A Guide to Starting a Garden From Scratch

Mom and daughter gardening in the yard.

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11 Things to Learn When Starting a Garden From Scratch

Gardening can easily become a lifelong hobby, with no limit to the skills and knowledge you can develop. But there are some basic skills you will need to develop right from the beginning, as you create your first planting bed.

Removing Grass and Unwanted Vegetation

David Beaulieu

For most of us, establishing a new garden bed means sacrificing a portion of the lawn. Traditionally, this means removing a lot of grass (or other ground cover) and the roots that go with it. There are several common and effective methods of doing this.

Sheet Mulching (Layering)

Known as sheet mulching or layering, this method involves putting down layers of some organic material, such as newspaper or non-waxed cardboard, to smother the grass. It can take several months; it is an effective way to kill grass. It is also organic and not harmful to the environment, as both the grass and the newspaper/cardboard simply breaks down and can be dug into the soil. When the decayed grass and newspaper or cardboard is dug into the soil, it both adds nutrients to the soil and improves its texture.

Start by defining your planting bed, then lay a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper over the grass. Make sure the seams overlap by at least 6 inches. If using newspaper, make sure to used sheets that are black ink only, no colour, and make sure the layer is at least 10 or 12 layers thick.

Add a layer of compost 3 to 4 inches thick over the paper or cardboard to hold it down (wood chips will also work). In warm climates, the grass will be killed and break down in about 3 or 4 months; in cooler climates it may take an entire growing season. Worms and other organisms will break down the paper and grass and turn it into rich, plantable soil.

Once completed, add a thick layer of compost over the top of the planting bed and dig it in. Your bed is now ready for flowers and shrubs.


Spraying With Glyphosate Herbicide

Although the practice is becoming controversial due to growing concerns that the chemical glyphosate poses health risks, many university plant-science and lawn-science departments still recommend spraying grass with a glyphosate-based herbicide as the quickest and most effective way to kill grass and other vegetation. They point to the fact that this chemical is quickly neutralized by certain soil enzymes, and ceases to be toxic to plants fairly quickly. It’s short lifespan makes glyphosate considerably less toxic than other chemicals sometimes used in herbicides.

The chemical was used in enormous volumes for many years since it was believed to be safe, but recent studies are beginning to find statistical links to cancer. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The National Institute of Health concurs, and cautions that the amount of residual glyphosate in commercial grains is reason for serious concern.

The dangers in the home garden are fairly minimal, but you may want to avoid using glyphosate if you are creating a vegetable garden. Most of the serious dangers of glyphosate seem to be related to individuals who use the chemical habitually, or who fail to take the common-sense precautions. If you do use a glyphosate-based herbicide, always wear protective gear—long-sleeved shirt and pants, close-toed shoes, eye protection, and a particle mask—and use the product precisely according to package directions. Avoid watering or disturbing the area for 48 hours after spraying and avoid spraying if rain is forecast.

After a week or so, the grass and other vegetation will fully absorb the chemical, and within another two weeks it will be fully dead. At this point, the dead grass can be dug under (along with compost, if you choose), and your planting bed will be ready for gardening. The active chemical is now inert and will pose no hazards to flowers and other plants you put into the garden.

Manual Removal

The old fashioned way of converting lawn areas to a garden is a lot of work, but it is great exercise and entirely natural. It is also a very fast way.

Moisten the lawn area thoroughly a day or two before you plan to remove the grass. This will soften the turf and loosen up the below-ground root system.

Next, use a sharp space to cut the lawn into 1-square-foot sections. Remove each section by sliding the blade of the spade beneath the segment and lever it upward and out of the ground.

The discarded grass can be place in a compost bin or discarded with other garden waste. Be aware that unless your composting process delivers sufficient heat, some grass seeds will likely survive, and may sprout up as new grass plants when you eventually use the compost as much in the garden.

Learning About Weeds

Dandelion in spring

Rebecca Smith / Getty Images

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.

There are lots of source of information to help you identify weeds. Any number of books can help you in identifications, and University Extension Service websites often have photos that can help you identify weeds, as well as give you tips on controlling them.

Experienced gardeners quickly learn that not everything that seems to be a weed really is a weed. Many plants, especially annual flowers, freely self-seed in the garden. If you automatically remove every plant that you don’t recognize, you may be sacrificing flowers you would enjoy. Snapdragons, petunias, aquilegia (columbine), foxglove (digitalis), marigolds are some flowers that are known to self-seed in the garden. But at the same time, this self-seeding tendency, when unwelcome, can become a nuisance and effectively turn a flower into weed.

Recognition is the key. Learn to identify all the common weeds, as well as the young seedlings of all desired flowers.

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 type. This refers to the texture and composition of the soil—does it 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.

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.

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.

An especially 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.

Understanding Plant Types

elephant ears (black) contrast in texture with cosmos.

David Beaulieu

Like many skills, understanding plants can be a lifetime hobby, but even with your first garden bed, a basic understanding of some basic concepts will both improve your chances of success and make your gardening a lot more fun. Even as you buy your first plants, these are some of the qualities you should understand about them:

Plant type

Plants used in routine landscape gardening generally fall into clearly defined classes.

    • Herbaceous annuals: These are plants that go through their entire lifecycle in one growing season—from seed germination through flowering and fruit production. A large number of colourful bedding flowers fall into this category, including marigolds, impatiens, petunias, zinnias, and cornflowers. In additions, some plants that perform as perennials in warmer climates may be used as annuals in colder climates, where winter temperatures kill off the roots. Geraniums, for example, often grow as long-lived perennials in warm climates, achieving sized that make them resemble small shrubs, while they are used exclusively as annuals in colder climates.
    • Herbaceous perennials (and biennials): These are plants that return every year, often dying back to the ground in winter, but regrowing from the roots the following spring. Some perennials are very long-lived, virtually immortal, such as peony and daylily, while other are relatively short-lived, such as lupine, columbine, and delphinium. Plants categorized as biennials can be considered very short-lived perennial; they often spend the first year developing, then flowering the second year before dying. Foxglove, hollyhock, and sweet William are examples of biennials.
    • Woody trees and shrubs: These are plants that do not have the soft Herbaceous stems of annuals and perennials, but rather have woody stems and trunks. Rather than dying back and regrowing from ground level, these plants sprout their new growth from a main trunk or main branches. All common trees fall into this category, as well as the plants we normally consider bushes and shrubs.
    • Vegetables, vegetables, and herbs: These are also herbaceous plants, generally defined as any plants that offer edible seeds, fruit, stems, or roots. Most are annual plants, although there are some biennials (carrots) and perennials (asparagus, strawberries). Some are woody shrubs and trees, such a blueberries, peaches, and apples.

Hardiness Zones

When you buy perennial plants and trees and shrubs, they are usually defined according to the climates zones in which they will thrive. Especially important is the coldness limit—the climate region at which winter temperatures are likely to kill the roots. The standard hardiness zone map is maintained by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and divide the U.S. into 13 hardiness zones. It is important to learn what hardiness zone you live in, and to buy plants rated to be hardy in your region.

Landscape Uses

Different plants have different uses in the landscape, and some understanding of the appropriate uses for each species will help you make good choices. One shrub, for example, might be well suited for use as a hedge plant because it grows quite dense, while another might be better suited for planting as a single specimen shrub due to its expansive growth habit and impressive spring flowering. For flowers, size plays a large role. Tall, stately plants are good choice for the rear of a garden bed, while tiny, low-growing flowers might be better suited when planted in mass or as a front border.


Most plants have an optimal type of soil that they thrive in, and some have particular needs for either an acidic soil or alkaline soil. It’s important to know something about the nature of your garden soil through a soil test, and then to buy plants that are suited for those conditions. Azaleas and rhododendrons, for example, are plants that prefer an acidic soil, while delphinium and lilac are well-known lovers of alkaline soil. Many plants tolerate a fairly wide range of soil pH levels, from acidic to alkaline.


Most plants also have a preferred amount of sunlight that allows them to thrive. In general, the most sun your garden receives the more choices you will have, but there are many plants that will tolerate some shade, and a few that prefer part-shade to full-shade conditions. Know its sunlight needs before you buy any plant.


Similarly, each plant type has an ideal moisture level under which they will thrive. Some require lots of water, even preferring to dwell in soggy, boggy soil, while other prefer dry conditions bordering on desert-like. As a rule of thumb, most plants need regular water, roughly 1 inch of water per week either through rainfall or irrigation. If you live in a climate without regular rainfall or one in which there is a lot of rain, you will need to be more particular about your plant choices.

Susceptibility to Pests and Diseases

Although the sales tags on plants you purchase at a garden centre won’t necessarily give you this information, be aware that many plants come with sensitivities and susceptibility to certain insect or animals’ pests, as well as diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. A bit of research up front can identify plants that have a vulnerability to such problems. For example, a homeowner who realized that emerald ash borer was in the process of moving steadily across the country might have avoided planting an ash tree and prevented themselves the heartache of cutting it down just as it was maturing into a good shade tree. Among flowering annuals, recent years have seen an epidemic of downy mildew disease affecting bedding impatiens. Knowing this would allow you to plant New Guinea impatiens, instead.

A short bit of on-line research on University databases can give you a nice summary of a plant’s needs and potential problems, helping you make good choices when selecting plants.

Learning Plant Arrangement Skills

Montauk daisy flower.

David Beaulieu

Hand-in-hand with understanding the basics of the plants you buy, you also need to develop some skill at knowing where to place them in the garden and how to arrange them. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and DIY gardeners gradually hone this skill over time. In addition to matching the location of the plants to the preferred conditions of each plant (see above), design aesthetic issues to be considered when arranging different plants within a garden bed include:

Height and Spread of Mature Plants

In general, any given border garden bed should be planted so the low-lying plants are in the foreground or used as edging, with medium-size plants occupying the middle sections of a garden, and tall, elegant flowers or shrubs in the background. The rules shift a little with an island garden, where it may be viewed from all angles; here, the very centre of the bed gets the tallest plants, with the smallest plants to the outside perimeter.

There are any number of free garden designs available if you’re uncertain of how to arrange plants. Many seed and plant companies offer maps of potential garden designs that you can follow, as do garden magazines.

Make sure you take into consideration the mature size of plants when you first populate your garden bed. This can make your garden seem a little sparse at first, but within a year or two perennial plants will grow to nicely fill the space. Or, you can fill in gaps in a new garden with annuals until the perennials grow to sufficient size to fill the space.


Garden designers frequently speak of plant form as a guiding principle when arranging plants. This is a somewhat hazy concept to many people, but it essentially means that you should consider the overall shape or outline of the plants when arranging them in your garden bed. In general, if you seek a formal look to your garden, try to use precise geometric plant shapes in your garden, such as squared off hedges and precise edging plants. If you want a more informal look, more random, irregular forms are appropriate.


When garden designers use the term line, it often refers to the structures within the landscape or garden bed—the edges of the garden, for example. It can also refer the directional impact of the plants. Plants may have general vertical, upward lines (a columnar evergreen), or the can be spreading and horizontal (a creeping juniper). Straight lines and hard angles of garden structures and plants give a formal look, while curved lines give an informal feeling.


The term plant texture refers to the fineness or coarseness, roughness or smoothness, heaviness or lightness of a particular plant. The texture is created by a plant’s flowers, stems, and bark, but especially by its leaves. To create variety and visual interest, make sure to use plants with different textures in the garden bed.

Planning a Colour Scheme

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

David Beaulieu

In addition to size, form, line, and texture, one of the most important considerations when choosing plants is their colour—both of the foliage and the flowers. Since for most homeowners, adding colour is the main reason for having a garden, there is almost no consideration more important when choosing plants and arranging them.

Landscape designers put considerable effort into creating garden colour schemes, but homeowners should not feel too much pressure to follow abstract colour design principles. Remember, this garden is for you, so the goal is to please yourself!

Warm and Cool Colours

Although there are many ways to use technical colour theory in your garden arrangement, an easy place to start is by understanding that the colour pallet is generally divided into warm and cool colours, which have different attributes:

    • Warm colours include yellow, red, and orange and various shades within those colours. Warm colours are said to excite viewers.
    • Cool colours include blue, purple, and green. They are said to calm and relax viewers

Warm/cool colour theory can be used to create a garden suitable to the purpose you intend. A meditation garden, for example, can be planted with cool colours, while around a deck intended for parties and entertainment, you could plant flowers with warm colours.

Unity and Contrast

Designing a garden with colours all within the cool family or all within the warm family is a means of creating unity in a garden. On the other hand, you may want to contrast warm and cool colours. Using complementary colours is an example of contrast, and complementary colour pairs are found opposite one another on the colour wheel. Purple and yellow, for example, are frequently used complementary/contrasting colour scheme. Unified colour schemes foster a single mood, while contrasting colour schemes allow for a more diversified, eclectic mood.

If you only have one or two planting beds, it will likely use contrasting colours—preferably whatever colours you most enjoy. Make sure to provide a fairly even blend of warm and cool colours, since a single warm colour in a garden with an overall cool feel gives an unbalanced, accidental look.

Understanding the Arts of Planting and Transplanting

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

David Beaulieu

Proper planting technique—whether it be from seeds or potted nursery plants—is critical for good results when gardening. Seed packets will have detailed information on how to plant the seeds printed on the package labels. And the website for seed and live-plant retailers give even more detail on planting and caring for plants from germination to ongoing care.

The information that comes with potted plants you buy at the nursery is more sparse, but in general, potted specimens need to have a carefully prepared planting hole, amended with soil additions, if necessary; and they need lots of water in the first few weeks and months as the plant is becoming established. It is often said to “Dig a $10 hole for a $1 plant,” which is a reference to how important it is to properly prepare the surrounding soil and the hole when you plant any specimen. A very good hole with a cheap plant gives far better results than a very expensive plant put into the ground haphazardly.

Soil temperature is quite critical when planting. Seeds or potted plants planted too early in the season when the soil is too cool may languish all season long, while the same plant will flourish in short order if it is planted weeks later when the ground is nice and warm.

As they gain experience, it is quite common for gardeners to want to move plants around—perhaps because it’s discovered a plant is in the wrong place or because the colour scheme is slightly off. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of wanting to experiment with different looks. Fortunately, most plants can be successfully transplanted if you follow the right procedures at the right time and work carefully.

Controlling and Preventing Pests

Groundhog in profile, with green grass in the background.

The groundhog is a medium-sized garden pest. www.anitapeeples.com/Getty 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 rabbits hopping around in your garden, surround your new planting beds with rabbit-proof fences. You can also work out a companion-planting plan that may hinder insect pests.

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.

Some basic understanding of pest control methods is necessary. Control measures can range from natural organic, low-impact methods, to synthetic chemicals designed to kill certain insects. Always research products to learn about the chemicals they contain and potential hazards.

Many gardeners come to realize that good gardens are naturally diverse, and that there are acceptable numbers of pests that can be tolerated. Attempting to entirely eradicate one pest sometimes has the effect of opening the door to devastation by another insect, while a garden with modest numbers of different pests is often much healthier.

A popular approach to pest and disease control is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which stresses prevention and an acceptance of some level of pest damage as the price for a healthy, non-chemical garden environment.

Be Organized and 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’ll never forget its name. 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 favour and label the plant properly when you install it.

The labels that come with the plants you buy at the garden centre are flimsy pieces of plastic. They often break and/or blow away too easily. It is easy enough to write plant names on a piece of scrap wood. Some gardeners like to keep a journal that maps the plants and layout of the garden each season.

If you get the gardening bug, you will probably want to learn more about plants. Observing your own plants as the years pass often leads you to research other species—some of which you may want to add to your garden someday. It can be an extremely enjoyable outing to browse a garden centre, University arboretum, or other public garden on a nice spring or summer day to window-shop for plants.

But you can’t research a plant if you don’t know its name, so always take note of a plant’s scientific name if it catches your attention. A quick photo snapshot of both the plant and its identifying label is a good way to take electronic notes.

The off-season is a good time to daydream about your garden or new plants. Put yourself on the mailing list for the major national seed, bulb, and live-plant retailers. Their catalogues may offer a wealth of free information, include planting and care details. There is no better way to spend the hours during cold winter months.

By David Beaulieu