Create a garden bed with great soil. (PhotoDisc)
If you’d like to start a shade garden but don’t have the time or energy to dig in root-bound soil and you’re worried about harming your trees I’ve got the ticket — a no-dig garden. It’s the easy way to create a beautiful garden bed filled with great soil, and now is the perfect time to begin.
First lay a hose on the ground to mark off the area. Next spread an inch or so of autumn leaves over the lawn and mow them in while cutting the grass as short as possible, so the leaves mix with the grass clippings. The leaves may be whole or chopped. This layer of organic material will break down and become compost by spring.
Then cover the area with a layer of newspaper 6 sheets thick to act a weed barrier and kill the grass beneath. Colored newsprint is fine but don’t use shiny advertising inserts.
Wetting the newsprint first makes it easier to handle and keeps it from blowing away. Be sure to overlap the edges by several inches to prevent grass and weeds from sneaking through any cracks.
Next spread 4 inches of good quality topsoil over the newsprint. Finally, mulch the whole bed with 3 to 4 inches of shredded leaves, bark chips and/or tub ground mulch.
Many gardening books warn not to raise the soil level within the drip line of a tree for fear of suffocating it. But arborists say it can be done safely if good quality top soil is used and not applied too thickly — 4 inches of soil is a good rule of thumb. The secret to success is the creation of a light and fluffy mix that will allow air to move through the soil to the roots. And you can expect settling over the winter.
I enrich and lighten my topsoil with a combination of Canadian sphagnum peat moss, compost and composted pine bark, such as Fafard Soil Conditioner. When finished, carefully placed stepping-stones allow movement about the garden bed without compacting the soil.
To plant in spring, slit holes in the newsprint. When working in root-filled soil I have always had good luck using small plants in 4˝inch or quart-sized pots. They’re easier to plant and quick to become established.
When working close to trees and shrubs, be sure to keep the soil and mulch at least 6 inches away from the trunks to keep prevent damage from rot, insects and disease.
Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnews.com/homestyle