break up the root ball of the plant gently

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My front yard keeps changing, and all for the better! In today’s post, I’m talking about the front garden and the various phases we’ve gone through to make it happen. Plus, I cover my favorite tips on how to build up a garden bed to keep it healthy and happy for many years of curb appeal ahead. If you’re new to gardening, this post is definitely for you!

Disclosure: Our sponsored partnership with Stihl made it possible for our garden transformations this year, where you’ll see some of their helpful tools featured. All words and opinions are 100% my own. Hope you enjoy!

While most of my front yard is an established lawn, there are a few areas I like to focus on for adding flowers and shrubs. One such area has always been the small flower bed in front of the porch. I’ve experimented with various looks over the years — from planting larger shrubs that grew way too high to flashy seasonal flowers that I ultimately neglected. This time, however, I convinced myself things would be different. I would find an easier way — the right way — and in the process, take enough pictures and video to show you some of my favorite easy gardening tips that you might need to know!

6 Easy Steps to a DIY Flower Bed

Materials & Tools

  • landscape fabric
  • gardening gloves
  • soil cultivator (I use the Stihl KombiSystem with Mini Cultivator attachment)
  • garden hose
  • soil test kit
  • bags of garden soil
  • flat shovel
  • garden spade

When to Create a DIY Garden Bed

For me, personally, I think the best time to establish a garden bed or work on an existing one is whenever you have the time and energy. Digging lots of holes in soil (especially in clay like we have here in Georgia), carrying around bags of mulch, etc. can be a daunting task when the sun is out. But if you want to know what experts advise, most of them seem to agree that planning is ideal in the winter (when you’re eagerly anticipating the return of warm weather) and breaking ground after the last frost works well for creating a long growing season for new plants to take root.

closeup of lamb's ear plant

As for time of day, I think the best time to plant is in the late afternoon and early evening when the sun is less harsh; this helps to reduce the chances of plant roots being scorched in the sun (which can hinder new plant growth or kill off a plant entirely).

I first started planning for this new garden bed back when I did the garage door makeover!

garage door reveal

Planning for Healthy Plants

I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that Past Sarah has been overly optimistic about how Future Sarah will use her time in the garden. When I’m in the middle of a garden center, it’s like I morph into Stockard Channing in Practical Magic with long garden gloves and floppy straw hat who spends hours smiling at her pretty flowers while Martina McBride hums a few bars of background theme song. Of course I want that unique flower I’ve never seen before… who cares if it needs watering all the freaking time? I promise myself that I will make time, that’s how beautiful it is. And then I plant and time passes and I realize: I am SO not that gal. This time, I knew better of what to expect of myself. My goal was not to pick daydreamy plant combinations to suit a fantasy garden with fantasy time I don’t have; instead, the goal would be to select the right plants that would ensure as minimal maintenance as I could possibly get. To do that, I would need to better observe all the plant criteria that matched up with the soil, sunlight, drainage, and so on:

  • To ensure a healthy garden bed, a little bit of planning goes a long way. First, you should observe the area you want to plant in and note how much sunlight it gets. Does it get 6+ hours of direct sunlight each day? Is it mostly shaded? Or is it maybe somewhere in between? What is your region’s hardiness zone? Is there good drainage or does it seem to stay a little muddy after it rains? Do weeds seem to grow HUGE in the time it takes to blink your eyelids? What kind of pests do you think your garden may have to resist (deer? rabbits?). All worthy of keeping in mind when it’s time to actually shop, because lots of these things are mentioned directly on the tags of plant pots.
  • This tip is entirely optional, but if you’ve had trouble in the spot you’ve picked out for your garden in the past, you might want to consider doing a soil test using a kit like this. You take a small soil sample and mix it with distilled water, then follow the directions in the kit to determine the soil pH and if there are any nutrient deficiencies. Knowing this will help you mix in what are called “soil amendments” to your garden, such as perlite. (P.S. for clay, “organic matter” is the most common recommendation, which is basically just mixing in topsoil and compost).
pH test on soil quality
soil test
  • Plants need elbow room to grow, so be sure to note (again, based on the plant card) what the mature size of the plant will be. Gardens feel sparse at first, but they can quickly grow too crowded if you don’t plan for their full width or height. In my case, I wanted to add some height to the front of the house to balance out the columns I wanted to wrap on the porch, but I didn’t want a shrub growing so tall that it would later become an issue if it reached the first roof line. You can always move plants around later, but it’s easiest to avoid that work in the first place!
  • It’s also a good idea to consider the color scheme of not just the flower (if you’re planting actual flowering plants), but the leaf color as well. I absolutely LOVE silvery-green leaf colors and textured leaves, so I chose to work this into my plant design plan using Lamb’s Ear and Artemisia. A yellow-green shrub would clash with this cooler palette, so I looked for varying leaf colors that would still mix well, even when not in bloom.
  • Decide how often you plan to switch out plants. If you want to replant every year (or in some cases, every other year), choose annuals. For long-term gardens, choose perennial plants that come back year over year.

Step 1: Remove the Existing Flower Bed or Remove Grass from the Planting Area

To make my new flower bed, the first step was to get rid of the existing plants I’d planted before. The ones that were still alive, of course — the ones that used to be small shrubs and now were way too overgrown and just not planted in a good place to begin with.

removed all other plants to establish new garden bed

If you’re establishing a brand new bed, you’ll need to remove the top layer of grass. There are multiple methods for doing this, but one of the easiest ways is to weigh down a tarp and let the sun kill off the grass. It takes a little while to work, but it bakes out weeds too! Even though I was working with an existing bed, I used this same method to help eliminate some of the weeding.

old garden bed with all plants removed and weeds killed off

Step 2: Till, Baby, Till

You know I can’t go too long without finding some way to use a power tool or two — even outdoors! So after killing off a lot of weeds, we used my Stihl KombiSystem with cultivator attachment to mix up the soil with a layer of compost. This works mini air pockets into the soil which in turn helps air circulation around roots (and also makes the soil less compacted and dense so earthworms, water, and plant roots can work their way through).

Stihl KombiSystem with cultivator attachment

I have used Stihl tools for years and love them — especially their series of battery products. The KombiSystem in particular works great since it’s one tool with lots of different attachments for trimming, pruning, cleaning, blower, edging, etc.

Stihl KombiSystem with Mini Cultivator attachment

So, we were able to use the mini cultivator attachment for the garden bed, then use the blower attachment to clear off the sidewalk when I finished planting.

Stihl KombiSystem cultivator

Once the soil is mixed up, even it all out so it’s nice and flat and ready for planting. This is also a good time to lay down a layer of weed barrier fabric. I’ve used layers of newspaper in the past for annuals, but for a garden bed that I don’t plan on changing much in the future (because I picked mostly perennials), landscaping fabric is better at keeping an established garden weed-free; newspaper breaks down much faster. Garden staples are ideal for keeping the fabric taught and in place.

Step 3: Lay out the Garden Bed

Before digging a single hole, I like to take ALL of the plants I’ve purchased for planting and arrange them while still in their pots. This gives me a better visual for spacing each plant, envisioning their full growth height, and seeing if there are any gaps I need to fill in. It also makes for a much easier time when actually doing the planting, since I can knock all of the digging that much faster if I no longer have to think about placement.

place all plant pots on the ground to figure out the layout

Step 4: Put in the Plants

With weed fabric in place, cut an X or + with a utility knife (this is soooo satisfying tbh) and fold back the flaps to reach the soil underneath. Dig a hole large enough for the entire root ball and a little extra.

Cut X in landscaping fabric to dig hole for plant

Work the plant gently out of the recyclable plant pot (I lay the plant on its side and apply pressure around the bottom of the pot on all sides until it loosens and slides out). When working with mixed soil, I often put excess back into the pot to reuse later.

turn the pot over on its side to help loosen the plant out of the pot

Break up the root ball (again, gently!) and mix some of the soil from the plant pot into the hole and surrounding garden soil. Doing this helps so that the plant doesn’t hit the transition between the old and the new and stop growing. Fill in any gaps with more soil and pack it down on top of the root ball. Put the flaps from the fabric back over the hole. Repeat until all the plants are in the ground.

break up the root ball of the plant gently

Step 5: Add Mulch and Water

The next step is to cover the entire garden bed with a thick layer of mulch. I prefer black wood mulch over rock. Organic material continues to add more nutrients to the soil as it breaks down over time (which I then add more mulch on top later on). Then, give the garden a good soak with a water hose. It’s important to water right away, as replanting can leave root systems exposed to dry air (especially if you’re working in the sun).

water hose propped up on a rake to turn into a sprinkler for the garden bed

Step 6: Stand Back and Admire Your New Flower Garden!

I absolutely LOVE the new garden! I actually waited a little while to post about it since I wanted to see how the plants would grow and perform over the summer (to see mostly if I’d planned out the spacing correctly). The Lamb’s Ear grew in like crazy, and made the yard look so nice that I got asked repeatedly by neighbors and delivery folks what the names of my plants were. To me, that’s a pretty good sign that this is a much better design than the old!

sneak peek of listing the house

And speaking of better design: I must have done something right, because the curb appeal plan worked well when we decided to LIST THE HOUSE! That’s right — we decided it was finally time for our next big house remodeling adventure. Stay tuned for more post updates, because I have a LOT to catch you up on, and some pretty fun reveals to share!

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4 Comments

  1. It looks great. Curb appeal will help sell the house but the work you did inside and the backyard will make it stand out. Look forward to your next home DIYs.
    Maria B.

    1. Thank you and I totally agree! That back yard is so cozy compared to the overgrown forest it used to be!