How to Build a Raised Bed Garden


Building 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's a trade-off though: time.

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.

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.


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 your raised 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.

First, read my earlier post on turning your garden dream into a reality.

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 wood will definitely last longer, but the boards are treated with chemicals that could possibly leach into your plants and the vegetables they produce. The choice is up to you.

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

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!)


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 only takes three boards to make another layer.

Hey, 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 8" height of my raised bed. Actually, it's less than 8" because 2x4's are actually less 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. It helps, even though it doesn't totally stop the problem.


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 and 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.


DON'T do this!


Building a raised bed garden.

One year I made a big mistake.

I'd 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. That layer 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. Under that now-missing 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!


How to build and fill raised garden beds.



The hugelkultur method



In a bit of desperation I also threw branches in some of the empty raised beds 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 as much of my homemade soil mixture.

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 branches are a good thing.

Although to do it right, most 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. 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 and 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 more 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; they are planted 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.


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



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12 comments

  1. These look great, Kathi! I feel your pain with the soil, though. We filled some of ours with a pile of aged 'hay ring' manure we got from a friend. Considering it was over a year old, we thought it was safe. Nope. I had the most beautiful crop of pigweed ever! I didn't dig it out - I hand picked every. single. green. sprout!

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    1. Exactly!! I don't know which would be worse, having to dig it all out again or pulling every single sprout! Both are a lot. of. work!

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  2. LOVE this post Kathi. I someday long to have raised beds!! ♥️

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    1. I hope you get yours someday too, Michelle. I REALLY prefer them to gardening in the ground.

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  3. I garden using a raised bed, except mine floats on a lake. I may have shared this before. You can read about it at my blog under the gardening category if you are interested. - Margy

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    1. Now that sounds super-interesting, Margy! I think I would remember if you've shared that before. I'm going to have to go read about it. My biggest objection to living on the road (my hubby's dream) or on a boat would be giving up my garden - let's not tell him about this, ok?

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  4. I'm a raised bed convert! Two years ago we finally installed raised beds that look a lot like yours and our harvest was MUCH improved. I attribute it to better soil and the inability for the bunnies to get into the garden and graze. You won't regret the time and effort in building your raised beds!

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    1. So am I, Jen! I think this is SO much easier. I continue adding a new bed or two each spring and I think it's a good investment of my time and labor.

      The bunnies though... last spring when I removed the winter mulch from one of the raised beds I found a nest of baby bunnies. I guess my beds aren't as tall as yours are!

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  5. I totally love this! Thanks for sharing with us at the To Grandma's house we go link party I'll be featuring you on my blog, Instagram and Facebook!

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  6. I have built a raised bed garden out of our old trampoline. Using the octagon shape of the frame work. I don't have access to leaf/grass clippings, is there anything I can substitute? I'll need to purchase everything at the home improvement store's garden center.

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    1. I love that you used what you had to build a raised bed, Dustin. You can of course purchase "garden soil" and compost from the home improvement store, but it will be quite costly. You can buy a dump truck full of top soil (google for companies near you that might sell it this way). You can also google for "municipal compost near me" or something similar - this will be towns near you that run a huge compost facility and sell the finished compost (usually the residents can get it for free). From what I've researched, the compost will be the least expensive, but you'll need a pickup truck or some sort of trailer to bring it home. Good luck, and let us know what you find!

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