Building a garden from scratch reminds me of baking a really good lasagna with homemade pasta and your own tomato sauce.
Ideally new gardens should be constructed in the fall, allowing the soil to “rest”, especially when the sheet composting method of building soil is used. Sheet composting is when you layer materials where you want your growing beds to be, in alternating carbon-nitrogen layers. This works well if your soil is poor, clayey, poorly draining, and is a great alternative to roto-tilling or double-digging new beds. After piling up hay or leaves (carbon), grass clippings or food scraps (nitrogen), newspaper or cardboard (carbon), and cow/horse/chicken/goat/rabbit/alpaca manure (nitrogen) and letting it rot down all winter, you’ll have the most gorgeous planting medium the following spring into which your seeds and transplants will happily go!
Sometimes though, a new garden has to be constructed in the spring, and this is why I keep my own piles of compost on hand. I built one such garden this week, using a kind of accelerated sheet composting method. Two 4’x8′ raised beds were built right on top of the client’s lawn. No tilling, no digging. Just a layer of cardboard on the grass, followed by a layer of composted manure, which was then followed by a layer of hay. In another month, they can plant right into the compost layer under the hay, and the cardboard will have begun to soften the sod underneath, giving them over a foot of depth into which their plants will stretch their roots.
I am not the first to compare garden building to lasagna making of course. Local gardener Pat Lanza wrote the book on Lasagna Gardening in 1998. Check it out if tilling and double digging aren’t your thing.