Raised Garden Beds.
A very hot topic for gardeners and urban (or suburban!) homesteaders. They are being talked about from where you expect (gardening magazines) to even a year-long project in Cooking Light Magazine to newspapers – and pretty much all over the internet. It’s not a shocker why they are popular. It is a nearly instant garden, with minimal work at the basest form, no tilling, less weeding and you can garden earlier than if in ground. For example, the basics of garden beds is a good starter article.
Disclaimer: What works for us, may not work for you. I use materials you may not wish to use. And that is part of how raised beds can be genius – use what you have on hand, what you are comfortable with.
My first ones I built many years ago, when I lived on an Island, nicknamed “The Rock”. And that it was. A massive rock, covered with a wee bit of top soil. If you wanted to garden in most areas, you needed to build beds. I built my little garden there, before my oldest son was born. I think this photo is about 15 years old, when Ford was a bit over 2 years old. The beds were already weathering by this point. They were also pretty lopsided 😉
Something else I learned then was to build with what I had on hand. We used landscaping timbers I couldn’t afford then (I didn’t know any better). The beds were OK and held up, but were not deep because I couldn’t afford to build them high. So mostly I grew herbs, they loved the area.
When we lived in our last house it came with one large bed, ready to go. Only thing was it had been framed with wood – and the 4th “board” was the fence. Not what you should be using! By the time I decided to get back into gardening, the boards had rotted (It was in 2011 I had started poking around out there, we bought the house in 2004). After a lot of thought, I salvaged what I could, and put in plastic lawn dividers to keep it neat.
In 2013 we added onto the original bed with another bed, that I dug out of the ground. I made it into three sections with pound-in plastic lawn trim.
It worked for the small property we had – and was the only section of the yard that got any real sun. Our yard was great in hot weather, as it was so shaded. For gardening, not so much. One major issue we did have was how big the bed was. I had to keep “walk paths” in mind, so I could get through. Large beds may seem like a good idea, but you will need to remember that you have to walk in there. In this case, I was working with what came with the house, so it was OK.
When we moved to our current home last April I had finally a place with potential – enough land to work with (where we would have an actual yard still for the boys to play in), it is flat, well-drained and SUNNY. But it also sits on some really lousy soil. Go down an inch or two and it is nearly all Cascade Concrete. Rocks everywhere. Raised beds are a must. Our first summer was last year, and we only had time to transplant our blueberries and cane berries. No time to put in beds. Still, we did have a small garden at least! I had made sure my swimming pool beds came with us, and I had added more as well.
Kiddie Pools? Yes. Cheap. $9-12 each for the 4 feet across size. US made. They hold up well, 2 of the above ones are entering their 3rd year of use. A simple way to have a nearly instant bed. Drill drainage holes with a drill, throw in some rocks in the bottom, and fill with a blend of commercial garden soil and potting mix (to keep it light). They grow amazing carrots, beets and other items. With their curved walls, it also keeps slugs out. I even grew green beans in them. A tip: if you live in a neighborhood, ask if anyone has ones they don’t need. Its OK if they are on the ugly side and a year old…..better than going to the dump, no?
From mid-summer until now, I have worked at building beds – for as cheaply and efficiently as I can. Using recycled materials if I can. Yet, always thinking about long-term for the beds. I want them to last. As we worked on removing shrubs on the property and cleaning it up, I found many landscaping bricks. These are not cheap, so finding an amazing number of them set forth the design: Landscaping brick raised beds. These beds are partially raised, but are also tilled into the ground, with top soil and amendments worked in.
A raised bed can be great for quick crops, such as peas – once the crop is over by late spring, you can plant a second crop that runs into summer! In this bed I have made hoops with curved bamboo stakes – I got them on clearance last year for a tiny price. I will run hemp twine around them for the vines to grow up. The twine I can compost later.
Once I ran out of stones, we worked on other styles. The masonry brick runs about $1.09 each. They are quite heavy, but very functional on their sides. Instant deep bed.
The classic cinder block raised bed, the blocks are $1.19 to $2 each on average. As a bonus you can fill the openings with potting soil (do not use top soil in this part, it is too heavy) and plant flowers or strawberries.
Our house had come with a number of professionally built raised beds. In two corners of the yard they had put these tiny pie shaped ones. With ugly contractor grade trees. This one, in the back corner, we have put in a semi-dwarf fruit tree and the rhubarb I planted last year has popped back up for the year. You can always take those staid and proper suburban homes and use their landscaping to your benefit when it comes to gardening.
But in another example of upcycling, we did have to tear down one of the large pro built beds, that was against the house. We moved every landscaping brick (these were large ones, which can run $3-4 each), and also moved the soil in the bed. Waste not!
We had enough bricks to build two of these beds – this is the second one. The first layer is placed and then the landscaping bark in the area is brought back around it. I worked with what we had – and the bark mulch makes a great weed barrier, as well as having the raised beds look attractive – or better “finished”.
Our current home also came with a number of professionally built beds, that were landscaped. I removed many of the bushes/small trees, and replaced them with small fruit trees.
And as for upcycling: this was free. Yes, a bath tub. I am slowly disguising it with rocks and wood. It now has two currant bushes and strawberries in it. I put a layer of rocks in the bottom, and then a mix of soils to keep it light. On the top (not seen here) is a layer of mulch.
And one can build a non-traditional raised system in what is a “dead space”. One corner of our yard is a pile of rocks. I am guessing it is where they got tossed as they were dug up over the years. Now then, I have seen that we have endangered native lizards who live in these rocks – so I will not move the pile. But nothing says you can’t make it useful – and pretty. Using large pots I found at Home Depot (16″ across, for around $15 each, they sell bigger ones as well) I have built a raised garden of dwarf trees and cane berries. They are sheltered by the greenhouse, and as well by the fence (good for wind protection). If you choose to do something like this, make sure your plants have a layer of mulch on top to help with cold weather. As well, a layer of rocks at the bottom for draining.
As for sizes, I keep my beds to about 8 feet long and they vary from 3 feet to 6 feet across. You want to make sure you can reach across at least halfway, for ease in chores. Anything more than 6 feet wide will make it hard. Make sure to leave enough space between beds so you can walk between – and kneel comfortably.
For more ideas, Sunset Magazine has a good tutorial on different styles – from metal troughs and how to build wooden beds. And check out: