How to start a garden in a hurry

March 2020, and the US starts to be shut down due to Coronavirus. Even if you’re not officially quarantined at home, you’re not going out much, maybe not drawing a paycheck, and the store shelves look like this:

Empty grocery store shelves

The good news is, this is a perfect time to start a garden in most of the contiguous US. And if you’re not sick and have time on your hands, this could be a great project! Grab the kids and neighbors and work on a garden together.

What you’ll need

  • A location that gets at least 6 hours of sun each day
  • A bunch of organic material and some dirt to plant in
  • A way to get water to the garden
  • Optional: ways to keep the dirt in and the critters out

Location, location, location

Must-haves: Your location really needs at least 6 hours of sun a day; more is better. Look at the spot you’re thinking about for your garden at 9am, noon, and 3pm. If it’s sunny at all those times, it’s a decent spot for a garden.

If the sunniest place near your house is a deck or patio, container gardening is very effective. You’ll need big containers, preferably 5 gallon bucket-size or larger. See below for more info.

If possible: Locate the garden near a door you use often – this will help you keep an eye on the garden, and you’ll notice harvest opportunities and weeds before they get away from you. Putting the garden within reach of a hose faucet is also a great convenience.

It’s not just “dirt”

Photos of how to build a bed courtesy of the Healthy Sustainable Living Blog

The soil in your yard will grow some vegetables if it’s currently growing grass. Chances are, though, it’ll keep growing grass, too, and you don’t want that! Your best bet is to build up garden beds, rather than dig down This method is widely known as “lasagna gardening.” Basically – build a pile of whatever you have on hand:

  • Large sheets of cardboard or newspaper to kill the grass.
  • Dead leaves (bonus: run them over with a lawn mower or put through a shredder so they’re chopped up) – If you don’t have any at your place, watch the curb – people will put them out in bags as they clean up their yards in the next couple weeks.
  • Grass clippings – fresh or old.
  • Stable cleanings – if neighbors keep horses, see if you can get some manure. The older, well-composted stuff isn’t even smelly, and it’s absolute magic for starting a garden.
  • Commercial quantities of kitchen scraps. Check at juice bars. Some coffee grounds are OK but not more than about 25% of your total volume.
  • Bags of compost (not top soil) from the store (expensive and not the best for growing).
  • A couple cubic yards of “garden blend” soil from a local landscaper (pricey, but the best “instant garden” there is).

The method is basically this:

  1. Optional: build some kind of border to contain the soil (see “Dirt In, Critters Out” below)
  2. Put down cardboard or several layers of newspaper right on top of the grass. Be sure the edges overlap by a couple inches.
  3. Pile layers of organic material on top. Put the lightest stuff (like shredded leaves) on the bottom of the pile, directly on the cardboard. Put kitchen scraps next, then compost, then soil. If you’re only using a couple layers, that’s fine. You’ll want about 8″ of “stuff” if it mostly looks like dirt, and 12-15″ of “stuff” if it looks like leaves and rotting vegetables.
  4. Plant things.

Dirt in, critters out

Staple chicken wire around the bed to keep rabbits and woodchucks out

It can be very helpful to contain the garden somehow. I like plain pine 2x8s, but you can also use logs, rocks, cinder blocks, or wood from pallets. I can easily reach 2′ into a bed to weed and harvest, so I keep my beds no more than 4′ wide (assuming I can access the bed from both sides). Putting edging on the beds helps keep weeds out, and you can easily staple 2′ tall fencing around the outside to keep out rabbits and woodchucks.

Water, water, everywhere

Attach a hose to a faucet and get a cheap fan sprayer nozzle. Don’t bother with sprinklers, and only go with watering cans if you don’t have another option (very tedious to use, and you’ll probably under-water the garden).


If your garden bed is really new, and contains a lot of “raw ingredients” like leaves, veggie scraps, or fresh manure, it’s best to wait a few weeks to let it all settle and rot a bit. If it’s getting on towards May and you really need to get plants in the ground, choose things that will thrive in this kind of soil, like squash and tomatoes.

If the top 3-4″ of your bed really just looks like dirt, then you can plant pretty much anything in it.

See my garden planning series for ideas on what to plant!

Published by Emily

I'm an instructional designer and gardener based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Free moments find me in my garden or the forest, hugging trees and all that jazz.

One thought on “How to start a garden in a hurry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: