The best way to start a new garden!

How to build a new organic garden in any space! My favorite raised garden beds. Where to find FREE garden stuff, and where to buy the best seeds and soil!

I have tried tilled gardens, patio gardens in containers, raised bed gardens, vertical gardens, and indoor gardening. I’ll share everything I’ve learned and what I recommend after my trial and error!

No Till Gardening, No Till Farming.

Also called lasagna gardening, no-till gardening or farming is just what is sounds like, you never till the garden beds. Instead, you build up new beds on top of the existing soil every year using organic compost and soil. This along with the use of cover crops, creates a more fertile soil year after year.

A no till garden is the best in my personal experience, it is the least labor intensive, least expensive, and most successful method I have found!

Why is tilling bad for my garden?

Tilling compacts the soil, creating a layer of concrete like soil under your garden bed that plant roots cannot grow through, limiting their access to nutrients and water. Every time we till we also destroys earthworms, and the community of beneficial fungi and bacteria that live in the soil.

We need this community of earthworms and fungi to help in the garden by creating tunnels for water, nutrients, and oxygen to flow through the soil.

Regular tilling of the soil also increases weeds in your garden by bringing sleeping weed seeds back to the surface where they can sprout.

Benefits of no till gardening and lasagna gardening

In a no till garden the roots and soil below ground are NEVER disrupted, so the beneficial community of earthworms, bacteria and fungi are allowed to keep growing. This creates a super nutrient rich soil capable of holding a lot of water and nutrients.

Mulching, cover crops, and organic compost are the secret to no till gardening. By adding more layers on top of the garden each year, we slowly add more inches of super healthy fertile soil to the garden.

Over the growing season, the earthworms and other soil friends will mix the nutrients from the top layer of the bed into the lower layers of the bed as they move around. This is why we don’t have to worry about “mixing” anything together with a tiller or by hand. Sometimes people will work their no till beds with a tool called a Broadfork that does not disrupt the layers of the soil but will help aerate compacted soil and mix in nutrients before planting.

Mulching also helps save water, prevent weeds, and saves your garden soil from washing away in the wind or rain. So you can water less, weed less, and spend less money in the garden!

Plan your garden.

Check out my post “How to plan a pollinator friendly garden” to learn all the steps you should take to plan and map out your garden before we decide what type of garden to build next!

No Till Garden On Flat Ground

You can build right on the flat ground as is, which creates mounds of dirt like the photos below.

Supplies Needed

For this garden you will need organic garden soil, brown cardboard with the labels and tape removed, and if your soil is not in bags, a shovel and wheelbarrow to move the soil. Optional, you can add a couple layers of organic compost first if you have it.

Building Your No Till Garden

Mark out the areas where your garden beds will be. If there is tall grass mow it first and remove any brush. Next lay the cardboard out on the ground, and soak well with water.

Now add a couple inches of organic compost onto the cardboard (optional, add if you have it).

Next add four to six inches of organic garden soil on top of the compost.

Add your plants and seeds, label everything. Mulch around any bare soil. Water and enjoy your new no till garden! Make sure you never walk on your garden beds, this will compress the soil.

Each year just add a new layer of cardboard, compost, and soil mix, and replant! Don’t forget to plant cover crops to add nutrients back into the soil, and plants just for pollinators!

No Till Garden Pictures

This is an old community garden I led. After we got a bulk shipment of organic garden soil mix delivered from a local landscape provider, we moved it with wheelbarrows and shovels. These are 4 foot wide beds with paths in between, so that you can reach the middle of the bed from each side. Later that year, I hadn’t learned about mulching or cover crops yet, so the biggest problem we had was the soil washing down the hills when it rained. We spent a fair amount of time weeding. We began mulching the garden with straw, this helped the erosion and weeding a lot!

This method is probably the cheapest because you don’t have to purchase border edges or raised beds. You could also use this method with a very large garden, or inside a hoop house or greenhouse.

Hugelkultur

Another option for a raised garden bed, on the ground, is called Hugelkultur. I haven’t tried this method myself, but I have several friends that have and like it! It’s basically the raised bed above, but a much taller mound. First you stack a lot of large logs and sticks, and other plant material, and then cover that with your organic soil and plant. Over time as the logs and other plant material breaks down, it adds nutrients to your garden bed.

Low Border Garden

This year I am trying a new method for some new permanent pollinator gardens I am planting in my front yard. I am creating a border for the garden bed out of firewood and logs. My hope is that the logs will make the area visually appealing, and help keep the few inches of soil on top from eroding until the plants develop a strong root system.

So I call this the in-between ground and raised bed method. It’s like tiny raised garden beds. You could do this with landscape stones, rocks you find for free, glass bottles, anything you can think of to make a border!

To build this garden repeat the steps above for the on ground garden, and just add your border before you fill with garden soil.

Raised Garden Beds

Raised garden beds are containers built out of metal, wood, or other materials, that you fill with organic soil mix.

Supplies Needed

For this garden you will need: raised garden bed kit (or make your own, see below), organic container or potting garden soil mix (has better drainage, or potting soil mix works), cardboard to lay underneath the bed, seeds and transplants, and a water source.

Build your Raised Bed Garden

Lay cardboard on the ground under where your beds will go. Overlap the cardboard so no ground is showing. Soak it well with water.

Assemble your raised beds and place on top of the cardboard.

Fill the beds with organic soil.

Plant seeds and transplants. Add labels! Mulch any bare soil.

More about raised garden beds.

My favorite right now are metal garden beds from Metal Garden Beds.Com, made from food safe galvanized steel that is guaranteed not to rust (and they have a lifetime replacement warranty).

They help plants grow a little bit earlier because the metal catches the sun and warms up the soil in the bed during the day. So the raised garden bed soil temperature will be slightly warmer than the ground soil. Hot crops like tomatoes and peppers LOVE this!

My metal garden bed from metalgardenbeds.com freshly filled with organic raised bed mix and baby plants I grew from seed, May 2020.

You can also buy wooden raised garden bed kits like this one:

This cedar raised bed kit is just four pieces of wood that slide together into the four corner blocks. No tools needed! We put it together, filled it, and planted it in less than one hour! Or you can build your own! These are taller DIY raised beds we planted with flowers and ornamental plants.

Make sure the material you are using to build your raised bed is food safe and doesn’t contain anything that would be poison to the garden (like treated wood).

Patio, Deck, or Indoor Container Garden

Don’t have a yard to start a garden? That’s okay, you can start a garden anywhere!

Supplies Needed

All you need for this garden are containers or pots, organic potting mix, plants and seeds, a water source, and a light source.

You can use your deck, porch, or patio. If you want to start an indoor garden you will need a sunny window, or artificial light source.

Build your Container Garden

Select containers big enough for the plants on your list, and make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom for extra water to escape.

Next fill containers 2/3 up with soil mix, and plant seeds or transplants. Be sure to label!

Here is a picture of one of my container gardens just after planting in early Spring 2020.

How much soil will I need?

You can use on online calculator like this one from Gardener’s Supply for this. Just add the length, width, and feet of the area you are planting.

This will tell you how many cubic yards or feet, or quarts of soil you will need to get.

Search for local landscape supply companies and soil and compost producers in your area. They have the best prices and can deliver a bulk load right to your garden usually!

You can buy the bulk components of the soil and mix your own organic soil blend as well.

Just be sure to buy organic or OMRI approved ingredients only.

Vertical Gardens

Add a trellis to any of the above gardens to create a vertical garden. This adds more growing space for plants and helps plants stay healthier by keeping them off the ground. Anything can be a trellis, sticks, old posts, string, anything that can support the weight of the plant.

If you are trellising squash or heavy produce make sure you have a strong enough trellis!

You can also plant along a fence to create a vertical garden.

There are many stacking pots you can buy and other methods to build freestanding vertical gardens too. Like using old gutters filled with soil to plant in.

Garden for FREE!

There are many programs out there to get FREE SEEDS, FREE MULCH, and other garden supplies at no cost to you!

  • Check out your local library to see if they have a seed library, you can take seeds for free and donate seeds for others to take. Start one at your local library if you don’t have one!
  • Look for local nonprofit organizations in your area that give away free seeds, transplants, supplies, soil testing, and education classes, like this great organization Keep Growing Detroit!
  • Google “get free seeds” to check out the many programs available where you can sign up and get free seeds shipped to your home.
  • Website like ChipDrop will deliver free wood chips and logs to your property.
  • Keep an eye on your local Buy Nothing” Group on Facebook and the marketplace for free garden stuff.
  • Look on Craigslist and in the newspaper for free and low cost garden stuff.
  • Drive around on trash day to see what things people are throwing out. Get creative! What could be a raised bed? A trellis? Cool garden decor?
  • Ask your local nursery if you can have their empty old pots and containers. They often have stacks of empty pots waiting to be thrown out by the dumpster!
  • Check out end of season sales where plants are often marked down to $1 or less!

Save seeds and start a compost pile.

My favorite FREE gardening hack is to buy open pollinated heirloom seeds and plants, let them go to seed, and save the seeds to plant next year. One flower head contains hundreds of seeds, you will never need to buy another seed packet ever again!

You can start a compost pile for free, and in a few months you will have your own high quality, free, organic compost to add nutrients back to your soil!

My favorite seed and garden suppliers.

I recommend finding seep suppliers that grow their seeds in the same growing zone as you. This ensures the seeds are accustomed to your growing climate already and will be stronger and more likely to survive your local weather.

Here are some companies I’ve ordered from that ship nationwide that I really like:

If you are in Northern Michigan one of my favorite farms to visit is Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey. They have a year round farm market where you can buy local food, and in the Spring they have a huge plant sale where you can get tons of different varieties of organic transplants. If you become a member they give you a discount on every purchase!

Cover your walking paths.

If you have a garden with walking paths, cover them so they do not grow weeds or wash away in the rain.

I cover my paths with cardboard, and replace it as needed. Cover crops, mowed grass paths, and natural mulches are all great options for paths.

How to care for your no till garden.

Check your garden every morning. Make a list of things you notice that need to be done, what is ready to harvest, what needs weeding? Check it again in the evening.

A tool like this little hand hoe from Johnny’s makes weeding super easy.

Reach under the mulch, and check the soil to see if it needs to be watered. It’s best to water directly into the ground, in the evening. Avoid spraying water directly onto the plants because this can create mildew or mold on your plants, and most of water from a sprinkler will evaporate.

I also like to use rainwater in the garden, or filtered water. Chlorine found in city water can kill the beneficial bacteria in your soil.

What is a cover crop?

Another important step in sustainable gardening, and no till gardening, is making sure we are adding back nutrients to the soil constantly. One easy way to add nutrients to soil is to plant a cover crop. You can plant a cover crop with your current garden plants (called inter-cropping), or you can select certain garden beds each year that you will allow to “rest” and that will only grow a cover crop.

Cover crops add important nutrients back to the soil, for example planting beans will add nitrogen back into the soil, and they act as a great mulch too!

What happens to the no till garden in the fall?

This is my favorite part of no till gardening! In the fall when everyone else is pulling plants and doing backbreaking labor to “clean up” their gardens. We are just going to sit back do nothing.

That’s right, NO FALL CLEANUP!

Leaving the plants provide a home and food for beneficial pollinators. Butterflies and other helpful pollinators will lay their eggs in these plants to survive over the winter. Migrating birds will eat the dried seed heads on flowers for fuel as they migrate. Read this article about Fall Cleanup to learn more!

So if you want a lot of fireflies (or do you call them lighting bugs?) butterflies, and more in your garden next Spring, leave these plants for now!

Leaving these plants also helps prevent soil erosion and flooding, by creating a soil that has lot’s of different root lengths and can act like a sponge when it rains.

Spring Cleanup

In the spring, please wait until the temperature has been 50 degrees F or warmer for a few days in a row before you clean up old plants, this gives the pollinators enough time to hatch from their eggs and find new homes before composting old plants. Leave the roots of old plants and just chop them at the soil level to remove.

How do I keep dogs and deer out of my garden?

My pups loved sitting in my garden beds. So I bought a folding dog crate and I wrapped it around my garden beds. It’s been a good temporary solution. I want to build a better looking DIY Trellis this year, I’ll share that soon!

If you have deer in your garden, you may need to install a 6ft or taller fence with a gate all around your garden to protect your plants.

Planting marigolds all around the garden has been known to keep deer away because they don’t like the smell. This will also help deter other pests! I’ve heard of people saving their hair after a haircut and sprinkling that around the garden too, since the smell of people will scare the deer away.

Why are animals eating my produce?

A lot of animals will eat produce because they are actually thirsty, not hungry. So leaving a dish of water, or a water fountain or pond or other water feature, in the garden will help save your produce! My tomatoes were constantly getting eaten before I could harvest them, after I added a fresh dish of water to my garden bed each day, the animals leave them alone!

Create a little area with rocks and shallow water where animals and pollinators can land to get a drink. I put some rocks of different sizes on a dinner plate in my garden bed and fill that with clean water each day.

What are Community Gardens?

If none of the garden options above work for you, another option might be to join a community garden. Usually a community garden is ran by a group of people on community land like a local park. Everyone gets their own plot to garden on and you can plant whatever you want. Sometimes there is a rental fee.

You could also ask your friends and neighbors if they will let you plant a garden on their land. A lot of people are happy to have someone else tend to a garden for them in exchange for some free produce!

Add your favorite farms and suppliers below! 🙂

If you have any questions about starting your garden (or anything else!) please comment below or send me a message on the contact form.

Check the blog soon for a post about all of my favorite gardening books and educational resources!

Thank you so much for reading! <3 jess from earth

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