How to Build a Raised Bed Garden


Building a raised bed garden.

 

Are you determined to start a garden this year? What better way could there be to take charge of your food security. Planning a garden isn't hard, but there are a lot of factors you need to consider. Learn how to build a raised bed garden in this post.


How to build a raised bed garden



For years I struggled with my in-the-ground vegetable garden rows.

Our soil is extremely poor. In some places it's clay; in others it's silica sand that doesn't hold water or nutrients at all. And up here on our hilltop, the top soil has washed away and is probably all in our farm pond.


And the weeds always got away from me. Well, even worse than weeds: Bermuda grass! 


I've always said that the best Bermuda grass on our place (ie, grass for livestock grazing) is in my garden. Probably because I water the garden (right?) while the rest of our land relies on rainfall.


Container gardening actually worked better for me, but there aren't enough containers in the world to grow all the plants I want to grow. Er, need to grow. Ok, want to grow.


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So a few years ago I began building raised beds in my garden instead.


  • And while I was at it, I decided to double my garden space.
  • And I wanted to do it on the smallest possible budget - preferably a zero budget. 

Cheap and inexpensive are pretty easy when it comes to gardening. There are trade-offs though. In this case, time and labor.


I'm slowly getting it done. It's taken much longer than I expected - I foolishly thought I could do it in one summer! Ha!


I probably could have if I'd been buying all the materials. Just buy it all and get them built and filled, right? But because I'm scrounging the lumber it's taking longer. 


We rebuilt the chicken run so I used the cast-off boards from that. I realize they won't last as long as new, treated lumber, but they will work for a few years before they need to be replaced.


When we tore down an old building we found a real treasure: close-grain lumber that was protected from the weather for decades because it was inside that building. 


It was like new lumber - or even better, since the grain in the wood is so narrow compared to new lumber from faster-growing trees.


So I have the materials, but I'm limited by how fast (slow) we can tear the building down and get to all that lumber.


How to build garden boxes.


What is a raised garden bed?


A raised garden bed is exactly what it sounds like: a garden bed that is raised above the level of the ground. 


Raised beds are often made of lumber, but you can use any material that will keep the soil in place. Popular materials are metal sided, rocks or stones, concrete blocks and even tree trunks cut to length.


While most raised garden beds are set on top of the ground, there are others that are built on legs and have a bottom to hold the soil. These raised bed tables are very convenient for a gardener who is confined to a wheelchair, but are also easy to maintain for older gardeners or those with mobility issues.


The benefits of raised garden beds


Using raised garden "boxes" can solve many gardening problems.


  • If your garden location is a bit low and tends to be damp, raising your plants up higher with raised beds will help the soil drain faster and keep their roots drier. (On the flip side, you may have to water more often, as raised beds dry out more quickly.)
  • If better drainage is your goal, you'll probably want to build your raised beds with three layers of 2x4's so it's more than eight inches deep. Two layers of 2x6's would be good too.

  • You won't need to till your garden. Because you don't step in the raised beds, the soil doesn't compact and will stay light and fluffy. While weeds will grow in your raised beds, I've found them much easier to pull from this light, fertile soil than from the hard ground.
  • Raised beds drain and thaw more quickly in the spring so you can plant earlier.
  • You can customize the soil in the raised beds to your plants' liking. (This was my main reason for adopting this style of gardening. No more poor, depleted soil - no clay - no sand - just good growing soil.)


Planning and designing your raised garden beds


Even if you're using found materials and lumber you have on hand, you should make a plan for your garden and where you'll place your raised beds.


Locate your raised bed garden near a water source and in full sun. Putting it in a location that you walk past every day is an excellent way to keep an eye on your plants.


If you have critters - free ranging chickens, deer or other wildlife - you might want to enclose your garden with a fence.


I planned my raised beds to be far enough apart to run the lawnmower in between, because I knew I'd have to mow that persistent Bermuda grass weekly in the summer. I allowed plenty of room between the beds and the garden fence too, and around the corners so I can turn the mower.


How to make a raised bed garden.


Disclaimer: I'm a novice raised bed builder


This was the second project I'd done on my own with power tools, and I admit it took me awhile to get up the courage to use that circular saw. My first project was the chicken coop sliding door. I still had all my fingers when it was finished so that was encouraging.


Anyway, this isn't a perfect step-by-step tutorial - but I wanted to share that it IS possible to build your own raised bed garden even if you're not proficient with power tools.


If you're buying new lumber, the store will probably make a few cuts for you, often at no charge. If you're re-using lumber though, you'll have to cut them yourself or find someone else to do it for you.


What you need to build a raised garden bed


Since I was using reclaimed lumber, I used what I had available: 2x4's at first. Later on I had 2x6's.


Cedar is a good wood to use outdoors as it doesn't rot as quickly. If you're buying the lumber for your garden beds, you might want to consider buying cedar.


Some gardeners don't want to use pressure-treated lumber for garden beds. The treated wood will definitely last longer. Gone are the days when pressure-treated lumber was treated with chemicals, so they are safer to use for growing food now. 


But the choice is up to you. You can use whatever you like!


My reclaimed boards are not pressure-treated, so eventually they will need to be replaced, but I'm okay with that.


You'll also need the following materials to make a raised bed frame: 

  • Screws and a drill or screwdriver OR nails and a hammer
  • A saw to cut boards to the lengths you need


I used the Chief's cordless drill and screws, plus his electric circular saw.


To build one four-foot by eight-food bed I used six boards. This is a handy size for raised beds because lumber commonly comes in eight-foot lengths.


Just cut two of the boards in half for the ends. (Just two cuts with the scary saw!)


Four-foot-wide beds are an efficient use of resources, but there is another reason for making your beds this wide. 


A four-foot-wide bed is relatively easy to reach across from both sides. You don't step into the bed - doing so would compact the soil - but you can reach the center be leaning over.


My newest beds are built three-feet-wide instead of four feet. I've found it much easier to reach the center of these narrower beds as I get older. 


I use the short leftover pieces in the corners of my rectangular beds. True, I lose eight-square-feet of garden space with a three-foot-wide bed, but it's so much easier to plant, pull weeds and maintain my garden.


How to build a raised garden bed


Lay out the boards in your intended garden spot: two full-length boards on each side, and two of the four-foot-long boards on each end.




You can use a hammer and nails to connect the boards, or screw them together. I used the Chief's cordless drill and screws.


Although you can screw the boards into each other at the ends, I chose to put a scrap of 2x4 in each corner and screw each board into those. Doing this keeps the second course of boards securely on top of the first layer.


Build the bottom layer first, then add the second layer of boards on top and screw them to the scrap 2x4 in the corners.


In the photo above, I've finished the first corner. You can see the scrap 2x4 in the top left corner of the bed.


After I finished, I could have cut off the tops of the scrap 2x4's - but that would have meant using that saw again, and it wasn't cordless, so... I figured they would help keep the hose from smashing the plants when I watered the garden, and actually, they do.


Or I could have added another layer of boards to the raised bed - it would only take three more boards to make another layer.


But basically, that's it - you've built your first raised bed!


Filling the raised garden bed with soil


Since my biggest gardening problem is that Bermuda grass, I lined the inside of the beds with a thick layer of cardboard. Really thick. I have a stash of cardboard boxes in the shed for this purpose so I don't have to scrimp on this step.


Because I really want to kill the grass under the raised beds.


The cardboard decomposes very quickly (I'll tell you in a bit how I know that) and changes the texture of the soil underneath for the better, so the plants' roots are able to grow deeper than the mere eight-inch height of my raised bed. 


Well actually, it's less than eight inches tall because 2x4's are actually smaller than two inches by four inches.


After building the first two beds, I found that the Bermuda grass runners will continue to grow up against the sides of the beds. So now I also line the sides of the boards with cardboard. 


Even though it doesn't totally stop the problem, it does help. The runners are pretty much confined to the edges along the boards, where they grow up between the cardboard and the side of the bed, and they are relatively easy to pull out.


Filling the beds


I've found that the most difficult part of building my raised beds is filling them.


With my zero-dollar budget, I can't just go buy bags and bags of soil for each new raised bed. I went that route with the first raised bed I built. As well as costing a bunch of money, I was really disappointed in the quality of that bagged topsoil.


So I've been composting like crazy and also shoveling up the rich, black soil from the goat yard. Mixed together, they make a nice planting soil. However it's a limited resource and it takes time to build more compost and dig up more soil.


Some landscaping companies sell compost, and some communities make their own, either giving it to their residents or selling it a nominal cost. 


DON'T do this!


Building a raised bed garden.


One year I made a big mistake.


I dug out the spilled hay and aged goat manure under the goats' hay feeder, and dumped it into a new raised bed. I was hoping it was decomposed enough even though I could see hay layered in the strata. Some people call this "barn pack."


Unfortunately, in just a few weeks it grew a great crop of grass from the seeds that were still viable in the hay.


The only remedy was to shovel it all out and compost it like I should have done in the first place. In the photo above I'd finally finished digging out half of the 4'x8' bed.


It takes a hot compost pile to kill weed seeds, but it can be done.


Before dumping the raw barn pack clumps in the bed that fall, I had lined the ground in the new raised bed with a layer of cardboard. When I dug it all out again, the cardboard had completely composted over the winter, and was nowhere to be seen when I dug it all up in the spring.


It doesn't take long at all for cardboard to decompose. Plus, under that decomposed layer of cardboard was great soil with fantastic texture.


But that's why I now use those many layers of cardboard in a new raised bed: I know how fast it composts and disappears, and that it will totally transform the dirt underneath.


How to build and fill raised garden beds.


Click here to learn the terms and phrases beginning gardeners need to know!


The hugelkultur method


I needed a lot of soil to fill my new raised beds, and in a bit of desperation I also threw branches in some of them to help fill them up. Branches are easy to find here; we have plenty of trees.


So I threw a bunch in one of the raised beds, then filled it up with my mixture of soil and compost. I knew the branches would eventually decompose and they filled up space in the raised beds, meaning I didn't need quite as much soil and compost.


I had no idea at the time that this is actually a "thing" - it's called hugelkultur.


Here's how it works: the branches soak up water and make it available to the plants' roots. 


It's actually a great thing in drought-prone areas - and that certainly describes Oklahoma. We have lots of rain in the spring and then in the summer... nothing. No rain plus hot temperatures. So moisture-holding branches are a good thing.


Although traditionally people use larger branches than I did - they use logs. They also put a whole lot more soil on top than I did, forming a mound several feet high that they plant in. 


Eventually the wood breaks down and the soil settles and the mound isn't as high as it was at first.


But I did what I did with what I had and I don't regret it at all. Anything that helps keep my vegetable plants alive in the summer is worth doing, and it helped fill up my raised beds.


Garlic in a raised garden bed.


Using the square foot gardening method


Raised beds lend themselves well to square foot gardening. Mel Bartholomew's book Square Foot Gardening explains it all in detail.


Since I'm using a defined rectangular area in each bed - 4 feet by 8 feet - it's a simple matter to divide that space into squares and plant each one according to the square foot gardening method.


This planting method allows you to grow plants more intensively than in a traditional row garden. The book includes charts of how much space each species of plant needs. For example, carrots can be grown much more closely together than something bushy like pepper plants or squash.


Rotating the garden


Each year you should rotate your garden plants from one area in your garden to another. This protects the soil's fertility and keeps plants from depleting all the nutrients when they're planted in the same place year after year.


Planting tomatoes in the same raised bed or the same containers would leave you with depleted soil after a few years.


Different plant species use different amounts of soil nutrients. Some plants even add nutrients to the soil. Rotating crops can preserve and even boost the nutrients in your soil.


There are three types of vegetable plants:

  • Heavy feeders include tomatoes, leafy crops such as lettuce, eggplant, corn, beets, and brassicas such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.
  • Light feeders such as garlic, onions, peppers, radishes, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard and others.
  • Soil builders are plants that replace nitrogen in the soil, such as peas and beans. (This is why many acres of the Midwest are planted in corn one year and soybeans the next.) Cover crops such as clover are also soil builders.

To easily rotate your garden crops in a raised bed garden, plant heavy feeders in a bed the first year, followed by light feeders the second year and soil building plants the third year. In the fourth year you would start over with heavy feeders after the soil builders have replenished the soil. 


That's exactly what I do, by simply moving my garden over one raised bed each year!


I move the tomatoes over one bed every year, planting them in the newest bed that's been filled with my mixture of compost and good soil. 


The bed behind that, which held tomatoes last year, grows onions and garlic this year. The third bed is planted with beans, a soil builder.


The next three beds are the same: one with heavy feeding plants, then light feeders, then soil builders.


The following year, everything moves over one bed.


It's a no-brainer that makes it super easy to rotate my vegetables and saves me a lot of planning time. No more trying to figure out which crop should go where every year.


Life is so much easier now!


Now it's your turn. Use what you have and get started today!


Do you want more help planning your garden?


Check out my workbook Plan a Successful Garden! This ebook includes worksheets to help you discover:

  • The best location for your garden
  • The type of garden you want to grow - in the ground, raised beds or containers
  • What to grow (that's the fun part!) depending on where you live
  • And so much more!


To learn more click here...






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How to build a raised bed garden with no building experience.





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