A Beginner’s Guide to Building Raised Beds for a Home Garden

Months of ridicule for my refusal to eat even greenhouse grown summer vegetables, all boil down to this moment. I drop to my knees and the fluffy, dark brown earth welcomes their impact.

raised garden bed

Bent over like a thirsty shrub, the sun’s heat injects my bones with heavy lethargy. My hands look like those of an 80-year-old man, rough as sandpaper and caked with soil like a freshly rooted potato. As I push back the mat of hair on my face with a dirt covered glove, it’s hard to believe I’ve been waiting for this all year.

Months of ridicule for my refusal to eat even greenhouse grown summer vegetables all boil down to this moment. I drop to my knees and the fluffy, dark-brown earth welcomes their impact. I lean over and inhale deeply, remembering why I’m voluntarily covered in dirt with an achy back — for the spring’s first deep breath of what just might be the greatest aroma on earth — soil.

The amount of food a small garden can produce is surprising. Indeed, building healthy soil takes years. But don’t be intimidated by your lawn or a patch of dirt. Everyone is born with a green thumb. We have become so disconnected from our food that the very thought of producing it ourselves creates a tidal wave of anxiety about formulas, rules and insufficient expertise. Raised beds are a great way to grow vegetables where there is poor soil quality, bad drainage or limited space. They’re a great way to learn how to garden and can grow so much food you will be forced to take up canning!

Materials:
-Three 8-foot long, 4- by 4-inch untreated cedar planks, cut in half to make six pieces
-At least six pieces of 8-inch-long 2- by 4-inch untreated cedar (this number depends on the height of your beds. Taller beds will need more 2-by-4s)
-organic compost, peat moss or soil amendment
-top soil
-pearlite or sand
-gardening shovel
-spade shovel
-coarse stones or mesh wire
-landscaping fabric
-hand saw or circular saw
-galvanized steel nails or screws
-power drill or hammer
-post digger
-rake
-tape measure
-level

Instructions:

Decide what you want to plant. Different plants require different soil depth and drainage. For example, tomatoes have particularly large root structures and need deeper beds while lettuce and radishes requires much less. Your bed will need a minimum of 12 inches of soil to plant vegetables. Don’t grow anything you won’t eat. Overwhelmed and confused by the overload of advice I received from consulting too many gardeners, I planted what they told me to and ended up with too many string beans. While an ice-cold string bean, garlic and tomato salad really floats my boat during the summer, by the second harvest I was so sick of beans, despite how easily they grow.

Map out your yard. Find a spot that gets ample sunlight throughout the day. Ideally you want at least 3 inches between beds, so you have enough room to walk and maneuver a wheelbarrow. If you have tiny arms like me don’t build your beds any wider than 4 feet so you can reach the middle without having to schlep a ladder around the garden.

You can build your beds anywhere. Mark the outer dimensions of your bed with twine and remove any existing vegetation. Don’t be fooled by expensive drain tile. You don’t really need it. Once any existing vegetation is removed, simply till the existing soil by hand to fluff it up to promote good drainage. Poor drainage can cause fungal diseases and water-logged roots. Skip this step if you’re building on concrete.

Construct your beds. Don’t be intimidated by the carpentry. Every time I swing a hammer I hit everything but the nail. If I can successfully build a raised bed so can you! Be sure to use untreated lumber so dangerous chemicals like creosote, pentachlorophenol and chromated copper arsenate don’t leech into your soil. Galvanized nails or screws will prevent rusting. Lower beds can also be built using concrete cinder blocks or bricks. Cut the wood to your desired length. A good size to start with is 4- by 8-foot beds.

Dig 1-inch holes at the corners with the post-digger and insert the 4- by 4-inch beams into each hole for support. Use a level to make sure they are straight and an equal distant apart. Stack the 2-by-4 beams vertically to build the walls, screwing or nailing each beam into the corner support beams. Use two screws or nails per board. Work your way up to reach your desired height. Install vertical support beams halfway through the longer board walls for beds longer than 4 feet to prevent the wood from buckling. If you are building on concrete, simply assemble the wood on top of the ground. Line the bottom of your bed with either coarse stones or a layer of wire mesh to promote drainage.

Fill ‘er up! Now the fun part- shoveling! The trick to getting this difficult job done quickly is recruiting neighbors with the promise of fresh veggies all summer. Every gardener or farmer has his or her own secret recipe for healthy soil. I got mine from the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s gardening advice site featured below. Mix one part of compost, peat moss, or soil amendment to one part sand or pearlite (for drainage) to two parts topsoil. Horticultural expert Bernadette Martin of LI Greenmarket recommends using Bumper Crop, a certified organic soil amendment with worm castings, kelp and dehydrated chicken poo if you don’t have access to your own compost. Hamptons Estate Compost made by Long Island Compost is another great compost you’ll find at most garden centers across the island. I like to mix the sand into the topsoil and then layer the compost after every foot or so of topsoil. You’ll need a rake to spread it evenly and remove any large rocks or branches.

Time to plant! I’ve met many a farmer whose favorite part of cultivation is still gardening. The hypnosis of gardening’s monotonous tasks is enchanting and relaxing. Be sure to wet your soil before planting so that it is moist, but not saturated. Busy bees who don’t have the time or patience for weeding can lay landscape cloth over the soil before planting to prevent weeds. Plant your mature seedlings right into your beautiful bed. Teddy Bolkas of Thera Farms recommends adding a handful of kelp, crushed crustacean shells and lime to each hole before inserting the seedling. They act as natural fertilizers and balance the pH of your soil.

Install irrigation (optional). Gardeners who want to save even more time can pick up an inexpensive drip irrigation system at most local hardware stores. You can hook it up right to your hose with a timer. Not only does the water go directly to the root of the plant, but it also saves time and ensures watering even when you are away from home. Once your garden is thriving I guarantee you won’t want to spend any time away from it.

Maintain and Harvest. Weeding is easy since the space is so confined. Be sure to water frequently and enjoy your homegrown, fresh veggies.

Good Resources:
http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/vegetables/raisedbeds.pdf – Cornell Cooperative Extension
http://licompost.com/products.htm – Long Island Compost Website
http://www.coastofmaine.com – Bumper Crop Website with Locator
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/files/2010/10/E-560_raised_bed_garden.pdf – “Building A Raised Bed Garden,” Agri Life Extension.
http://thefoodproject.org/sites/default/files/DIY-bag-manual-2012.pdf – “The Food Project’s Do-It-Yourself Raised Bed Building Manual.”
http://eartheasy.com/raised-beds-soil-depth-requirements.html – Soil Depth Requirements

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Cristina Cosentino is a food journalist with background in Italian studies, dedicated to sustainable agriculture, food policy and Italian gastronomy.