How to Prepare a New Flower Bed

Flower Bed

You’ve got the gardening bug, and you want to create your own garden, or at least a bed of flowers to support pollinators or beautify your landscape. We’ll walk you through how to prepare a new flower bed and what tools you’ll need. We’ll also suggest a few plants for the new bed and offer tips to keep them growing.

Soil pH - Soil in a man's hand
Ragga Muffin | Pexels


It’s usually a good idea to have the soil tested by your local Extension Service before the flower garden bed is dug. The test will tell you what nutrients the soil has, and which soil amendments need to be added, such as nitrogen. The test will also tell you what the soil pH is. The pH indicates whether the soil is alkaline or acidic. Neutral is 6.5 to 7; alkaline is over 7.5; and acidic is less than 6.5. Most plants do fine in the neutral range, However, some plants, such as rhododendron, need acidic soil. And lavender does best in alkaline soil. If a plant is growing in soil that is not the correct pH, it is unable to take and process the nutrients it needs to thrive. Urban areas may want to get their soil tested for lead.

Women sits in sunshine, on grassy field
JillWellington | Pixabay

Sunlight and location

Most sun-loving plants do best in about 8 hours of direct sun a day. Shade gardens do well with 4 to 6 hours of direct or filtered sun. Plants get the most sun when growing in a garden bed that runs east to west.

Flat ground is best. You don’t want an area that holds water after a rain. However, having a water source nearby is good.

Avoid planting under trees, where their roots compete with plants for water and other nutrients. Most tree roots are in the top 18 to 24 inches and extend beyond the dripline, rather than growing straight down.

Pro Tip: If this is your first flower garden, start small. You don’t want to lose interest because you can’t keep up with weeding or watering. You can always expand the bed as you become more experienced.

Shovel in Dirt
Goumbik | Pixabay

Tools you’ll need

Buy a shovel or spade for digging your new garden bed. A shovel has a rounded tip, and a spade has a straight edge. A garden fork is also a good digging tool, especially if the soil is hard or dense.

A trowel or garden knife are good tools for planting perennials, annuals and bulbs. These tools double as weeders. A long-handled stirrup hoe or a traditional hoe also are good for weeding.

Man and woman work on a flower bed
Kampus Production | Pexels

Traditional soil preparation

Plan the dimensions of the flower bed. A bed’s depth – from top edge to bottom edge – is best in the 3- to 4-foot range. This allows you to reach about an arm’s length into the bed to cut flowers or water plants without stepping in the bed. Walking in the beds compacts the soil, making it harder for a plant’s roots to develop.

Remove grass and weeds from the soil surface. Do this by scraping the top inch or two of soil with a sharp spade or shovel. If you are doing a large area, you may want to rent a sod cutter to remove the grass. Although you can turn the grass and weeds back into the soil as you dig, you run the risk of sowing unwanted seeds. You can also apply a herbicide. Always read and follow the label directions.

Now you dig. This is hard work. Existing flower beds should be dug about 12 inches deep, which is roughly the depth of a shovel’s blade. Use the blade or a hoe to break up any clumps into pea-size pieces of soil. You can also rent a rototiller to churn up the soil.

Add supplements. Once the bed is dug, scatter a 2 or 3 inch thick layer of compost, chopped leaves, well-rotted manure, untreated grass clippings or other organic matter on the soil, and lightly work it in. The organic matter adds trace nutrients to the soil, improves its quality and feeds microorganisms. For clay soil, it improves drainage. In sandy soil, organic matter help retain water. Your soil test results will tell you what other amendments need to be added, depending on your soil type.

Raised garden bed
Amber Strocel | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

No-dig method

If you don’t want to work as hard preparing the soil for your new flower bed, consider buying a planter’s mix from a landscape supplier. Planter’s mix is a blend of topsoil, compost and other organic matter suited to your area. Give the supplier the dimensions of the bed and the depth you want (about 10 to 12 inches), and they’ll tell you how many yards of planter’s mix you’ll need. This is the best way to get soil for a raised bed, too.

Now you’re ready to prep your garden:

  • Before spreading the planter’s mix, place three or four sheets of newspaper or a single flattened brown paper bag on top of the grass or weeds. 
  • Spread the planter’s mix on top of the paper. The paper smothers weeds and grass and gradually disintegrates. No need to worry about lead-based ink contaminating the soil. Today’s publishing companies use soy-based inks.

A key benefit of using the no-dig method is you’re not breaking into the weed seed bank –all kinds of seeds that have been underground for years. Digging and exposing the seeds to light and water prompts germination, which may result in a weedy bed.

Watering Plants
Sarah Dietz | Pexels


If hand-watering, use a showerhead nozzle on your hose. Spray the water at the base of the plant. Water new plants every couple of days until they are established. Water about once a week as needed if it doesn’t rain.

Your irrigation system should be set to a different rate and frequency than the lawn. Flowers don’t need as much water as the lawn, for instance. Your irrigation specialist can help with that.

Flowers growing out of mulch
Benjamin Balázs | Flickr | Public domain

To mulch or not to mulch

The last thing you want in your new flower bed is weeds. A layer of mulch stifles weeds and retains moisture in the soil. Organic materials are the most popular, including shredded bark or wood chips, pine needles, chopped leaves, compost and rotted manures. Don’t bother laying landscape cloth in flower beds. It’s difficult to plant through landscape cloth and it does not deter weeds.

Gravel or various kinds of rock can be a mulch, too. Keep in mind that rocks reflect heat up to the plants, possibly drying out leaves. Also gravel and rock are hard to move if you want to change plants around.

young girl using a phone to taker a picture of a pink flower in a container garden
Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash

What to plant

Now that your soil is prepared for your new flower bed, start looking for plants. Flower beds can have plants blooming year ‘round. It just takes a little research. You want enough variety so that there are flowers most of the time. Native plants are best for supporting pollinators.

The best bet is to buy transplants from a garden center and plant those. For annuals, apply an all-purpose fertilizer according to label directions. Perennials and bulbs don’t usually require much fertilizer during the growing season. Mix a granular product, such as EspomaFlower-tone, in the top inch around the bases of perennials in spring. Here are a few flower suggestions:


Bulbs: Daffodils and tulips
Perennials: Columbine and woodland sedum
Annuals: Pansies, violas and snapdragons


Bulbs: Lilies
Perennials: Coneflowers, black-eyed Susan and garden phlox
Annuals: Cosmos and flowering tobacco


Bulbs: Saffron and colchicum
Perennials: Asters and mums
Pansies, ornamental cabbage and kale

The final word

A beautiful garden starts with the proper foundation, and that means the flower bed itself. Testing and prepping the soil helps plants absorb and process the nutrients they need to thrive. If you need help, Lawn Love offers a deep roster of yard care professionals who can advise you and help you create and maintain your garden.

Main photo credit: | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at