6 Methods for Preparing Land for Planting

Preparing Land for Planting – 6 Methods

Preparing land for planting is one of the most important parts of cultivating abundance. Whether you're planting fruit trees, wildlife corridors, or an annual garden, prepping the soil in the first place is the best way to set yourself up for success over the long haul. 

And luckily, there are a lot of great ways to do it. Some methods take a while to improve the growing space, while others can help you set up an area quickly while also helping you build soil over time. 

Whichever strategy you go for, taking steps to prepare planting areas up front will help you cultivate more abundance for people, plants and wildlife over time. Here are 6 great ways to prepare land for planting.


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Overcome the Challenges of Preparing Land for Planting

Preparing land for planting by removing blackberries

This area was covered by thick blackberries. I've been slowly preparing this space for planting trees and other plants. Preparing land for planting is something everyone needs to do to cultivate abundance.

I want to make the living world around me come alive with abundance for people, plants and wildlife. So I’m always trying to work with nature whenever I can. In the long run, this makes my property more resilient to drought and reduces the amount of work I need to do.

But in the short run this can make things more complicated. I can’t just till, spray herbicides over a field, and then plant it with mechanized equipment.

That would degrade my soils, reduce wildlife, and likely hurt my family’s health.

In other words, it would be exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve as someone who wants to grow with nature.

But I still need to prepare the land for planting, so how do I do it? There are 6 methods that you can use for preparing land for planting that will help me make the living world around me come alive.

6 Methods for Preparing Land for Planting

  • 1
    One-Time Tilling
  • 2
    Mulch Alone
  • 3
    Sheet Mulching
  • 4
    Double Digging
  • 5
  • 6
    Animals (focus on chickens and pigs)

For each of these methods I’m assuming you want to remove all existing vegetation and start over from scratch. Several of these methods can work around existing vegetation like trees and shrubs while still removing other vegetation.

This post covers these 6 methods and the pros and cons of each, so you can see what works for your situation and get your property ready for planting.

There’s a lot to cover, so I made a free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet for you.

1. Preparing Land for Planting with One-Time Tilling

Tilling Garden Soil

Don't till your soil - Image of Tilling Soil BY HomeAndGardners.com - CC BY

Normally, I would tell you not to till your soil, but…

If you only till it once to prepare the land and do it in a way that adds organic material deep into the soil, you can expand your top soil much quicker than you would by simply applying organic material to the top of the soil.

There are great threads at permies.com that I highly recommend reading to learn more about soil and how to build your soil instead of degrading it.

Just don’t till more than once in any given location.

Tilling the soil will cause disruption to soil life such as the fungal networks. If you only till once, the soil life will bounce back. Just don’t keep disturbing the soil.

Pros of One-Time Tilling

  • Transports organic material down deep into the soil.
  • Relatively easy to implement. 
  • Creates an easy to plant area.

Cons of One-Time Tilling

  • Heavily disturbs the soil.
  • Won't fully kill off existing vegetation.
  • Requires special equipment (tiller).

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with One-Time Tilling

Preparing land for planting a vegetable garden

A small garden area prepared by tilling. Image of tilled garden soil by Maggie McCain CC BY-SA 2.0.

At face value, this method is simple—just find a tiller of some sort and start tilling. My recommendation is to rent a tiller from a local shop.

However, the tilling is unlikely to kill off all the existing plants. Some will come back from roots and seeds.

Because of this, you’ll need to use this method in combination with one of the other methods in order to fully prepare the land for planting. You can either solarize the exposed soil, add a thick layer of mulch, or use sheet mulching to keep the tilled plants from re-establishing.

This is not my favorite method for preparing land for planting.

The main reason to use one-time tilling is that it’s a quick and easy way to expand the layer of soil that has high levels of organic material.

Summary of Steps for One-Time Tilling

  1. Till the area with a rented tiller or borrow one unless you already have your own.
  2. Some plant roots and seeds are likely to survive, so use sheet mulching, thick mulching, or solarizing to finish the job.
  3. Wait until you’re sure the existing vegetation has been killed off before planting.

2. Preparing Land for Planting with Mulch Alone

There are lots of advantages to mulch

I can never get enough woodchips for mulch.

I love mulch. If I had a million dollars, I’d probably spend it all on mulch. (Luckily there are often free sources, as well…)

There are two main ways to mulch a space to prepare it for planting. One is called Sheet Mulching (#3 below), which uses cardboard or newspapers and other materials to help snuff out the vegetation below.

The other is to use just plain old mulch, straight up, without any of the extra trappings.

Preparing land for planting with mulch alone is fairly basic as far as instructions goes, but it’s not necessarily the easiest way to do it. You will need to collect a large amount of mulch (straw, wood chips, fall leaves, etc.) to make this work.

Using only mulch to prepare the land will require you to add 8-12 inches of mulch over the top of the existing vegetation, instead of the 3-6 inches you would need for sheet mulching.

This large amount of mulch will smother most existing vegetation, but that process will take some time. Generally, a season will be enough for the existing vegetation to decompose fully.

Another potential drawback of this type of planting is that you will also have a very thick layer of mulch to work with when planting season rolls around.

To know if this kind of mulching will work for you, think ahead to how you plan to plant in the next growing season. Planting seeds into thick mulch is challenging, but you can plant young plants into the soil if you move the mulch aside first.

The basic rule is: always plant into the soil, not into the mulch.

Pros of Using Mulch Alone

  • Will eliminate existing vegetation if applied thick enough.
  • Builds rich soil full of soil life.
  • No soil disruption.

Cons of Using Mulch Alone

  • Requires large amounts of organic material.
  • Fairly labor intensive.
  • Hard to plant seeds/starts into it.
  • Requires time before planting.

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with Mulch Alone

Preparing land for planting with mulch alone

When I was just getting started with my front garden I used only straw mulch. Since then I added wood chips and fall leaves.

There is only one step for this method – just add mulch on top of the existing vegetation. The mulch layer needs to be at least 8 inches thick.

Now wait for the existing vegetation to decompose and then move the mulch aside and plant into the rich soil under the mulch.

If any aggressive plants come up through the mulch, you will need to remove those plants by hand. Placing the mulch in the fall will make it less likely that plants will come up through the mulch due to the cold and short days.

Summary of Steps for Mulch Alone

  1. Consider mowing or cutting the existing vegetation in the area you are preparing.
  2. Add 8 inches to a foot of mulch (straw, wood chips, fall leaves, etc.) over the area.
  3. Make sure no vegetation is sticking up through the mulch. Pull out any stragglers.
  4. Wait 1 season (3 months) for the existing vegetation to decompose.

3. Preparing Land for Planting with Sheet Mulching

Preparing land for planting with sheet mulching

When I was preparing this land for planting I used cardboard with straw and later fall leaves.

Sheet mulching adds 1 step to the previous method. While this adds some work, it reduces the amount of mulch you need by adding a weed suppressing layer made up of material like cardboard.

Sheet mulching works by suppressing existing plants until they eventually die and break down.

This results in beautiful, rich soil—but it takes time and a lot of material.

I have used this method extensively on my property, and it is very labor intensive.

But it has made amazing improvements in my soil quality, and it has greatly reduced the amount of watering I need to do each summer. So on the whole, I think it’s a great way to transform your lawn into a garden. It's definitely worth the effort.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture is a great book that covers a version of this method in detail.

You can also check out my blog post all about sheet mulching to help you get started.

Like preparing land with mulch alone, this method also takes time—not just for you, but for nature.

The sheet mulching layers will take at least a season to break down enough for easy planting. But if you place it down in the fall, it will be all ready for easy planting in the spring.

Pros of Using Sheet Mulching

  • Will eliminate existing vegetation.
  • Builds rich soil full of soil life.
  • No soil disruption.

Cons of Using Sheet Mulching

  • Requires large amounts of organic material and weed suppressing material.
  • Labor intensive.
  • Hard to plant seeds into it.
  • Requires time before planting

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with Sheet Mulching

Preparing land for planting using paper for sheet mulching

When I'm preparing land for planting using sheet mulching around existing plants I like to use newspaper instead of cardboard.

The first step is to collect a large amount of cardboard, burlap bags, or paper like newspaper (you’ll need to avoid magazines, colorful cardboard, or burlap with plastic strands woven into it).

Spread these sheets down over the area you want to prepare for planting.

Make sure the material overlaps on the edges. If you are using paper or burlap bags, you may need multiple layers.

Burlap bags will break down slower than the other materials, but they can help suppress aggressive plants.

On top of this first layer of cardboard, burlap bags or paper, add a thick layer of organic material like wood chips, fall leaves, or compost.

I try to layer the organic material 3-6 inches deep, depending on which type I’m using. 3 inches deep is plenty for wood chips, but I’d try for 6 inches of fall leaves.

If you are only mulching over weeds and not grass, then a thinner layer of mulch will work.

Over time, the material will break down and you can start planting.

I like to finish sheet mulching at least a few months before I’m going to plant.

But with a day job and a family I generally end up failing at this goal, and sometimes I have to apply the mulch after I have already planted (I just mulch around the plants—it works fine from the soil’s perspective, but it takes a lot more time).

Other times I have to cut through the cardboard layer to get the plants in, because the cardboard hasn’t fully decomposed.

Both situations work, and I have transformed areas of grass into wonderfully productive areas using cart-before-the-horse sheet mulching. But if you’re able to get the sheet mulch down far enough in advance, that’s definitely the way to go.

Summary of Steps for Sheet Mulching

  1. Collect large amount of cardboard, burlap bags, or paper.
  2. Collect large amount of wood chips, fall leaves, compost, or other organic material.
  3. Place cardboard, burlap bags, or paper down over the area you want to prep. Make sure the edges overlap.
  4. Place 3 to 6 inches of the organic material on top of the previous layer.
  5. Ideally, wait at least 1 season (3 months) to plant, so the cardboard, burlap bags, or paper has broken down and the existing vegetation has decomposed.

4. Preparing Land for Planting with Double Digging

Preparing land for planting with double digging

I prepared this area for planting by double digging. This small stretch was a lot of work but the results were fantastic. This picture shows what it looks like about midway through the job.

Double diggings is a very labor-intensive but effective way to prepare land for planting. The goal of this method is to dig down deep in the soil to loosen a deep section of the soil for future plants.

The advantage of this system is that it creates a very deep, loose area of soil, rich in organic material, which makes future planting easy. But it also heavily disturbs the soil and requires a large amount of physical labor.

While I generally don’t recommend tilling or heavily disturbing the soil, double-digging an area once can provide a benefit if your soil is compacted or if it consists of heavy clay.

(If your soil is too compacted for digging, or if you have the time to wait and avoid the disturbance, here are some longer-term strategies to deal compacted soil without digging.)

Pros of Using Double Digging

  • Will eliminate existing vegetation.
  • Creates easy to plant area.
  • Transports organic material down deep into the soil.

Cons of Using Double Digging

  • Heavily disturbs the soil.
  • Very labor intensive.

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with Double Digging

Preparing land for planting with double digging works

The same area 2 years after I completed the double digging. This hedgerow is growing well and I'm now working on expanding it and removing the surrounding grass.

The first step for double digging is to dig out any existing vegetation within the area you are preparing. Set the removed vegetation off to the side, outside of the area that you’ll be digging (Don’t try to shake the soil off the roots—it’ll all go back into the ground later).

Next, remove soil down about one shovel-depth over the same area that you are preparing. Put this soil off to the side, but not on top of the vegetation you just removed.

This soil is your top soil.

Repeat the previous step and keep the soil you remove in this step separate from the soil removed in the previous step.

The soil removed in this step is the subsoil.

Now do you understand why this is so labor intensive? Well guess what—we’re only halfway done.

You should now have a big pit with 3 separate piles—vegetation, top soil, and subsoil—placed nearby.

Time to fill it all in and undo the work you just did. Yup…

First, toss in all the removed vegetation and spread it out evenly over the bottom of the pit. Ideally, place the vegetation with their roots facing upward.

Next, add the subsoil back into the pit covering the removed vegetation. Then finish it all off by adding the top soil back on top of the subsoil.

Once you are done, you will want to either plant on the exposed soil or cover it with a layer of mulch.

Well that was a lot of work…

But you now have a very well-prepared garden bed. I don’t recommend using this method for large areas or if your soil is already soft. But for heavy clay or compacted soil, it can be worth it.

Summary of Steps for Double Digging

  1. Dig out all the existing vegetation and move it to the side.
  2. Dig out the topsoil (about as deep as the depth of your shovel blade) and set aside in a separate pile.
  3. Dig out the subsoil (about as deep as the depth of your shovel blade) and set aside in another separate pile.
  4. Add the removed vegetation. Spread it out evenly with roots facing upward to the bottom of the pit.
  5. Add the subsoil on top of the removed vegetation and spread it out evenly.
  6. Add the topsoil on top of the subsoil and spread it out evenly.
  7. Cover the prepared area with mulch.

5. Preparing Land for Planting with Solarizing

Preparing land with solarizing

I made a couple mistakes when preparing land with solarizing. First, I used too big of a sheet of plastic - I could not keep it tight. Second, I started too late in the summer. But it still worked and I have a great new eco-lawn now.

So, what is solarizing?

Solarizing is a method of using sheets of UV resistant plastic to essentially cook plants and seeds with heat from the sun.

Just think about how hot your car can get, or the inside of a greenhouse. Solarizing works the same way.

One major issue with solarizing is that it requires plastic sheets. If you don’t use UV-resistant plastic, it will breakdown and you will have a mess of small plastic pieces on your property.

Clear plastic is generally recommended over black plastic.

Purchasing UV resistant plastic sheets is not cheap if you want large amounts.

But this method requires very little effort once it is set up, and if you get high quality UV-resistant plastic sheets, they will last for at least a decade. Plus, you could use them to build a greenhouse once you’re done prepping the site.

Though eventually you will need to dispose of the plastic sheeting.

A downside is that it will take approximately 3 months of summer heat to fully solarize an area, and you’ll be left with an area covered with dead vegetation.

But if you have the time and can place mulch like fall leaves over the area, you will be able to start planting the following spring.

Pros of Solarization

  • No soil disruption.
  • Not very labor intensive once setup.

Cons of Solarization

  • Requires UV resistant plastic sheets.
  • Requires 3 months to ensure effectiveness.
  • Does not result in an easy to plant area without additional work.

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with Solarizing

Results of preparing land with solarizing

You can see the difference between the solarized area and the surrounding grass. Due to some mistakes on my part I ended up sheet mulching this area before I planted. The surrounding area will be sheet mulched in the future.

First, you’ll need to mow the existing vegetation as low as you can in the area you want to prepare for planting as I did when creating a new eco-lawn.

This will minimize the air gap between the plastic and the ground – a large gap will insulate the ground from the heat and reduce the effectiveness of the solarizing.

Next, place the plastic sheeting down over the mowed area. You will want to bury the edges of the plastic to ensure you have a complete seal to trap the heat.

Leave the plastic in place for 3 months to be safe.

Once you are sure the plants and seeds under the plastic has been killed off, remove the plastic. My recommendation is to then add a 3 to 6-inch layer of mulch on top of the solarized area.

Fall leaves would be ideal since you will likely be finishing the solarizing in late summer, making fall leaves an easy mulching solution.

Summary of Steps for Solarizing

  1. Mow or cut the existing vegetation in the area you want to prepare for planting.
  2. Place the plastic sheeting down over the mowed area.
  3. Bury the edges of the plastic to ensure a complete seal.
  4. Leave the plastic in place for 3 months during summer.
  5. Remove the plastic and add a layer of mulch over the solarized area.

6. Preparing Land for Planting with Animals

Let's face it. Preparing land for planting can be a lot of work if you want to make the living world around you come alive.

But there’s a way for you to get some help.

Farm animals such as chickens, pigs, sheep, goats and even rabbits can all be used to help you prepare land for planting.

You may even have some of these animals on your property already.

Animals scratch at the ground or munch on the grass, quickly getting rid of the ground cover while leaving a trail of amazing fertilizer (AKA feces and urine) in their wake.

The Youtube homesteader Justin Rhodes is a big promoter of preparing land with animals.

Justin and his family use a combination of chickens and pigs on their property to prepare land for planting their gardens.

You can see his system in the video and Instagram post at the top of this section.

While this system does disturb the soil, the level of tilling is much less than if you used a tiller.

But once the land is prepared, my recommendation is to not repeat this level of soil disturbance in the future in the same location.

The key is to avoid leaving the animals in this situation for too long. 

Once the land has been prepared for planting, you need to move them to a new area. Otherwise, the health and well-being of the animals will suffer.

An added benefit of this system is that you can continue to get meat and or eggs from the animals while they are working on fixing up the land for your garden.

Plus, you can save time and money on feed since the animals will eat what they find on the ground.

Pros of Using Animals

  • Can build soil fertility.
  • Can offset feed costs for the animals.
  • Provides harvests (egg/meat/milk) in addition to preparing the land for planting.

Cons of Using Animals

  • Disturbs the soil.
  • Requires fair bit of infrastructure to manage the animals.
  • Requires additional space for the animals to move to after preparing the land for planting.

Steps to Prepare Land for Planting with Chickens and Pigs

Preparing land with animals

These chickens are helping me clear out the vast swaths of pasture grass in our field, so that I can plant wildlife corridors, gardens, and fruit trees. They live in a mobile coop so that I can move them around the property as needed.

The exact setup for an animal-based system will be different depending on which types of animals you use, but here are the basics for Justin’s system which uses chickens and pigs.

Before you start down this route, you would need a portable chicken coop and any other shelter, supplies or equipment that you would use for the normal day-to-day care of your animals. This post assumes you’re already set up in that regard.

First you need to fence off the area you want to prepare for planting. Portable electric fencing such as Premier 1 PoultryNet system works great for this—especially if you use a solar energizer.

Then you let the pigs and chickens out inside the fenced area.

It really is as simple as that.

By confining the chickens and pigs to this specific area they will remove all the existing vegetation fairly quickly (the exact time depends on size of the area and the number of animals).

There may still be seeds and some roots left, so you may need to weed in the spring or add a layer of mulch after the animals are moved out of the area.

Once the land is prepared for planting, you can move the animals to another area to repeat the process or change to a paddock shift system.

Summary of Steps for Using Animals (Chickens or Pigs)

  1. Determine the area you want to prepare for planting and fence it off. Portable electric fencing is ideal.
  2. Mow or cut tall vegetation along the fence if you are using an electric fence.
  3. Let the chickens and pigs in the fenced area.
  4. Once the area has been cleared, move the chickens and pigs out and cover the area with mulch.
  5. Move the fence to a new area and start over, as needed.

Choosing the Correct Method for Your Property

Area prepared using sheet mulching

This new planting area for native plants was prepared with sheet mulching. I tend to rely on that method the most at my own place. I have fairly easy access to wood chips, so this method works great.

So, there are 6 methods for preparing land for planting. How do you know which one to choose?

Look over the pros and cons outlined above and think about your property.

How much time do you have? Do you work a day job and cultivate abundance on the weekend? 

The methods such as solarizing and sheet mulching, which don’t take a lot of time once they are set up, might be the best in this case.

Do you have animals already?

Then preparing the land with animals might be the best method for you.

Do you have easy access to mulch?

Then sheet mulching or using mulching alone could work great for you.

Any of these methods can work to help you make the living world around you come alive. Just make sure the method you pick will fit with your own life and property. Share the method you use in the comments.

I would love to hear from you about how these methods worked for you.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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