7 Steps To Restore A Neglected Garden For A Great Season

rusty rake leaning against fence in garden

Despite your best efforts and big dreams of having a robust and fruitful garden, life happens, and the garden gets moved to the back burner. By the time you get back to it, months have passed, and your beautiful garden has now become a landscape of weeds. Or maybe you’ve moved into a new house with an old, neglected garden in the back that you know has the potential to supply you with vegetables and flowers this summer. 

Where do you start to bring your abandoned garden back to life?

Restoring a neglected garden starts with clearing out old plants and debris to get a clearer picture of what you’re working with. From there, a soil test will show you what amendments will improve your soil fertility. A garden plan will help you map out the layout and crops for the next garden season. 

I’ll share some tips from my experience cleaning up my neglected garden and how you can breathe new life into your overgrown space. 

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1. Take stock of what you already have

The first step in cleaning up your garden is to take stock of what resources you already have available. 

When I was cleaning up my old garden, the previous owners had left many great supplies behind. Salvaging them for use saved me money and made my life much easier. 

Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:

  • Established perennial flowers that need to be pruned and fertilized
  • Perennial food crops like strawberries, asparagus, or herbs
  • Hand tools, gardening equipment, pots, trellises, etc. that can be reused
  • Old compost pile

I walked around my overgrown garden to scout for any established plants that I wanted to keep. I saved a nice mint patch and found some beautiful echinacea that bloomed during the following summer.

On top of finding supplies from previous owners, if this is your old garden, you might discover that you have some tools or supplies that you completely forgot about, saving you the annoyance of accidentally buying them again.

Once you know what you’re working with (or without), the planning process becomes much more manageable. 

2. Clean up the weeds and brush

Clean up—this is the part you’ve probably been waiting for (dreading?). This is your chance to remove anything and everything you don’t want in your garden. This includes weeds, rocks, trash, dead plants, or anything else not productive in your space. 

Depending on how long the garden has been unattended, clean-up may require equipment like a weed-whacker or lawn mower to make the weeds much more manageable. 

When I restored my garden, I used a combination of good old-fashioned hand weeding, heavy use of my pruning shears, and mulching to kill back the brush and weeds.

I placed cardboard in the walkways, pinned it down with rocks I had salvaged from other parts of the garden, and laid down a thick layer of wood chips. The combination smothered the grass that was growing up into my beds from the walkway.

Not only will mulch help kill back weeds, but it will also revitalize old soil that needs new nutrients and organic matter introduced back in. Long-time gardener Huw Richards has an excellent video showing his results with mulch on old, tired soil.

Another method that works for killing back grass and weeds in larger areas is to use plastic. Placing a large piece of clear plastic will heat any existing weeds to the point that they die. This process is also known as solarization. 

It will also make any weed seeds in the ground germinate by warming the soil up. Once the seedlings emerge, they will be zapped by the heat under the plastic, forcing them to die back. For maximum effectiveness, use clear plastic because it’s much more effective than black plastic or a tarp at trapping enough heat to kill the seeds.

When doing any kind of wild landscaping or brush clean-up, keep an eye out for harmful plants like poison ivy or poison oak. While some people may think getting a poison ivy rash is a rite of passage for gardens, it’s completely preventable if you pay attention and cover up with gardening gloves and proper clothing.

Here are some ideas of what to do with any old flower plants that you want to keep but that need some attention: Cut Back, Compost, Or Continue? A Quick Guide To Fall Flower Clean Up.

Put old garden debris to work as compost

As you’re cleaning up the garden, you’ll probably notice that you start to accumulate a hefty brush pile. While hauling the debris to the dump is always an option, it can also be the perfect start to your garden compost pile.

In my garden, I used some old recycled skid pallets to assemble a homemade composting system. Out of the way in a corner of my garden, it became a plant matter trash pile for a while. 

After a few seasons of a little TLC and turning it every once in a while, I noticed that I had some decent compost to use on my beds. This type of compost pile won’t finish as quickly as a regularly-turned and monitored pile, but it’s much more hands-off, which can be a huge benefit when dealing with large amounts of garden debris. 

Think about cover cropping if you won’t plant right away

One of the best ways to help bring your garden back under control is to plant a cover crop, also known as a green manure crop. It might seem counterintuitive to grow a thick stand of vegetation when you just cleared out your space, but here are some of the benefits of using a cover crop while your garden is in transition:

  • Cover crops restore some nutrients to your soil
  • They provide seasonal soil protection to avoid leaving the ground exposed to the elements and erosion. 
  • Cover crops are also a great way to diversify your garden and create habitats for beneficial insects.
  • A thick cover crop will help prevent new weed seeds from germinating and old roots from reestablishing themselves while you prepare to plant.

Some common cover crops include alfalfa, rye, oats, or clover, although there is a wide range of options. Your needs and climate will dictate which crop is best for your garden. Penn State Extension has a great resource for choosing the best crop in their article, What Cover Crop Should I Plant?

If you’re starting small and don’t want to fill and manage your entire garden right off the bat, try planting cover crops in the sections you don’t plan to use this year. 

Eric over at Epic Gardening has an excellent beginner’s guide to cover cropping that can help you get started. Using cover crops effectively can take a lot of practice to perfect, but his tips keep it simple.

3. Test your soil

Testing your soil will reveal any nutrient deficiencies or abundances that may negatively affect your plants. Once you have a soil profile, you’ll better understand what you can plant where and what you need to do to improve soil health.

Depending on where you live, you can get soil tests done through your local agricultural extension agency. Some states will do it for free, while others charge a small fee. A simple Google search should tell you where the closest extension office is to you and its mailing address.

If you don’t have access to a testing service or the wait is too long, you can buy a simple soil test kit from any garden center or seed company. These tests aren’t as accurate as a professional test, but they will give you a quick overview of your soil’s fertility, making a great starting point to get you going. 

How to sample your soil

There are two different ways that I like to take soil samples. The first is to collect samples from several areas of your garden and combine them to make one sample to send to the lab. This method will give you a general overview of the nutrient composition in your garden.

The other way is to send in several samples from specific parts of your garden. Depending on your garden size or what the land was previously used for, one side may have a different nutrient makeup than the other. You can use this information to dictate what plants should go where.

If you send more than one sample for testing, you don’t have to send too many. Three to four examples are enough to tell you everything you need to know about your garden.

4. Prep your garden beds

Since your garden hasn’t been in production for a while, you’ll need to prep your beds for planting. I’m a no-till gardener, so I like to use tools like the broadfork and shuffle hoe to loosen up the soil and break up any big clumps.

Once you’ve loosened up the soil, cover the beds with mulch to keep down any weeds that may be looking to pop up before you get your plants in the ground (unless you opt for a cover crop, in which case you can plant that right away).

Straw mulch and wood chips are my personal preferences, but you can also use things like grass clippings or dead leaves. If organic matter mulches are not readily available to you, landscape fabric is a great alternative. 

If your soil test indicated a lack of fertility in your soil or a specific issue like low nitrogen levels, this is a perfect time to add any amendments to your soil. Some common amendments include:

  • High-quality compost
  • Worm castings
  • All-purpose fertilizer
  • Nutrient-specific amendments like alfalfa meal, agricultural lime, or kelp meal
  • Soil inoculants such as mycorrhizal fungi

My favorite garden fertilizers

Although healthy soil is the best food for your garden, sometimes it takes a while to build it up. In the meantime, I use a couple of high-quality fertilizers.

Tiger Bloom is perfect for the flower garden because it’s a phosphorous-heavy liquid fertilizer that encourages flower production.

Dr. Earth All Purpose Fertilizer is a balanced fertilizer that I can use to feed my flowers and vegetables at the same time if everything in the garden needs a boost.

Top off any sunken beds

If you’re working out of raised beds instead of beds directly in the ground, you’ll probably need to add more soil. 

Over time, the existing soil will have settled to the bottom of the bed, and you’ll lose a little more when you weed it. You’ll want to top off the beds with compost, garden soil, or bagged soil conditioner so your plants have enough room to spread their roots.

Depending on how much topsoil you need, you can pick some bags up from your local hardware store, or you can find a source to buy in bulk. Your local ag extension office can tell you where you can get bulk soil.

Not sure how much soil you need? This raised bed soil calculator will tell you exactly how much you need based on the dimensions of your raised beds. It’ll help you decide if you want to buy a few bags to top off the raised beds or if you’d be better off finding a bulk source to keep the costs down. 

Some cities offer free municipal compost to their residents, which can be a fantastic way to build up your garden on a budget. 

5. Create a garden plan

With all the hard work out of the way, here’s the less labor-intensive and more fun part. A garden plan is your chance to let your creativity shine and make your garden your own. What do you want to grow? Vegetables? Flowers? Both? 

Before you even think about planting, you’ll want to have things like irrigation and soil fertility management figured out to give your plants their best shot at thriving. 

Try using graph paper to sketch your garden layout. If you’re tech-savvy, you can also map your plan in excel or Google sheets. There are many excellent garden planning resources out there, such as this one from GrowVeg. I haven’t used it, but I know it’s popular. 

There’s a lot of potential in restarting a garden, and you have the freedom to turn it into something magical. If flowers are your main focus, you’ll get even more tips in this article, How To Plan A Cut Flower Garden: Beginner’s Guide.

Start small for a better chance of success

Planning the garden is fun and exciting, but setting realistic goals is also essential. I’ll be the first to say that sometimes I come up with more plans and ideas for my garden than one person can handle. 

Don’t be afraid to start small. Cleaning up a garden takes a lot of work, and you might find that you only get one or two plants in the ground this year. That’s okay! Now that you’ve put all the effort into cleaning up and planning, you’ll be able to get ahead in the next year. 

6. Take notes for next year

One thing I wish I had done in my first year of gardening was to take notes. By the time the next season rolled around, I had difficulty remembering what I had done or didn’t do and what went right and what didn’t.

Taking notes can help you keep track of things like soil amendments added, planting dates, and weather patterns. It can also be a way to get you more comfortable and confident in your gardening abilities as you review your success and plan how to build off them next year.

Here are some of the top things to record as you bring your garden space back to health and make plans for the growing season:

  • Amendments added to the soil
  • Location of any established plants that you want to keep
  • Seed starting dates for the upcoming season
  • Sun and water drainage patterns over the garden space

Once your garden restoration is complete and the growing season is in full swing, you’ll have a whole new set of notes to take, such as harvest dates and yield, plant varieties that thrived or flopped, and any pest damage your plants sustained. 

To me, gardening is just one big science experiment. It can be discouraging when things don’t go exactly how we planned them in the beginning. But instead of giving up on the garden, look at it as an opportunity to try something new the next time. 

7. Find a gardening community

This might be the most important step in bringing any neglected garden back to life. Find other gardeners in your community who can share their tips and tricks of the trade and help you out when you need it.  

See if there are any gardening clubs or master gardener programs around you that you can become a part of. You can also check Facebook for any online gardening groups and forums. Whether online or in person, these groups are where you can crowdsource answers to any questions, get help with plant identification, or hear from those with experience in your climate. 

These are the people that can help and support you when the going gets tough in your garden. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and help your fellow gardeners in return. You’ll be amazed at the experience gardeners are happy to share.

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