learning

    Wooden plant labels in herb pots.
    Richard Clark/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    When you buy a plant and install it in your planting bed for the first time, you may think that you could never forget its name after all the care that went into selecting it. But if you are typical, there may come time that you aren't able to recall the specific cultivar from memory. So do yourself a favor and label the plant properly when you install it.

    The labels that come with the plants you buy at the garden center are flimsy pieces of plastic. They often break and/or blow away too easily. So why not make your own plant labels? It is easy enough to write plant names on a piece of scrap wood. Another great way to stay organized in the garden is to keep a garden journal.

    If you have a curious mind, you will want to learn more and more about plants as time goes by. Observing your own plants as the years pass should naturally lead you to research other plants, plants that you may eventually want to add to your garden. But you can't research a plant if you don't know its name. So always note down a plant's scientific name if it catches your attention at the garden center.