starting a new garden

lilyd74 (5b sw MI)
September 28, 2018

We just moved and I have the opportunity to start my garden anew from the ground up (literally!) I’d like feedback and input on my plans so I can improve them and have an even better garden. I know a fair amount about gardening but there’s so much more I don’t know yet. I’ve got my plans and my situation outlined below – what do you think?

My site is in full sun, with perhaps a couple hours of dappled shade on the far southern side from a large maple 25 feet away. There’s a five foot privacy fence on the north and east sides that doesn’t cast shade too far. The in-situ vegetation is grass with a moderate, not awful, amount of weeds, and it is mostly already level. The native soil is pretty balanced as far as sand/clay mix, is a light gray-brown in color, definitely lacking in organic matter and heavily compacted. Just based on looks it seems spent. I didn’t get a soil test yet. There is somewhat heavier clay a foot or so down. I believe although I’m not sure that part of the site, or somewhere nearby, was used as a septic field back in the 60’s – for sure not anytime since the late 70’s as that is when city sewer came through. I can see plenty of rabbits and squirrels to worry about, neighbors tell me there are also deer, even though I’m in the city. No one I’ve asked has yet mentioned voles, gophers, groundhogs, or any significant insect pests or history of bacterial/fungal infections. There is powdery mildew on some of the ornamentals, although I know that is mostly species specific. I haven’t seen any annual weeds I’d get too excited about – mostly oxalis and spurge. A little purslane, which I will eat. There’s black swallowwort, which I know and hate from my previous garden, and a few other weeds I’m not familiar with but I suspect may be rhizomatous. A few violets I’m trying to eliminate. No bindweed I can see, no creeping charlie, and not much crabgrass/quackgrass. The roma tomato plant the previous owner put in is clearly starving for nutrition (small size in an indeterminate plant, light green leaves, few fruits, nasty case of blossom end rot) but is not developing blight or insect problems.

What I’d like to do is build raised beds since they are so much easier to keep weeded, have no compaction issues, I can put in the soil I want, and they are easier on my back. Since I’m thinking long term, I’d like to go with concrete blocks – two blocks high instead of one. Based on the shape of the yard, they really have to be oriented east/west. I’d have them about three-four feet away from the privacy fence, with at least 15 feet of space on the west side before you get to the house and 25 feet away from the tree (30 feet to the garage) on the south side. I’ve got space for four beds, 3 blocks wide by 15 blocks long, in two rows of two. I’d like to experiment with watering systems, and can come up with the materials to make the back two wicking beds and the front two PVC pipe drip watered. I figured I’d fill the beds with half topsoil and half leaf compost, both of which are available and reasonably priced in my part of the world – and the topsoil here is usually OK at least, sometimes better than OK. I’m tracking down some lighter materials, like potting soil mixes and peat moss, to put in the bottom layer of the wicking beds to assist with the drawing up of water.

Comments (7)

  • digdirt2

    Wow that is a lot to address! ;-) I can't help with any of the wicking questions as I've never found it to be productive and quite problematic. So others will have to chime in there.

    I'll limit my comments to

    "My site is in full sun, with perhaps a couple hours of dappled shade on
    the far southern side from a large maple 25 feet away. There’s a five
    foot privacy fence on the north and east sides that doesn’t cast shade
    too far."

    Somewhat difficult to picture so a photo would help but I'd encourage you to explore how that exposure is going to change - and it will - through the growing season as the sun shifts. As a general rule, fences create shading problems so garden plots as far away from them as physically possible is best. Same holds for the house. 15' away isn't much. Consider starting with 2 beds placed in the ideal (most exposed location and then gradually work out from there as you learn the exposure problems.

    "There is powdery mildew on some of the ornamentals, although I know that is mostly species specific."

    Not so much as you may think.

    " I figured I’d fill the beds with half topsoil and half leaf compost"

    I'd diversify that mix more. "Topsoil" means many different things so take care there and some leaf compost can be allelopathic or create pH problems.

    "rabbits and squirrels etc. " = fencing.

    Hope this helps some.


  • lilyd74 (5b sw MI)

    Thanks, Dave!

    I went out to get some pics before it gets too dark. The plan, as such, was to place two beds about 4 feet away from the fence, parallel to it, and the other two beds four feet away from the sides of the first two.

  • digdirt2

    What are the directions on the photo? EX is the fence corner with the red building showing N,S, etc.? You have a good exposure opening in that corner. Placing the beds diagonally across the yard rather than parallel to the fences could eliminate some of your exposure limits.


  • lilyd74 (5b sw MI)

    the first faces roughly NNE; the second faces roughly NE. The red building is NE. The stump is in the SW corner of the yard, the big maple solidly on the south side, the viburnum (bush) on the north side.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    That sounds like an excellent plan, with a lot of thought expended. One thing that isn't entirely clear is whether you've actually put a shovel into the soil, though you do refer to clay a foot or so down. The first thing one might wonder is, where are the rocks? But if you're pretty sure there aren't many, I guess you're good to go.

    If clay is an issue, you might assess drainage. Just flood a few yards, and see how long it takes to drain. Best not to be surprised by a drainage problem.

    You refer to rodent pests. Might want to think about mitigation strategy, as that may affect your whole design.

    I will echo what Dave says about "topsoil". That's what sellers of bagged material label things that don't really correspond to anything else. Sometimes pretty ugly stuff. But it sounds like you're sensitized to that.

    I assume you're getting ready for next summer. If so, then I'd start bed preparation asap. You might raise the beds gradually, by heaping on a lot of mulch, and then digging it in at the end of each season.

  • lilyd74 (5b sw MI)

    Dan, I dug down in the front yard around some of the bushes there, and we've also had plumbers in to look at the basement setup who referenced high clay percentage in the area. It takes days after a rain for the groundwater to stop seeping in, but "clay" around here is relative; compared to the really thick clay you'd find in other areas of the country I don't think it will cause too many drainage issues. Much of Michigan is sandy to some extent. It's true I don't know much about the rock situation yet, I hadn't thought of it. As far as topsoil, I appreciate the warnings - there are numerous sellers around here that will let me look at their stock before I buy (by the yard).

    Wow, lots to think about so far, thanks guys!

  • digdirt2

    "The red building is NE. The stump is in the SW"

    Then I would give some really serious consideration to diagonal bed placement with the beds running NE to SW for best exposure.


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