Top 10 Steps Before Planting: Bed Prep and Soil Amendment

Good soil is the basis of both great plants and a great home landscape.

By Geri Laufer

It’s spring, and March seems to be the month everyone is happy to be outside and re-landscaping their homes. Follow these steps for a nicely made bed before planting:

  1. Rake off duff Typically there is a layer of dried grass, leaves, and sticks that is best raked off and composted.
  2. Take soil samples and get a soil test Samples are small amounts of soil taken from several locations throughout the area, then mixed together and tested with a kit or at UGA for pH (acidity/alkalinity) and nutrient levels.
  3. Dig out dead plants, old roots, weeds, rocks, bricks, sticks, and rubble – These are best removed from the planting bed.
  4. Turn the soil over, leaving big chunks at first – Your garden spade should break through compacted soil and turn big clods.
  5. Top dress by adding lots of finely ground pine bark, homemade compost, Nature’s Helper, mushroom compost, Mr. Natural, wet peat moss, or gypsum – You can’t go wrong with adding organic matter: our north metro Atlanta clay soils are lightened, with better drainage and an enriched root environment. Add at least 2 or 3 inches on top of the cleaned and turned bed. Other organic possibilities—blood meal, cottonseed meal, dried alfalfa hay, triple superphosphate, symbiotic mycorrhizae, and well-rotted manure or woodchips. At this time you can also add pulverized, dolomitic lime if your soil test feedback and the type of plants you are planting calls for it.
  6. Use a flat-tine garden or spading fork to mix organic material and amendments into soil – My spading fork prevents me from lifting too much heavy soil and does a nice job combining clay with organic materials.
  7. Water-in – If you have a few hours, water-in the amendments and let everything settle ahead of planting.
  8. Rake smooth – A steel rake lends a calming influence. The prepared bed should now look just like a chocolate cake. (Resist rolling in it if you can.)
  9. Set out plants and evaluate how they look
  10. Plant at the same level or a little higher into your prepared bed – Remove from the nursery pot and spread out the roots of container-grown plants. Plant the top of the root ball level with the top of the soil in the bed or slightly higher, and water-in thoroughly.
Step 9 – Evaluate how plants will look before planting.

Bonus Step:

11. Mulch with organic mulch – I use pine straw or ground pine bark, however, pecan or rice hulls, pine bark nuggets, salt hay, compost, or whatever common mulching materials are available will help protect the new garden bed and insulate the root systems. Never, never, never use ground tires, rubber, or man-made mulch. Check the research from Washington State University at gardening.wsu.edu.

The best time to plant shrubs and trees is in October; those planted in March will need to be carefully watered during the summer’s heat and in times of drought.

Happy planting!

Geri Laufer’s twin loves are horticulture and garden writing. She earned a Masters of Science degree in Horticulture from Rutgers University and was a Georgia Cooperative Extension Agent on the team that founded the Master Gardener Program in Georgia, an Adjunct Professor in the Environmental Horticulture department at Gwinnett Technical Institute, and Public Relations Manager/Newsletter Editor for the Atlanta Botanical Garden. She’s an Atlanta dirt gardener and her home gardens have been featured in books and magazines—including Southern Accents, American Homes and Lifestyles, and Atlanta Magazine. Her award-winning book, Tussie-Mussies, lead to a 30-city publicity tour and gigs on Good Morning America, NPR, and Home Matters. Tune in to #Herbchat on Twitter (Thursdays at 2:00 p.m.) where you will find her as your host.