Tips for Planning a New Garden

February firmly settles us into the new year and is the ideal month for garden planning. The weather is too crummy in most parts of the country to work outside, and garden planning is a fun, hopeful indoor activity.

When referring to garden planning, I mean accomplishing more than listing a few flowers or vegetables to plant in the ground. A good garden plan takes a lot of thought about the layout of a garden, its soil, plants, care, and overall look. Hopefully, the end result will be a garden that gives lasting beauty and enjoyment.

Since this will be a beginner’s exercise, I’ll keep the steps straightforward. The only preliminary tip I will add is to remind gardeners to be realistic. Make sure you have enough money to complete the task and enough time to tend your new garden.

Steps to Planning a New Garden

A beautifully designed garden will provide lasting enjoyment for years!

Step 1- Choose your Garden

Decide what kind of garden you want. Are you interested in growing vegetables, cut flowers, a beautiful blooming perennial border, or a mixed bed with everything? Will your garden be in sun or shade? Will it contain containers paths or other elements? Choose what you like best. I generally like flower gardens filled with mixed annuals, perennials, and some flowering shrubs for broad interest.

Step 2 – Pick a Location

Simple, neatly edged garden beds around the home improve the landscape are are easy to design.

Determine where your garden will be located, and take note of all variables, such as soil type, light value, wind exposure, and water availability. Additionally, decide which direction you want the garden to face for maximum visual enjoyment. Knowledge of your yard will help you hone in on the right plants for the site.

When determining soil information, such as soil type or pH, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture maintains Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regional or county offices. They can provide a wealth of local soil and agricultural information for the asking. You can also run some simple soil tests on your own. To test soil for soil acidity take ½ cup garden soil; add ½ cup of tap water followed by ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, the soil is acidic (pH 6.0 or less). To test soil for alkalinity take a new 1/2 cup of soil, add ½ cup tap water followed by ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, it is alkaline (pH 8 or more)

Step 3 -Select Plant Types

If you are not sure what to plant in a flower border in the first year, try adding lots of colorful, ever-blooming annuals.

Choose the types of plants you want for the garden style and their general location. Think of the color palette you want and the growing needs of the plants, such as light, soil, and water. Plant height must be determined for each choice. Typically the tallest plants (i.e., flowering shrubs and bold perennials) should be planted in the back of the bed, mid-size perennials will go in the center, and short annuals and bedding plants will be planted along the garden edges.

Assemble a list of plant species you are considering for your garden. If you don’t have many books on the subject, rely on quality online nurseries. Assure yourself that each species is in the correct USDA Hardiness Zone for your area (Click here to view the USDA Hardiness Zone Map). Also note individual plant requirements for soil moisture, pH, and sunlight. Final plant numbers can be calculated when you start drafting your garden.

Step 4 – Draft Your Garden

Draw up a draft plan for your garden. The draft is certainly the most complicated step and may be simple or elaborate, depending on your skill level. Make sure you have draft paper, tracing paper, a good mechanical pencil, a good eraser, and lots of patience.  Here are some ideas for making your layout easier to draw.

  • Gain an image of your yard and home plan from your city or county. Many municipalities offer them for download online.
  • Using the image of your home and yard as a basis, measure and lay out your home plan on graph paper at a scale where you can show bed locations. Add any existing walkways, large trees, shrubs, and beds on the plan. Be sure to note water spigots and areas of full sun, partial sun, and shade on your plan. Please use a pencil, or you will drive yourself nuts correcting mistakes.

Step 5 – Garden preparation is the next step. Start implementing your plan by marking out your garden on the ground. Some gardeners like to use a hose to lay out the garden lines. Inverted water-based marking spray paint is another option for drawing bed lines on the grass or soil.

With the plan in hand, lay out your garden. Mark the outer corners and boundaries of your garden with stakes. Mark the interior beds the same way. Now you can visually check the actual layout for problems.  Is there anything present that might present a problem?  Is any other yard use potentially compromised? Is any access or right-of-way blocked?  Any problems with setbacks or zoning restrictions?  Make any plan changes now while it is fresh in your mind.

Step 6 – Desod the ground and prepare the soil. The best time to prepare a new bed is in spring. Choose a day when it is dry and the soil is not wet. (Pick a ball of soil and squeeze. Poke the resulting ball with your finger. If it crumbles, the soil is dry enough to work. If it holds together, it is too wet to work.)

Remove obstacles from the area, and remove your sod. The grass is easier to remove when cut short. If your bed is relatively small, remove sod from bed areas by hand. I prefer cutting sod along the soil line using a sharp, flat, nursery spade, such as the all-steel model from King of Spades (The cost is high, but the spade lasts a lifetime.) If the bed is large, sod cutters can be rented from home improvement centers.

Till your soil, working in any amendments such as all-organic Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and smooth the soil with a hard rake. Work amendments into the soil. (Click here to read our full garden amendment guide and amendment application formula.)

Step 7 Plant, Mulch, and Tend

Make sure to note what you are going to plant in each bed and how many and the year they were planted. When planting a new garden, I suggest ensuring a beautiful bed by buying large, healthy plants for installation. Fuller, more robust plants have more stored energy and become better established faster. Plant according to the instructions for each planting and follow the plant care instructions conservatively. Ask your local garden center representative about the best fertilizers for your plants, and plan to water and weed your new beds regularly.

I advise you to save your garden plan and any notes you have for future reference. It will be handy as your garden grows and changes with the years. Then, once your garden has begun to flourish, enjoy!

BLACK GOLD® Garden Amendment Guide

Black Gold® amendments cover everything from basic coir, to premium peat moss, compost, and earthworm castings.  Each has an important application in your garden and landscape planning. For product basics and best uses, follow this simple guide.


BG_JSTCOIR-2cu-FRONTFew natural amendments hold water and air as well as coir. It is recommended as an amendment where extra organic matter and increased water holding capacity are needed. Apply it as a broadcast amendment in raised beds or add it to containers or small beds on a plant-by-plant basis.

OMRI® Listed BLACK GOLD® Coir is derived from coconut husks and a sustainable byproduct of the coconut industry. Unlike peat moss, it breaks down more slowly and maintains a more neutral pH (5.5 to 6.8) than peat (3.5-4.5). Our premium coir is fine and highly processed. It is a popular media for professional hydroponic growers, but it also does wonders as an additive to container plantings and small garden beds. Evenly work it into the soil for best results and consider adding a layer to the top of container plantings for added water retention. (Just be sure to water thoroughly to fully soak pots at each watering!)

Coir should be added to plantings in spring, but it can also be incorporated into fall containers. Gardeners living in drier regions, such as the American Southwest, should definitely add coir to their plantings to reduce the need to water. 

BLACK GOLD® Garden Compost Blend

BG-GRDNCMPST-BLND_1cu-FRONTFew amendments enrich plantings as well as compost. It is the best broadcast amendment to add to all of your raised and in-ground garden beds in spring. BLACK GOLD® Garden Compost Blend contains a quality mix of compost, bark, and Canadian sphagnum peat moss to improve the texture, water-holding capacity, and overall quality of your garden soil. Even better, it is OMRI® Listed for organic gardening.

Compost can be applied and tilled into the soil or used as attractive mulch for vegetable and flower beds. To calculate how much compost (or other broadcast amendments) to apply in cubic yards over a defined area, we recommend the following formula.

Amendment Application Formula for Beds

For square or rectangular beds, multiply the bed’s length by its width to get square footage (L *W= ft2). If you wish to lay mulch 2-inches deep, then have a look at the table below to get the corresponding square footage covered by 1 cubic yard of compost, mulch, or peat moss. Then divide the square footage in the table that matches the 2-inch depth.

For example: If you had a 12-foot x 24-foot bed that required 2 inches of peat moss for tillage, calculate 12 feet x 24 feet = 288 square feet, then from the chart, you can determine that 288 ft2/162 ft = 1.78 cubic yards of mulch. 

Square Feet to Cubic Yards Conversion Table

1 cubic yard of an amendment or mulch will cover the following square footage to each depth.

Depth of Amendment

Square Footage Covered


324 ft2


162 ft2


108 ft2


81 ft2

To calculate the square footage of other bed shapes, please click here for an excellent reference. You can also click here to view a handy mulch/amendment calculator.

Spring is the best time to liberally apply compost to gardens, but if you also plan to do significant fall planting, reapply in autumn. Organic matter breaks down over the course of the season and needs to be replenished. If you plan any winter or cold-frame gardening, apply compost as both an amendment and protective mulch.

BLACK GOLD® Earthworm Castings Blend 0.8-0.0-0.0

BG_EARTHWORM_8QT-FRONTRich in nitrogen and soil microbes, BLACK GOLD® Earthworm Castings Blend 0.8-0.0-0.0 is a combination of pure earthworm castings and Canadian sphagnum peat moss. It is OMRI® Listed, making it a choice amendment for organic gardening. Apply it to vegetable gardens and landscape beds needing added organic matter and a boost of natural nitrogen.

In spring, add it to garden beds—working it deep into the soil. Later in the season, add it to plantings as an enriching mulch, or top dressing. It can also be added to container plantings as supplemental mulch.

Mix a cup into a gallon of water to make enriching “castings tea” to add to potted or garden plants during the growing season. This is most recommended for foliage plants needing added nitrogen.

BLACK GOLD® Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss and Peat Moss Plus

BGPeatMoss2.2cu Front-WEBPeat moss is naturally organic and one of nature’s most effective soil amendments. It quickly adds loads of organic matter, which increases soil water retention and aeration, and its acid pH (3.5-4.5) will lower the pH of alkaline soils. This makes it the perfect amendment for clay-rich and alkaline soils. Acid-loving plants, such as blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias, also grow best in garden soil amended with peat moss.

Apply peat to the soil in spring and till it in well. Peat moss is naturally dry, so we recommend opening bags and lightly wetting the contents before tilling. This will reduce airborne peat and ensure it incorporates well into your soil.  If you have loamy soil that is more friable, consider turning the peat into the soil by hand. Much of the peat will break down in a season, so if you plan to plant new perennials and woody plants in the fall, be sure to add additional peat at planting time.

Compressed bales of BLACK GOLD® Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss go far—with our largest bales covering as much as 3.8 cubic feet. BLACK GOLD® Peat Moss Plus is just offered in smaller bags; the easy-to-wet formula is recommended for indoor and outdoor container gardening. Both are OMRI® Listed for organic gardening.

BLACK GOLD® Perlite and Vermiculite

BG_PERLITE_8QT-FRONTTwo of the most important basic mineral additives to potting mix blends are perlite and vermiculite. Both are essential potting mix components. They can also be used on their own for leaf- and stem-cutting propagation or at-home hydroponic growing.

Perlite is a porous, lightweight, expanded volcanic rock that improves the drainage of any growing mix. It is also an essential mineral for hydroponics. It holds water well and retains nutrients, but it also dries quickly and keeps roots well aerated.

Vermiculite is a spongy, absorbent mineral derived from mica. Its properties are similar to perlite, but its spongy structure holds more water and retains more nutrients. Vermiculite is also more delicate and will lose its structure and effectiveness faster than perlite.

BG_VERMICULITE_8QT-FRONTBoth BLACK GOLD® Perlite and Vermiculite can be added to Peat Moss Plus, Just Coir, Garden Compost Blend, and Earthworm Castings Blend to formulate mix-your-own potting mixes. Here are several mix recipes to try:

Seedling Mix

Mix 2 parts Peat Moss Plus to 1 part Vermiculite and 1 part Perlite for a fine mix for seed starting and seedling culture.

Water-Holding Potting Mix

Mix 2 parts Garden Compost Blend, 1 part Just Coir, 1 part Vermiculite for an organic-rich potting mix that holds water well.

Well-Drained Potting Mix

Mix 1 part Peat Moss Plus, 1 part Garden Compost Blend, 1 part Vermiculite, and 1 part Perlite for a fast-draining mix that also holds water and nutrients.

Potting Mix for Foliage Plants

Mix 2 parts Earthworm Castings Blend 0.8-0.0-0.0, 1 part Peat Moss Plus, 1 part Perlite for a nitrogen-rich potting mix that holds water and nutrients while also providing good drainage.

We use only the finest ingredients in all of our amendments, so gardeners can be confident when choosing these and other BLACK GOLD® Products.

Soil, Seed and Supplies: Planning Your Garden

The Three S’s of Garden Planning boils down to: soil, seed and supplies.

One of the best things about backyard food gardening is that it demands we live by the seasons. Spring is for planning your garden. Summer demands maintenance. Autumn is the harvest. Most important of all is winter – the time for planning. Just as a landscape architect creates a garden on paper before it’s bid or built, it saves a lot of money and time to use January to plan your own food garden with research, notes and sketches. Do it right and you control your costs. You’ll save time to when plants and supplies will be on hand when you need them.


Planning Your 2012 Garden - Soil

Soil improvement is the most important part of organic gardening. For existing gardens, plan to add amendments and fertilizers to your soil every year to compensate for what last year’s garden drew out. Amendments should be thoroughly tilled in to feed microbes so their numbers do not decline. Some of the best choices are: Garden Compost Blend, Earthworm Castings, and Just Coir for more water retentive soils in dry climates.


Research vegetables for your garden via online or print catalogs. Measure the garden and sketch out a basic boundary to help you remember what you grew last year and where you’ll grow each new plant. This allows you to rotate your crops so that each square foot grows an entirely different kind of plant each year. It is well known that diseases build up to big problems when plants inhabit the same place year after year.

Planning Your 2012 Garden - Seed Catalogues

Gather sticky tabs, a yellow highlighter and a note pad before starting in on your seed catalogs. Your ability to mark interesting varieties and take notes is a big help since there are so many kinds of lettuce, peppers and squash to choose from. Ordering online is a lot easier because you won’t have to write out all those seed names on a form. Click and buy makes growing from seed fast and easy.


Order supplies you’ll need for growing from seed so they’re on hand when it’s time to start. Black Gold Seedling Mix offers the perfect sterile medium to germinate seed successfully in a flat topped with clear plastic cover to retain warmth and heat. When the seedlings put on their second leaves you’ll need to move them into individual small pots with more fertile Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil to mature further until they are large enough to move outside. When it’s time to plant them into the garden you’ll need starter & transplant fertilizer to help them quickly adapt to their new summer home.