8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

If you’ve got a couple hours, you can create a new shrub and flower bed using these 8 low-dig steps! Using an easy layered technique that feeds the soil from the top down, this creates a border that gets more beautiful through the years.

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

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I’m excited to share how easy it is to transform a weedy patch of yard into a neat and tidy new shrub and flower bed in just eight easy steps and less time than you would think.

In fact, Brian and I were able to complete the bed pictured below (roughly a 20 x 8 feet area) in just a couple hours one Saturday! And not only that, we set it up to be low maintenance using soakers and our paper-and-mulch system.

Update: see photos at the end of how great this entire border looked a few years later with nothing more than some pruning and a yearly topping of paper and compost mulch (that feeds the soil, so no need for extra fertilizers).

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

The bed pictured above was one of the last, wild areas of our yard, located on the side of our house.

It used to hold a cyclone-fence dog run left by the former owners (yeah, it was a beautiful thing to look at, let me tell you). Since our dog doesn’t run away and sleeps inside, we didn’t need it.

Every time we make a new bed or border in our yard, we take the same eight easy steps, no matter if we’re starting with grass or weed-filled ground like this area.

This has worked so well for us that I wanted to share a tutorial so that you can see how easy it can be to make a low maintenance, low dig bed for perennials, shrubs, annuals – or even trees. Basically anything you’d like to grow.

The Plants

First, let’s talk plants. We needed this area to be easy-care, but look good because it’s seen from the guest bathroom window inside and the gravel patio outside.

So we decided to plant mostly shrubs in this corner that will help connect it to the rest of the border around the yard, but not take much care. Here are the shrubs we planted:

  • 3 Arborvitae (these continue the pattern of an arborvitae at each fence post along the entire length)
  • 1 Doublefile Viburnum (rooting from another shrub on our property)
  • 1 Variegated Pieris japonica (continue the border pattern of one in between the arborvitae)
  • 1 pink Escallonia
  • 1 hydrangea (rooting from another hydrangea on our property)
  • 1 perennial foxglove (also seeded from others on the property)
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Choosing a mixture of evergreens as a backdrop or throughout the bed to provide winter interest is a good idea. Then fill in with larger shrubs to the back, medium shrubs and larger perennials in the middle and smaller perennials in the front.

TIP: It’s best if you can repeat plants rather than have a mass of singles. For us, the arborvitae and pieris japonica repeated from the long border, and the viburnum and foxglove are found in other areas of the backyard.

8 Easy Steps to a New Shrub and Flower Bed

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

1. Remove perennial weeds and any large weeds.

The large weeds were easy to pull in this area and there weren’t too many dandelions, so this step went quickly. If it seems overwhelming, use black plastic to kill the weeds about a month before planting and then just rake them away.

We did have to remove a layer of gravel that had been used in the dog run, which Brian is doing above, but obviously, this isn’t typical.

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2. Add a two to three-inch layer of good garden soil.

If you’ve got any composted manure, mix it in this layer, though it’s optional and we didn’t use it here.

TIP: We’ve successfully used horse manure in building beds as a first layer (which is notoriously full of weed seeds) because it is then covered with more layers.

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

3. Place the plants, in their pots, where you’d like them to go.

Moving the plants around during this step is much easier than after digging holes, as you  might guess.

Biggest Tip: Think about the size of the shrub when fully grown and leave adequate room.

This is the hardest part, I know! It looks so bare – but take it from someone who’s moved too many overgrown plants in her day…leave room for growth.

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Perennials I don’t worry so much about – they often need dividing and fooling with anyway, but shrubs are there to stay, so place them where they can grow fully.

4. Once you’ve decided on where the plants go, dig the holes.

Now, instead of digging the whole bed (which in all honesty, we’ve never done), just make the holes for the plants two times bigger than the container and mix in some of the good soil and compost.

This has worked really well for us – especially with shrubs.

TIP: If the plant has roots circling the pot, use your hands, a trowel, or knife (or even a shovel for really root-bound plants) to pull or cut them apart to give the roots a starting chance. Otherwise they may just continue in the root-bound pattern and never grow healthy.

5. Fill in around the plants with original soil mixed with good soil.

Tamp down around the plant to help the roots firm in the soil. Then give each plant a good soaking with water. If the soil around sinks some after watering, add a bit more soil.

TIP: It’s a good idea with new plants to leave a circle of soil around the plant that’s lower than the surrounding soil to act as a catch for water and help it stay around the roots and not run off.

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

6. Lay a soaker hose or a drip-type system.

This is for those of us without sprinkler systems, but it’s key to healthy plants and low maintenance.

Make sure that the hose is next to all the plants, but it doesn’t need to circle them – only if you have enough hose to spare.

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

7. Cover the entire area with thick layers of newspaper or overlapping cardboard.

You can go here to read more about our newspaper-and-mulching system to keep weeds down.

Since we weren’t planning on planting anything else in this bed soon, we used cardboard which lasts a bit longer than newspaper.

TIP: Put the paper underneath the soaker hoses. You could switch 6 and 7 and lay the paper first, of course, but I find that the hose helps hold down the paper, though I do have to keep lifting it up.

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8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

8. The last step is to cover the paper with a 2 to 3-inch layer of compost.

Cover the hoses if you can, too, to make it look tidier.

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What kind of mulch? Does it have to be compost?

I like using the stuff labeled “garden compost” at our local yard products center. It’s black (instead of orange like bark dust), and feeds the soil as it breaks down, providing all the nutrition these shrubs will need.

Using this I never needed to fertilize the borders around our house in the 12 years we lived there and they flourished (check out the last garden tour here to see them filled out).

That said, you can use bark, wood chips, pine straw, or whatever you want for the top layer. Just be prepared to fertilize your shrubs once a year.

Before & After New Shrub and Flower Bed

Weedy eyesore area before…

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

And finished bed just a few hours later:

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

(Don’t mind the plastic – the grass was so full of dandelions we decided to kill it all and start fresh since the border now looked so good!)

So that’s it! No heavy digging and a few hours of work and our weedy area was gone forever. Is that awesome, or what?

UPDATE:

Here’s more of the border a few years later to show how they plants thrive with this planting method (I did add a few more plants, a-hem):

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

Easy flower bed 3 years later in summer.

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

Shrub and flower border 4 years later in March.

What areas are you going to tackle?

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

This how-to has been updated – it was originally published in July of 2012.

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8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed | An Oregon Cottage

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