How To Prepare A Garden – Garden Beds With An Edge

We’re ready to learn how to prepare a garden bed now. To prepare the bed, first put a rough edge on with a spade to define the garden.

When preparing a garden, you can either remove the grass and double dig, or sheet mulch right on top of the grass.

You discover both of those in detail in the Smiling Gardener Academy. Today I’ll just take out the grass for use in a compost pile, and dig in my compost and fertilizers.

Some people will only amend the backfill in the planting holes with compost or garden soil, but you really want to amend your whole organic garden because the roots are going to go out there anyway, especially if you encourage them to do so. The microbes and earthworms hang out there, too, and they need organic matter.

You’ll notice I’m not bringing in topsoil. There’s really no benefit in doing that most of the time. It’s compost you want.

This how to prepare a garden bed video went long, so I had to divide it into two days. But feel free to ask me anything about this first part below.

How To Prepare A Garden Video Transcript

Okay, it’s time for how to prepare a garden here.

And, the first thing I’m going to do is put on an edge with my spade, which I’ve actually already started here. I’ll point the camera down so you can see what’s going on here.

So you can kind of see I’ve already started this and I drew that in on my design, you may remember from the first video.

So that really helps me to figure out where its going to go when I actually do it. But also once I get doing it there’s a bit of art sort of a bit of a feel for something that is going to look nice.

So I’m just going to show you in case you haven’t done this before, what I do. So I take my spade, I’ve just kind of started it, too. I kind of do it very shallow at first to get a feel for what it’s going to look like.

And, basically, it just involves putting the spade in, kicking down, peeling the grass up and going along like that.
And that’s how you put a nice edge on. Going fairly straight down, like that.

Now, there are two main ways I would deal with putting in an organic garden. I would put this edge on.

I could sheet mulch this, or, I could sheet mulch right on top of the grass here, or I could just take off the grass and then bring in my compost and either double dig it in or till it in.

I’ll kind of show you here if I zoom back out you can see there is my sheet mulch I did this year. I did it this spring and now its fall and this is a great time to be doing all this kind of stuff. So, it’s broken down quite a bit from when I started it and there’s some over here.

And, that new little bit in front is where I’m doing some cover cropping but that was my sheet mulch, so I’m not going to do that today, I don’t really have time for it today, but that’s a really great thing to get into.

Today what I’m going to do is just take off the grass and maybe what I’ll do is I’ll turn the camera off for that and I’ll come back when that’s done…

So I’ve taken off most of my sod here but I thought I’d better show you what I’m doing. Basically I’ll come with my spade really low like this. I’ve already taken this up so it’s pretty easy now, but it’s tough work doing this.

If you have a big area to do you can get a sod cutter, you can rent one and that’ll do a lot of the work for you. But, it is kind of back breaking work which is why sheet mulching is a little nicer if you don’t want to do that much heavy work.

But with the sheet mulching you have to go get all the materials so there are advantages to both.  

So, when I do this I want to leave most of my garden soil in the vegetable garden, I mean, that’s precious soil.

In my case and what I would advise you to do is, I don’t worry about it too much because I’m going to take all of this sod with the soil that comes with it and put it into a compost bin so it will eventually come back into the organic garden here.

So, I don’t worry too much about leaving all the soil in here. So, basically just take it off and kind of drop it up and down to drop soil off and I put it out of the way and that’ll go into a compost pile. Okay so I basically got that now.

There will be still some grass roots in here. I’ve certainly done the thing before where you take out all the grass roots or as much as the grass roots, too as you can. And that just takes too much time. But, it won’t grow back much because we’re going to mulch it well.

So, next step is bringing in the compost here and this is just straight compost. You know there’s no garden soil in it.

I think that’s one thing I forgot to mention when I was talking about compost. I don’t want to bring in topsoil – it doesn’t have really much of anything advantage (where’s my rake?). Topsoil doesn’t offer any advantage and often it actually brings in some disadvantages and causes some problems.

So, I don’t want topsoil or I don’t want compost and topsoil mix like in a 2 or 3 way mix, I just want straight compost. That’s really what I need.

The only time I would bring in topsoil is if I had to change the grade or something. But very rarely do I want to use topsoil.

So, I’m going to spread this out here and this is kind of what the Smiling Gardener Academy is all about, just getting into this stuff in a lot more detail. The videos are very practical. I try to get very hands on so like stuff like this where I’m really showing you how to do it. ‘How to prepare a garden ‘ will be continued next time…

65 Comments

  1. Michael on October 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Can you say a little more about the disadvantages of topsoil?

    • Phil on October 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      The main disadvantage is that topsoil is usually a different texture than your existing soil, and mixing soils of different textures can cause some problems with water/air movement in the soil. But the main issue is that it just doesn’t bring much benefit. You already have lots of soil, but what you probably don’t have enough of is organic matter. Compost bring many benefits that topsoil doesn’t. Now, if you’re building a garden on subsoil, that is one of the rare times that bringing in topsoil is usually necessary.

  2. Lorelie @Sugar Shack Seeds on October 13, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Hi Phil:  I’ve got about 1/2 acre I need to turn into veggie beds. I’m tossing my options around…do I sheet mulch (that’s a LOT of raw material gathering); do I till (flys in the face of everything I’ve been taught through Gaia); or, do I get a sod cutter (as mentioned in your video) and just cut my 4′ wide rows and amend with some good purchased compost (don’t have enough compost of my own to start this large of a garden…also, that’s a lot of $$ for compost, but??). Then the pathways I could lay wood chips down to keep the grass down? I really enjoy all your work that you share through these videos and any advice you have to offer is greatly appreciated.

    • Phil on October 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Hi Lorelie, on that size plot, I definitely wouldn’t sheet mulch. If you feel you need organic matter, I would probably try to find some free or cheap horse bedding (mixed manure and straw) or other organic materials, preferably well composted or you can compost it yourself for a month. You can take up your sod and add it into that compost pile. Even if you can just bring in 10 yards of compost/bedding to the new gardens, that’s great.Regardless of whether or not you find some organic material to bring in, I would also plant a legume or legume/grass cover crop every fall – that will be a great way to improve the organic matter of your soil every year. Farmers obviously can’t bring in a whole bunch of compost either, so cover crops is how they increase the OM content of their soil.

      • Lorelie @ Sugar Shack Seeds on October 14, 2011 at 4:08 am

        Thanks Phil! That is very helpful in my decision on how to tackle this project! I love the info you are sharing. It is very useful!

      • Rjoyce47 on November 21, 2011 at 4:29 am

        ooooh yes…i was going to ask you about legumes, alfalfa and rye grass help to soil…and do you inoculate your legumes?  i did rye grass and buckwheat for this winter.This is a great topic for best winter cover crops and why.

        • Phil on November 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm

          Buckwheat and rye are both great covers, but yes, I would almost always bring a legume in there, too. Alfalfa might work but I use vetch or clover. They’re more common cover crops. And I definitely inoculant them. It can be a bit tricky to find the inoculant for sale, but a good seed company will have it. As to which cover crops are best, that is a big discussion. It’s more important for farmers to spend time deciding, but for home gardeners, it’s best to just try a mix of plants that are good for your area and see what works.

          • Heather on March 7, 2012 at 6:07 pm

            These are probably real beginner questions.1. What is subsoil? ( “if you’re building a garden on subsoil, that is one of the rare times that bringing in topsoil is usually necessary.”)2. Are cover crops solely for spending their whole cycle there in the garden to grown and decompose, or do you ever harvest any of the buckwheat, rye, etc for food consumption?3. I realize I could google and likely find the answers to these questions, but I am also partly wondering if these are the types of things you will cover in more detail in your Academy?  (I’m guessing in your academy you expound even more on “beginner concepts” as well as advanced concepts?  I’d love not to absolutely HAVE to google to fill in gaps such as these that I have, if it can be learned efficiently here through your great writing and videos . . . )Thanks – I’m really enjoying your site. It’s definitely one of my new favorite things.  



          • Phil on March 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm

            Hi Heather, very glad to have you here.1. Often developers of subdivisions scrape away a lot of the nice topsoil and don’t put much of it back, so you’re left with hard, colorless soil. That’s what I mean by subsoil. It’s not good enough for most plants.2. Cover crops can definitely be harvested, but usually that means dedicating that garden space to the cover crop for much of the year to let it grow, which is fine, it just means less veggies. People tend to get into that after a few years, when they have a nice vegetable garden going already. It also takes a bit of space to harvest enough to make it worthwhile.3. I definitely cover a lot more in the Academy. There are 35-40 new videos each month. I cover concepts for beginners up through to advanced. That being said, there will be little things I forget to cover even in the Academy (like the definition of subsoil), which is why there is a place for you to ask me questions in there, too, and the more you ask, the better.



  3. Uncle Tommy on November 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Watch using wood chips on bare ground. Uses huge amounts of nitrogen to break down the wood. Use cardboard on top of soil, compost, grass clipping, compost, straw, more compost and then weight it down with chips. Use liquid fertilizers (organic) at each plant for point fertilization. I used wood chips from a fed lot one year and was amazed at how poorly the garden did. Breaking down wood chips uses huge amounts of nitrogen (he re-emphasized). 

    • Phil on November 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      You’re right. I talk about wood chips in more detail in the academy. They do have their uses, but often cause problems in the garden, nitrogen deficiency being one of them.

  4. Fcs2104 on December 4, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Seeing that wood chips creates nitrogen deficiency, what do I use them for since I have a large amount of it on my truck?

    • Phil on December 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm

      They still have some uses if you have a free/cheap source of them.1. Use them lightly around your trees and shrubs, but not around your food plants.2. Compost them with nitrogen-rich materials first for a year or more. 3. Use them on paths.

    • Laurentco on August 9, 2012 at 12:09 am

       As I understand it, the nitrogen used in breakdown of woody materials is released again into the soil as the wood chip breaks down further. It may deplete the N in the short term, however.

      • Phil on August 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm

        Some of it will get released again, but as you say, it can cause problems for a number of years.

  5. Compassion4truth on February 2, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Thank you for sharing all your insights about creating life. Keep’em coming 🙂

  6. Ramani on March 23, 2012 at 4:58 am

    Extremely useful information. I am relieved that I added about the right proportion of compost into my flowerbed last weekend, before I saw this video. Looking forward to the next. I hope I get it before tomorrow (Saturday) when I am hoping to rejig my front flower bed.

  7. Dena on March 23, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Will putting bagged mulch (natural cypress chips) in pathways around raised beds tap nitrogen from the garden?If you leave the grass roots in the ground, won’t they sprout grass all over your garden like weeds?

    • Phil on March 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Hi Dena, they’ll mainly rob nitrogen from the path area, so that’s not such a big deal. As for the grass, yes it will sprout unless you do a proper sheet mulch which includes cardboard or newspaper and hopefully at least 12 inches of organic matter. That’s smothers the grass.

  8. Dena on March 24, 2012 at 12:46 am

    Thanks Phil, I’m relieved that I can continue with my raised bed plan to include mulched pathways!Unfortunately, I’ve just dug (roots and all) all the grass surrounding my pool.  It took me about a month!  In any case, I put down a black weed block material and a layer 1″ of the cypress mulch.  It’s been about a week and now I’m seeing grass sprout up everywhere.  Yikes!  I guess I was supposed to put down cardboard too.There isn’t enough depth to put more than another 1″ layer of mulch let alone the cost involved.  I’ve already used about 50 bags of mulch.  Is there any natural method of getting rid of the grass sprouts now?

    • Phil on March 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      It can be difficult to get rid of grass. If you got most of the roots out, I’m surprised the grass is coming back so quickly. I wonder if there was grass seed in the mulch?Anyway, it will be difficult to get rid of it. If you start again and use cardboard, it might do it. A sheet mulch definitely works, but that’s usually 12 inches tall with various organic materials. Just 1 more inch of mulch won’t do it.I think you need to start again, make sure all the roots are gone, use cardboard or better landscape fabric, and be sure not to reintroduce grass seed with the mulch. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

      • Dbronco on April 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm

        Sounds like Dena may be trying to eradicate a type of bermuda, and there are many, which has a rhiziome left behind. Any small piece will start to grow again.  I just rake back the mulch and dig out any I find by hand, no chemicals. I like to use a small cast iron claw on one side to rake back the mulch and a flathead pick on the other to cut out the new growth. Note that if it comes again, you already loosened the soil. So a daily walk in the garden will keep things in check and provide the benefits  of having a garden to walk in.

        • Phil on April 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm

          Ya, could be bermuda, or many grasses grow by rhizomes. Good advice.

  9. Dave Crowther on April 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Nice presentation. I live in Naples, FL. Have taught Organic Gardening at the High School. I use Azomite that I get from a company in Georgia. Not cheap but a little goes  long way. Some vermiculite helps in clay soil but is good here in FL to help in our sandy soil.Water moves through sandy soil very fast. Keep up the good work. I am 78 now so I have seen and read a  lot about gardening. I get good info from Acres USA Magazine. Davedwcrowther@comcast.net 

    • Phil on April 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm

      Nice to hear from you Dave.

  10. Mr Yan on April 14, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Thanks for posting all this info Phil. I’m starting to be converted from synthetics.Is there evidence that composting directly in place when building beds works, is beneficial, or harmful? With this I am thinking of the likes of straw bale gardening or lasagna. I have used these methods when building my raised beds over the last three years. Which also leaves me wondering how to do soil tests as each bed was built differently. Would each one require a soil test on its own?

    • Phil on April 16, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      Lasagna gardening can be effective, so you’re on the right track. If all beds were built substantially differently, then yes, technically they would be tested separately. But that could obviously get too expensive for a home garden, so you’ll have to decide what you want to do.

      • Laurent Courcelles on August 9, 2012 at 12:43 am

        I’ve had astoundingly good results with sheet composting/sheet mulching (or lasagne composting) to create new beds with a fraction of the work of removing sod. That’s backbreaking work! Enlisting worms to do the the work of loosening up the compacted sod is a great idea in my books. The only problems are the persistent weeds (in Manitoba) like quack grass and Canada thistle. Love the videos, Phil.

  11. Minaz on May 8, 2012 at 2:14 am

    What is sheet mulch?

  12. Robbie on September 17, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Hi Phil,First of all, I love what you have developed here with the “Smiling Gardener”. I will definitely be signing up for the Academy in the very near future. Second, I was reading some of the comments about laying down cardboard to stop grass growth … I just recently got a plot at an organic community garden (11×12) that was overgrown quite a bit with weeds and crab grass. I’ve cleared most of it but fear that it will come back once I start my fall garden … do you recommend laying down cardboard/newspaper in the actual garden area where the crops will be grown? If so, do I dig and apply a few inches down or lay on top of existing soil (and how deep would the compost need to be on top of that?) Thanks!

    • Phil on September 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      Welcome Robbie. You would lay down cardboard/newspaper in the garden area, right on top of the existing soil and even on top of the weeds. Then, there’s no rule about how deep the layer is on top of that.I often go 12-18 inches high with various layers of organic matter (straw, leaves, grass, manure, compost). I can plant into that right away if I add compost into the planting holes, but I can’t seed into it for at least 6 months.But if you want to use it this fall, you could just lay the barrier and then put a couple inches of compost on top. Then plant and seed into that (I’ll show you all of this in the Academy, too).

      • Robbie on September 20, 2012 at 3:35 am

        Thanks so much for the quick response. It’s my first time creating a garden so I appreciate your willingness to respond. Any advice on mulches in the los angeles area? I’ve heard that wood chips can strip the Nitrogen from the soil so I’m hesitant to use it. I’ve found a source that sells Recycled Cover Mulch here but again, I’m new so I’m not sure if it’s any good. I don’t want to screw up and kill my crops this fall. Thanks for your time and knowledge Phil! Looking forward to the Academy. 

        • Phil on October 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm

          The recycled mulch will probably have the same nitrogen problem as wood chips, but a thin layer could be okay in a perennial garden if they’re not using pressure-treated lumber. I would use it in a vegetable garden.

          • Saleena on April 5, 2017 at 12:52 pm

            Do you mean I wouldn’t use it in a vegetable garden?



          • Phil on April 7, 2017 at 7:47 am

            You can use it in a vegetable garden. You just want to make sure your soil has enough nitrogen first. Some people lay a layer of compost before laying a layer of wood mulch.



  13. chelseajohnn on September 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    If I can get topsoil that matches almost perfectly with my existing soil, then would it be okay for me to do that?  I know a place that can get me soil that is almost the same.  I did not think that I could find a place that could find a place that could match it so well.

  14. Melissa Manton on September 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Thanks Phil. Great site. Due to very strong winds, I am forced to added wood chips in a sandy beach garden of native plants. What can I add to the soil to compensate for nitrogen loss. Thanks Melissa. 

    • Phil on October 1, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Compost is best. Second would be fertilizers like alfalfa meal or fish meal (be sure to get organic).

  15. lewis11c on November 30, 2012 at 11:26 am

    great post

  16. Rich on December 30, 2012 at 7:33 am

    I’m setting up a Hugulkultur bed in my backyard (almost ready to go with it). I buried a bunch of tropical tree wood and Yucca wood this past October, and am now just letting the bed rest a bit (while I create my 3-sided border with cinder blocks…8x8x16’s, 2 high). The only thing I am planting in it this January is white clover (because the 1st year is a wash with the wood breaking down, and the nitrogen robbing that is going on), but from there on out – it is an amazing thing to watch (as it self feeds the bed both water and nutrients over the years). It has about a 30 year self sustainable life span from what I have read. The only other thing going in right now are some HB Nematodes, and Milky Spore ( to do what I can to get the grubs under control between now and next December).

    • Phil on December 31, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      Yes, takes awhile to get productive, but once it settles it is a beautiful thing. Thanks for sharing.

  17. JoceHad on February 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I’m a first-time gardener, and I haven’t gotten in to composting yet. Is there possibly a store bought brand or another option that you can recommend?

  18. Carter on March 7, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Topsoil is really important to a garden, but depending on where you live, you might already have it.

  19. Brian Michael Shea on March 22, 2013 at 2:35 am

    How much compost do you recommend per foot? Also, how about using manure?

    • Phil on March 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      Depends how much organic matter your soil already has. If you’re starting a new garden in horrible soil, you might use as much as 6 inches and till it in, but that is admittedly a lot. 1 inch is a common suggestion, or 1/8-1/4 inch for annual maintenance.Manure should be composted first because otherwise it can cause imbalanced fertility and a lot of weed seeds.

      • Brian Michael Shea on April 2, 2013 at 4:56 am

        I am working in horrible soil! 😀 I haven’t had it tested, but it’s well known that South Florida soils are pretty bad(although plenty of plants grow here happily, so…..). So I’m thinking about 6 inches seems right. If I were to use manure, I would buy it at the store, and isn’t that stuff already composted? Every store-bought manure I’ve ever experienced has been basically like dirt, so I assumed they were pre-composted.

        • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm

          Yes, that manure is okay. I was referring to fresh manure that people will sometimes get from farmers, stables, etc.

  20. Oscar Osorio on June 14, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Exactly how much does it cost to join the Academy? (Monthly or weekly). Please I need an exact number.I have thoroughly enjoyed these lessons. I am hooked with the concepts and theory…. I am a father of 6 and we only eat organic and vegetarian. Please help me learn more and give my family the best.THANK YOU PHIL. !!!!!!!!!!!

  21. Shelly Slader on August 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    My husband and I just took on a big project putting a garden in our backyard. We will be putting down the topsoil in Puyallup WA this next week. Do you have any tips for the best way to do this??

  22. alena mauer on June 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I want to give this a shot. One of my new years resolutions was to be more green. I have switched out my appliances to make sure they are energy efficient, and now I want to start on the outside. I think this will be a fun project, plus I love fresh vegetables.Alena

  23. Carole on July 2, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    This is great! I wanted to extend one of my beds today and you’ve helped to simplify the process for me. Thanks.

  24. Joanna Tea on September 3, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I find this article very informative. I thought topsoil was the most used to prepare a garden. I prepare my garden with compost and see how it turns out.

  25. Kent Clark on December 18, 2014 at 3:07 am

    I’m going to start planting a garden soon. It look better than just having grass in my yard. Plus, you can eat the food. I feel like that would be cheaper that buying it at the store.

  26. Marco Prova on January 14, 2015 at 5:53 am

    Hi Phil, I am not so lucky to get a garden, therefore I plant on my balcony. Plus …. in very difficult weather conditions … DUBAI DESERTI am testing a few soil mixes. Could you please advice how they work? I use Perlite, common soil, sweet sand. What is the need for each of them? I am growing Basil and Rosemary for now. Thanks

    • Phil on January 14, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      Many container gardeners do well with about an equal mix of common soil, sand and compost. Soil can get a bit compacted, so the sand can help create more air spaces (as long as it’s mixed really well with the soil). The compost brings in organic matter, nutrients and beneficial microbes if it’s good compost. Some gardeners also like to add perlite because it prevents compaction/allows more air into the soil, and some add vermiculite because it holds onto water really well while still allowing for air. These aren’t always necessary, but can be helpful.

  27. Jules on January 24, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Another great day for me. Thanks for the inputs. With this approach, I could gradually develop a gardening concept based on what will be my capacity especially with the use of compost materials. Yes… it would be gradual for sure due limited resources. But the idea is great.

  28. Paula on January 15, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    What do you make your compost with? It is so black!

    • Phil on January 22, 2016 at 11:35 pm

      Just regular stuff – mostly leaves, straw, plants and some food scraps.

  29. Lori Hanson on November 29, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    My husband and I recently rebuilt on our inner city lot. Almost all the vegetation was removed prior to building, the construction caused heavily compacted soils and all of the remaining topsoil was removed when the rough grade was completed, resulting in a severe lack of biological diversity. We live in Alberta, Canada. We need to bring in topsoil to complete our final grade (we need four truckloads in total to cover our yard with 4 inches of soil) by summer 2018, but there are no commercially available bulk garden mixes (sand/soil/compost), that include compost that is organic; they either use compost from the City that is made with biosolids (sewage sludge) or non-organic mushroom compost. We discovered this only after we put deposited two truckloads of garden mix on half our yard. My questions are what can we do to decontaminate the compost we have brought in, and what should we do with respect to the next 2 truckloads of topsoil that we need to complete the final grade? We have 1 small compost piles we started this fall but that will not create enough compost to cover half our yard and while we can afford to purchase some amendments, 2 truckloads of soil is already pretty expensive so we need a solution that is affordable for building our permaculture yard. In 2018 we also need to transplant about 150 perennials we salvaged from our yard prior to the build and would like to plant some vegetables .

    • Phil on December 2, 2017 at 5:42 am

      Hi Lori, can you buy good compost separately to be applied and incorporated after the soil is brought in?

  30. Madgie Nova on January 3, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Very good information and enjoy your site, Madgie

  31. Doris Dyer on June 13, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    Hi Phil,

    I was envious while watching you remove the nice polite grass to prepare your garden. Here on our land we have only crabgrass and all sorts of other evil deep-rooted stuff, so clearing every little patch requires an incredible amount of energy and constant attention as every little bit of grass root left in the ground returns to haunt the garden!!!

    • Phil on June 16, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Ha, ya, I’ve been there. I once spent a week digging out a grassy area (including the roots) and then screening it all to save the topsoil. Won’t do that again 🙂

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