Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Building Raised Beds

Now that it's cool outside, my husband and I have started building raised beds in the front yard garden. I've hesitated about raised beds for a long time, but it's finally time to give it a shot.

I've never built raised beds before for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this is the first time I've actually owned the land I'm gardening on, so I didn't want to make the investment only to abandon them later. But even when we got our house, I wasn't sure if I wanted them. There's the expense, for one thing. The materials for the sides of the beds can get expensive, especially if you have a large garden. Usually people fill them with nice store-bought soil as well, and that can really add up.

I was also skeptical about some of the hype about raised beds. Most garden magazines, books, TV shows, etc. gush about how great they are. A lot of the advantages are things that aren't relevant to me anyway. They're said to have good drainage and warm up in the spring faster. Well, those are actually both bad things if you live in a hot, dry climate. In fact, Native Seeds/Search in Tucson, AZ grows their stuff in sunken beds. In the Southwest, you want your soil to stay cool and wet.

They're also supposed to be good if you have lousy soil, because you add a lot of store-bought soil. Except my soil isn't really that bad. Yes, I have Texas Hill Country soil that's full of rocks, but the soil that's between those rocks is actually quite fertile. I got a soil test that proved it. It's only low in nitrogen, which is a very common problem in many types of soils.

At the house we lived in before, I lined my garden beds with rocks as I dug them up. That looked nice, but the rocks didn't actually raise the bed much, or even contained the soil much. To do a serious raised bed, you have to line it with something like lumber or cinderblocks. Not as pretty as rocks, but more practical.

Sometimes I actually grew suspicious that raised beds were being overhyped by people who want to sell you stuff like lumber, soil, and fertilizer, convincing you that you won't have a good garden without it. I've been doing fine without them up to this point, right? Besides, I don't like the message that gardening has to be an expensive hobby.

On the other hand, I do like the look of raised beds with wooden frames. In May we went to Northern California for a family wedding, and while we were there we looked at the Luther Burbank historic garden. It was really inspirational. They had lots of nice raised beds made of redwood. The lady there said they had just replaced them, and the ones before lasted about 20 years.

Raised beds look nice. They keep people from walking on the beds, so the soil doesn't get compacted. I was getting sick of having to re-dig and re-shape my beds every time I wanted to replant them. I thought it would be nice to just be able to hit them with a hoe or rake a bit and then they're ready to go.

So I decided to go ahead and try them out. We're starting with the front garden, since it's more important that the one in front stays looking neat and tidy. So far I've only gotten positive comments from neighbors about it, but after reading so many horror stories about people getting in trouble for putting vegetable gardens in their front yards, I want mine to be as nice as possible just in case attitudes change.

The front garden consists of four 20'x4' beds, with 3' pathways between. It looked great when we first rented the tiller and tilled it up this spring. Then I shaped the beds out of the nice, fluffy soil. Since then the weeds and Bermuda grass have been encroaching, and what's worse is the neighbor's chickens dug into the sides of the beds a lot and eroded them away. Now that's it's fall, they were looking pretty bad

We decided to do one bed first and see how we like it. Daniel shopped around for lumber and compared prices. It turned out even with the best prices in town, it would cost about $100 for each bed. We decided to go with cedar, and he thought it would be best to do two 10'x4' frames that we put together in the garage and then set in place in the garden. We had some trouble deciding whether to use 6"x2" boards or the harder to come by and more expensive 8"x2" boards. I told him I think six inches would be deep enough (the more raised up the beds get, the more soil we'd have to get to fill them, and the faster they would dry out). We can always do eight inches for future beds if that doesn't turn out to be enough.

And here is the result of our (mostly my husband's) handiwork. The bed we did first was one that only had a few dead or mostly-dead tomato plants with it, and three Serrano pepper plants. I pulled out the tomato plants, and we just worked around the pepper plants.
It took four 12 ft. boards and two 8 ft. boards. The 8 ft. boards were sawed in half to make the end pieces, and the 12 ft. boards were cut down to 10'4" to make the sides. The left over ends of the boards were used to reinforce the corners. That was all screwed together in the garage and then moved to the garden. We then had to do some digging to get the frames level in the ground. We dug the soil from around the sides and piled it in the middle, then once everything was done I raked it smooth.

Here it is from another angle. Once they were level, Daniel hammered some 2"x2" stakes into each corner to keep it stable, and on the outside in the middle of each long board to keep them from bowing out.

The soil actually ended up looking really good. With the height the beds already had left over from the tilling this spring (not much was left but there was a little), plus having to dig around the beds to level them out, they ended up about half full of soil already. The one in the foreground here has higher soil than the other one, probably because of how the ground slopes. It seems to me that the six inch wide boards are fine. It's deep enough to pile lots of goodies like compost and mulch on top and hold it in, but shallow enough to let plants stick their roots down into the native soil to get more water and nutrients deeper down.

Last thing we did was layer flattened cardboard boxes we'd been saving up on the side closer to the driveway (the one where it soil doesn't come up as high). I decided we should dig out the Serrano peppers after all, so they wouldn't be in the way. We put one in the ground with the other peppers, and the other two in pots until I can decide what to do with them.

This is the side where the Bermuda grass is encroaching the worst. We dug a lot of it out, but a lot got left in. That stuff is horrible! I hope the cardboard will help smother some of it out. There's still 2 or 3 inches to go, so I'd like to fill it the rest of the way with compost or something similar. Then I can plant in that. The cardboard should smother weeds, but eventually break down and allow my plants to grow through it to the soil underneath.

I almost put cardboard on the other side, the side with the deeper soil, but now I'm tempted to plant it right away. It looks so inviting!

I plan to eventually lay landscape fabric in the paths between the beds, and cover that with cedar mulch. That should look really nice and also help control weeds. Then to finish it off, we need to build a fence around the whole thing to keep out the deer and chickens!

That is going to take a while, but I don't mind working on it a little at a time. Once raised bed down, three more to go.


  1. We ended up paying someone to build and install our raised beds. We are not very good at DIY, plus our garden is on a slope so they needed to be built up in such a way that it is level. It was an expensive initial cost, but the joy I've had from growing my vegetables in them has been worth it. :)

    One problem we have had is the neighbours' cats using them as a litter tray... We solved this with a motion sensor water sprayer.

    I love reading about how your seasons are a bit different to ours, by the way. It's so wet here at the moment, that I'm barely getting a chance to get out there now!

  2. My husband is really handy with wood (he's built cabinets and stuff), so making some raised bed frames is no big deal to him.

    There are a lot of cats around here too, but the neighbor's chickens that come over and dig up my garden and the deer that eat everything are worse. I've been putting wire cages around things to protect them from the critters, but eventually I'd like to have a more permanent fence around the whole thing.

    Then again, a motion sensor water sprayer sounds like it might work against all those pesky critters too!