garden, DIY, home

Building Raised Beds

Last weekend we started a project we've been dreaming about for years.  No, we didn't go off the grid Swiss Family Robinson-style.  We didn't start our own theatre company or bakery or country inn.  Yet.  We decided instead to tackle a project we could accomplish in a weekend.  

We started building the infrastructure for our own edible garden!  This is our first Spring as homeowners and while we dabbled in container gardening as apartment renters, we've long been fantasizing about what we'd do with a little spot of ground.

Only about one third of our back yard gets sufficient sunlight for vegetable growth.  That was okay with us when we saw the property because we planned to grow in raised beds in a compact space.  

Why raised beds?

  • They're efficient.  Plants produce higher yields because the soil is loose and fertile, creating better drainage and aeration.  This also makes pulling weeds easier.  You're never walking in the bed, only on the path around it, so the soil won't become compacted.
  • They're economical.  Raised beds require less water and fertilizer because what you put into them leaches very little into the surrounding ground.
  • They're accessible.  The raised height means less bending, while keeping the width at four feet or below means crops can be reached from either side.
  • They're organic; if you choose.  We'd like the vegetables we grow to be free from pesticides.  Growing crops close together means fewer weeds and less frustration in doing it the natural way.
  • They're pretty.  Of course, this is subjective.  I'm really fond of the abundant feel and textural variety that raised beds provide.

The materials

Before heading to the store, we decided on the dimensions of the two beds we wanted to build.  The first would be 4'x6' and since we'd be using 1x8's to build the walls, the height would be 14 1/2"; 2 boards high.  (1x8's are actually 7 1/4 inches.  Insert head shake.)  I suggested a two-tiered bed for the second one, simply because I like the visual variation.  My mom pointed out that we'd be able to plant crops with deep root structures in the top tier -- bonus!  This bed would be 4'x8' with the bottom tier at 14 1/2" high and the top tier at 21 3/4" (3 boards) high.

 We purchased the supplies for our beds at Lowe's.  Although we do own a circular saw, Lowe's will cut the wood for you at no cost for the first four cuts and at 25 cents per cut after that.  For us, it's worth it. As I mentioned, we used 1x8's for the walls.  We decided on 2x4's for the posts that would be placed at the corners and midpoints of the beds and had them cut 4 inches longer than the height of the wall at each spot.  This will allow us to sink the posts into the ground for added stability.  A big box of 2 inch wood screws and a gallon of exterior stain and sealant were all we needed after that. 

We spent $115 before tax on all the supplies for these two beds.  A quick look at the prefabricated ones for sale out there will illustrate that we're getting about triple the growing area for the money.  Now, it really grinds my gears when I read a tutorial titled something like, "Build a Table for $10" and deep into the text it includes, "Since I already had all this wood laying around..."  

$115 was the actual cost for all of these actual materials.  And we still have 3/4 gallon of stain leftover, so we clearly could have gone for the (cheaper) quart.

The Construction

Chris took care of the construction on his own.  This is because we strictly adhere to our respective gender roles.

Just kidding.

Those of you who have ever had small children know that once one enters the equation, the definition of a collaborative project goes from something you do together to something on which you take turns.  Since Chris's set-building experience makes him better equipped for carpentry, he spent 4 hours building the beds while I hung out with Susanna.  Two days later I applied the stain and sealant while Chris worked and my mom played with our girl for a couple of hours.

The directions on the can said to avoid applying in direct sunlight in order to prevent "lap lines."  It can be deduced from the above photo that I was definitely applying the stain in direct sunlight.  I was not concerned about lap lines on a rustic project like this.  I was concerned about the rain that was forecast for the following day.

The Finished Product

Here they are in all their glory, ready for the posts to be buried and the walls to be filled with soil.  If you're thinking to yourself that the stain we chose looks rather orange, so orange in fact that it might possibly look nothing like the swatch in the store, you would be right.  But there's almost nothing I dislike more than heading back to the store when I'm already into a project.  When I sent this photo via text to Chris he replied, "It will look better with time and plants."  Let's hope so.  If I continue to wince when I see them, I can always sand and restain the exterior of the beds.  Or maybe it will become one of those things that just gets better every time I see it.

Sources & Further Reading

If you're interested in building your own raised beds, there are some good tutorials here, here, and here.

For more on the principles behind growing in raised beds, see this article and this excellent book.