Spring Gardening Tip #1: Building Garden Beds

This past week, GROWING GARDENS began our first round of spring Home Garden installations.  Last Thursday, our Home Garden Program collaborated with our Youth Grow program and Vernon K-8 in planning a service day for a class of 7th graders.  The Vernon 7th graders helped install 4 garden beds for the Vernon families that signed up for the Home Garden program (stay tuned for a blog post in the coming weeks about our 7th grade Vernon Garden installation day!).

As more people become interested in turning part of their lawn or yard into a garden space, we thought this would be a good time to talk about building in-ground garden beds.

GROWINGGARDENS uses a combination of double-digging and sheet-mulching to install gardens for people enrolled in our Home Gardens Program. We find that a combination of these methods work best for us, but you can use whatever works best for you, your space, and your strong (or not so strong) back and arms.

To start, we need to gather some materials:


For Double-Digging:

  1. Shovel(s)
  2. Forked spade (or another tool for loosening soil)
  3. Compost and/or Composted Manure (1 bag per 4×8 ft bed)
  4. Agricultural lime (1½ lbs per 4×8 ft bed or 5 lbs/100 sq ft)

For Sheet-Mulching:

  1. Cardboard or Newspaper
  2. Compost and/or Composted Manure (2 bags per 4×8 ft bed)
  3. Straw
  4. Any other organic matter you can find (leaves, grass clippings, etc.)
  5. Water

Now we can get started….


The purpose of this method is to loosen the soil deep down, without disturbing the soil structure and the many little creatures that make the soil healthy and productive. This method is strongly advocated for by John Jeavons, author of “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

  1. Begin by outlining your garden bed. Beds should not be more than 4 feet wide, so the middle is reachable.
  2. Remove sod (grass and its roots). Put it in a pile – you will use it later.
  3. Spread a bag of compost over the area.
  4. Remove a trench of soil one shovel-length deep and one shovel width wide. Put this soil aside. If the soil is very compacted, you might not be able to dig an entire foot deep. In that case, just go as deep as you can.
  5. Once you have a trench approximately one foot deep, use a forked spade to loosen the soil an additional foot deep.
  6. Dig a second trench of soil, moving this soil onto the first trench that you just dug.
  7. Once you have a trench about one foot deep, use a forked spade to loosen the soil an additional foot deep.
  8. Repeat steps 6 & 7 until the entire bed has been dug and loosened.
  9. Fill the last trench with the soil from the first trench.
  10. Sprinkle lime evenly over the area.
  11. Replace the sod, with the grass facing down and roots facing up.

Whew! You’re done. Now it’s time for sheet-mulching . . .


This is a great way to add nutrients and organic matter to the bed, creating very healthy and productive soil! Sheet mulching is a great thing to do in the fall to prepare your garden for the winter. It protects your garden from the cold, rain, and weeds! After removing your old summer plants, lay sheet mulching over the soil, and leave it there until spring. All of the layers will break down into rich garden soil.  You can also use sheet mulching in the spring, to help reduce the number of weeds in your garden bed, as well as build up organic matter throughout the spring and summer.  If you do sheet mulch in the spring, you should focus on planting plant starts (rather than seeds) during the first planting season.

  1. Cover the garden area with cardboard to prevent weeds from growing up.
  2. Water the cardboard thoroughly.
  3. Cover the cardboard with a layer of compost or composted manure.
  4. Water thoroughly.
  5. If you have any other organic matter (leaves, grass clippings, etc), add a layer, then water thoroughly.
  6. Add a layer of straw.
  7. Water thoroughly.
  8. Add 1 to 3 more alternating layers of compost, organic matter, and straw. Make sure to water between each layer. Straw should be the top layer of the bed.

And now, we can start planting!



  • Layer 1 inch of compost or planting mix over top of the sheet mulch, and place seeds on top.
  • Sprinkle a thin layer of compost or planting mix over the seeds to cover them.
  • Water gently.

Plant Starts:

  • Push the sheet mulch aside until you get to the cardboard below.
  • Cut an X in the cardboard, and plant the root-ball in the soil below the cardboard.
  • Stick your finger in the soil to make sure it’s moist. If not, add some water.
  • Replace the sheet mulching around the plant, taking care not to cover the leaves.
  • Make sure the leaves of the plant are above the sheet mulch.
  • If the plant it too short, fill the hole you created in the sheet mulch with some compost or planting mix, and plant the root ball into this.


  1. Bob C. said

    Great work in providing nutritious food, environmental awareness, and science education!

    Beware of colors in newsprint – they are still alowed to contain 250 PPM each of lead, chromium, and cadmium. As you pile sheet on sheet year after year the amount builds up. In a similar vein, know your clippings. Those that have had pesticides, sewage or chemicals such as used motor oil poured on them are best left out of your pile. Same for the site. Ask if things have been dumped there. The family may not realize it’s a hazard.

  2. pathacross said

    This is a great article! I’m going to bookmark it on PathAcross to use later.. (I can’t grow a garden right now, but in the future… oh , I will!). Also thanks for the comment above about colored newsprint.

  3. Growing Gardens’ primer on double-digging and sheet mulching…

    Great post at Growing Gardens’ blog on how they prepare vegetable beds for their garden installations. They use a combination of double-digging, a method that loosens the soil to a depth of about two feet while incorporating rich compost, and she…

  4. […] spring, the sheet mulch will have broken down into rich soil! You can also use sheet mulching to build new garden beds for the spring. Volunteers sheet mulching a […]

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