|Photo 1: The proposed area for the new bed.
For those who don't know, wide rows are similar to traditional row gardening, BUT instead of being just a few inches wide at the top, they are a few feet wide. This increases the root space the plants in the row have and allows you to grow more vegetable plants in a smaller square footage overall. Having to water, amend, fertilize, mulch, and weed a smaller space is always great. What's also great is if don't have anything to build "walls" out of at the time, but still want to garden more efficiently than in traditional thin rows, you can. Another plus of wide rows is if you're not sure exactly where you want your beds to be at the moment, you can just take a shovel and change the configuration until you're happy with it.
|Photo 2: The same area with plants transplanted,
soil shoveled up into a long pile, and the beginning
of the "box" being assembled.
Another drawback to wide rows is, if you put rebar stakes in along the sides to hold pvc pipe frames for row cover or shade cloth, you'll likely have to remove the stakes each time you shovel up the sides, then install them again. Ugh.
|Photo 3: Same bed with box completed, soil amended
with compost, and partially raked smooth.
You can use plain old kiln dried yellow pine, the usual wood used for building frames of houses. Be sure it's kiln dried - non-kiln-dried is sprayed with a fungicide while it's drying. And also don't get "Yella Wood" - that's treated. You want just plain old SPF, Soft Pine Fir. It's cheap. And even though it's untreated, it lasts three or four years before the corners start to rot out. When that happens, you can just scab on some new corners (cut 2' long pieces of boards and nail/screw them together on the outside of each corner, in effect making new corners). Or you could use some of those metal corner braces lumber stores sell (ask where the joist hangers are and look on that aisle). Or, my personal fave, start collecting antique strap hinges used on barn doors and gates. Those are a foot or more long and look really cool on the corners.
You can also use cedar boards. I'm not sure how much longer they'd last, but I'd think twice as long as yellow pine. The drawback there is they are pricey.
You can save some of that money if you scrounge around for the materials. For low-cost or free lumber, check Craigslist, find pallets to break apart, or haunt local building sites and ask - just be careful to avoid treated wood. If your land is really rocky, use those rocks to your advantage and do slip-form sides or formal laid stone walls. I've used cedar posts for walls, too ~ currently along my asparagus patch. The ones that aren't straight enough for fence posts look great once laid down carefully and with some thought to where the curves are.
|Photo 4: First bed on right completed. Second bed with soil
shoveled up into a pile, "box" frame assembled, and
being moved into place 22 inches from first bed before
raking the soil down smooth.
Cinder blocks work nicely, too. If you don't like the industrial look of them, paint them using a non-toxic paint. Black or brown blends in to the landscape nicely. You can even plant compact flowers and herbs like pansies and chives in the holes. (2015 Update: I've been reading lately that they are now using fly ash in the manufacture of cinder blocks. Not sure that'd be good next to your food. So maybe, if you have older cinder blocks, they'd be okay, but I'd be leery of using new ones. Not sure if painting would help the matter - probably for a while, but eventually I'd think the paint would wear off.)
Just make sure whatever you use isn't treated with something noxious. Old lumber that's painted could have lead in the paint and I'd think that surely would come off in the soil. The chemicals in treated lumber definitely do leach into your soil. This includes railroad ties. If the ties are old, they may be weathered to the point that not much of the creosote is left to leach, but I'd bet there's still enough left in there to do some harm. Plus, from what I understand, railroad companies regularly spray their right-of-ways (including those ties I'd bet) with brush killer and that can't be good. I've used them before, old ones that were weathered and grey, but after reading up on them, I got rid of them.
|Photo 5: How to join two pieces of wood
in the middle of a side.
So the decision was obvious. And long overdue.
I found some wood in one of the barns some time back. Some of it might be good for building projects like the lean-to greenhouse I want on the side of the garden shed, but most of it really isn't. Some is starting to rot from having been laying on the ground for a while, some has got deep chew marks on it from some varmint or horse, and some is off-sized. But it's all still got some strength left in it, plenty enough strength for raised beds.
|Photo 6: Installing rebar stakes for pvc row cover frame.
Of course I can't plant everything I want to just yet since I need the wide rows empty so I can reconfigure them into the raised beds. I'll have to forego planting as many onions as I want since I don't have that much space in the completed raised beds, and I skipped garlic this year for the same reason. But it'll be worth it. So very worth it.
And now, on with the tutorial...
How To Build Raised Beds From Existing Soil:
For a 4'x8' bed using wood boards, you will need: (Note: I'm calculating plain old yellow pine here. Cedar would be better, lasting many years longer, but will be more expensive.)
- 2"x6" boards: three 8' boards (two left whole as 8' boards and one cut in half so you have two 4' boards).................................................................................................. $20 or so if you buy them
- At least 12 nails: "common" or "box" nails, at least 3" long ....................... $3 or less
- compost: 2 2/3 cubic feet, or two BYO bags at the Natural Gardener.......$7
- Total for bed only................................................................................... $30 ($10 if you scrounge the boards)
For row cover/shade cloth frame: (Note: My beds are 12' long, so the pictures show 8 rebar stakes and 4 pvc pipe ribs.)
- Six 3/8" thick rebar stakes, 18 inches long ............................................. $10
- Three 10' lengths of 1/2" schedule 40 pvc pipe ...................................... $10
- Total ..................................................................................................... $20
- measuring tape
- pencil or pen for marking boards
- saw: a circular saw is much easier, but even a hand saw would work, OR ask the lumberyard to cut one of the 8' boards in half. They'll usually do one cut for free.
|Photo 7: Pair of stakes at front corners, directly across
from each other, that together will hold one
piece of pvc pipe for the row cover frame.
Do this in an area wider than the bed you want to build. You'll be shoveling some of that soil from the walkways around the bed into the bed itself to fill it. How much farther out you loosen will really depend on how tall your finished beds will be. If your beds will only be six inches tall, you won't need that much extra soil to fill them, so won't need to go too far out to get enough. Loosening an area three feet out and just a couple inches deep should give you plenty of extra soil to fill a six inch deep bed, and maybe even an eight inch deep one, especially if you add a lot of compost.
Digging shallowly farther out is better than digging deeper closer in. If you dig deeper down, but only a foot or so out from the bed, you'll have a big trench around it that would hold water when it rains, won't look all that great, and would be a bear to work in and around.
|Photo 8: Installing pvc pipe frame onto rebar stakes.
In Photo 1, you see the area I chose for the next bed in my garden. Luckily the soil was already fairly loosened since I've been working it and amending it for a few years so it was easy digging. Unfortunately, there is a wide row with collards in it where the walkway should be. I had to transplant them into a finished bed and move all the soil in that row over a couple feet.
|Photo 9: First rib of frame completed.
3. Cut the boards, lay them out on edge to form a box and nail them together around the pile of soil (see Photos 2, 3 and 4 again).
If the boards you're using are long enough to span the entire length of the sides, that's great. But if they're not, you can still use them. In Photo 5, I show how to do this. Simply set your circular saw's base to a 45 degree angle and cut the ends of the boards to match each other, then nail them together at an angle. This is kind of tricky as you have to nail the nails angled so that the nail goes through one and into the other, but it's not that hard. You can do it! If your boards are one inch thick instead of two like mine, screwing them together may be easier. Be sure to flatten any portion of the nails or screws that sticks out into the soil so you don't injure yourself on them later if you dig in that area. Then install rebar stakes on the outside of the bed on either side of the joint to keep it from bowing out. The weight of the soil in the bed, once raked down, will push out against the joint and keep it from bowing in.
4. Rake the soil pile down level. Add compost, mix it in well, and rake it down smooth again, as in Photo 3. An inch of compost is good, but more is better.
|Photo 10: All ribs of frame installed.
5. Install rebar stakes at all four corners (Photos 6 and 7). Just pound them in with a hammer. 3/8" thick 18" long rebar stakes are about about a buck fifty each at Lowe's. Ones 18" long will go at least nine inches into the soil below the box and still have three or so inches sticking up above the box for the pvc to easily slip over. I used some 18" long ones since I had them already, but when I bought more I got 24" long ones since they were only twenty or so cents more, but would go farther into the soil, making them even more sturdy.
If your box is bigger than 4' x 4', you should put some stakes along the sides as well. My beds here are twelve feet long, so I installed them every four feet. If you want to install them closer together, that's great ~ the closer they are, the more ribs of your frame you will have, and the stronger the overall system will be once you cover it with the row cover.
6. Install the pvc pipe by simply slipping it over the rebar stakes, as in Photos 8, 9 and 10. I used 1/2-inch pvc, ten feet long. This gave me 4' tall frames, perfect for covering even the tallest broccoli plants and most snow/snap/shelling peas even when on a pea fence.
|Photo 11: A completed bed with row cover installed
and clipped into place.
You may also be able to see the big binder clips along the sides of the covered beds in Photo 11. You can get them from an office supply store and they're fairly cheap. Drawbacks are they aren't as strong as other clips and they rust, but if you have a lot of beds to cover like me, they're a more economical alternative at least along the sides. So far, they've held in 15 mph winds (Update: The cover in these pictures held up in the wind storm we had where a 65mph gust was clocked in Burnet.). I don't think they'd work at the corners since they'd have to clamp over multiple layers of the row cover, but along the sides where they just have to clamp over one layer, they work great.
I've also had people tell me they used three-inch sections of pvc pipe, the same size as the ribs, that they've cut along one side lengthwise. They just open the cut side enough to slip it over the pvc pipe rib, sandwiching the row cover in between. I haven't tried this yet, but plan to, and I hope it works as that would be OH so cheap.
So there you have it! A raised bed, completed, and ready to be planted. Joy!