The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

05/22/2024 | Press release | Archived content

Starting a garden from scratch

Raised beds vs. in-ground

Once you've selected your garden location, choosing between in-ground and raised bed gardening depends on various factors. Raised beds provide better control over the location and the quality and texture of your soil. They also offer benefits like improved drainage, concentrated care and easier access.

Raised beds can be constructed with various materials, such as treated or untreated pine or cedar. Thicker, sturdier materials are preferable, and raised beds should ideally be no more than 4 feet wide for easy access. When filling raised beds, Ney said it's essential to use a balanced mix of materials like native soil, compost, topsoil and aged manure. Avoid using straight garden soil or potting soil, as they lack adequate nutrients and water-holding capacity.

In-ground beds require less upfront material and are more conducive to implementing crop rotation practices.

Prepare the soil

Proper soil preparation sets the foundation for a successful garden. A soil testshould be the first step in starting a garden, Ney said. A soil test evaluates levels of key nutrients like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and zinc. It also provides recommendations based on soil type and crop selection. Soil test bags are available through your county Extension office, along with information on collecting and submitting your samples.

Based on the results, you can adjust pH levels and add any necessary supplemental nutrients for optimal plant growth. Soil pH balance is crucial for nutrient absorption. Native soils in Georgia tend to be slightly more acidic - with lower pH values - so amendments like dolomitic lime can help raise the pH for plants that require more neutral pH levels. Apply lime three to six months before planting the crop for best results, Ney said.

Depending on where you live in Georgia, soil can be hard-packed and high in clay content or very sandy and drain water too quickly. Incorporating organic matter, like mulch or compost, will improve soil structure and water-holding capacity and increase air and water flow. However, Ney said it is important to verify that all compost and mulch materials are herbicide-free to avoid harming plants.

If you've recently taken a tree down and have wood chips on hand, allow them to decompose for several months to a year before incorporating them into the soil to avoid nutrient imbalance, as they pull nitrogen away from plants and significantly warm up the soil as they decompose.

For in-ground beds, when turning native soil over while creating your planting area, buried weed seeds become exposed and can quickly begin germinating. Preventative measures like soil solarization can reduce weed growth, Ney said - just lay a plastic film over the freshly turned, moist soil for a few weeks before planting. This both prevents weeds from germinating and suppresses insects and diseases.

Structural support

Support structures like trellises or plant cages are vital for plants like snap peas, pole beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. They also optimize space, especially for vining plants like melons and squash.

Installing support before planting prevents root damage and ensures easy maintenance and access for harvesting. Think creatively with existing structures on your property that can double as plant support, like fencing or fallen sticks and limbs.

Garden protection

Protecting your garden from deer is a concern no matter where you live. While an ideal deer fence should be around 8 feet tall or higher to prevent them from jumping over, it can be costly and challenging to build with wood. However, there are alternatives like netting or simple wire setups that are more affordable and less imposing. Deer have poor depth perception, so offset deer fences can also be effective at a shorter height.

"Even if you don't have a tall fence, deer are like everyone else - they'll choose easier grazing areas if available," said Ney. "If you already have a fenced-off area in your yard with sun and water access, consider using it for your garden to keep the deer away from your vegetables."

Additionally, chickens and dogs can pose problems in your garden, especially as they are drawn to freshly turned soil and can damage young, delicate plants. Various types of netting or more sturdy chicken wire will keep them out, especially during the early stages of plant growth.

For more persistent wildlife, such as armadillos, consider raised beds or installing a more sturdy frame around your garden. Because armadillos dig, your frame should extend 18 inches into the ground, be at least a foot high, and bend outward at a 45-degree angle.