Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How to Build a Raised Garden Bed + Lessons Learned

Last summer marked the one year anniversary of K and I buying a house together. We moved into a home after residing in several apartments {separately and then together} in various neighborhoods. We are thrilled to have a tiny Chicago backyard to call our own, but we moved too late in the summer of 2014 to make any significant yard updates until this year. Our biggest do it yourself {DIY} project so far has been building and planting a raised bed vegetable garden. I'm excited to finally share our "how to" and lessons learned as we make plans for next year.

A few details to start:
  • Our garden bed is 12 feet long and 4.5 feet deep. 
  • The entire project took about 3 days {over two weekends}. We finished building and preparing the garden bed in one weekend in late April, and planted the garden the following weekend.
  • We purchased materials from Menards, for a total cost of approximately $375 {including wood, dirt, accessories, seeds, seed tags, and plants}. 

    We decided not to purchase a garden bed kit. Instead, we selected our own wood from Menards and purchased dirt from a few different stores.

    Materials list:
      • Wood -> Untreated cedar = four 2x6 12 foot planks; four 2x6 six foot planks; and six 4x4 2.5 foot posts. Note that we stacked two 2x6 six foot long boards on top of each other to create a 1-foot tall garden bed.
      • Dirt -> Sixty 40-pound bags of topsoil; 2 bags of peat moss; and 2 bags of organic manure compost.
      • Other materials -> Garden gloves; pitchfork; shovel; garden hoe; spades; 1 box of nails; mulch; rabbit garden fence; seeds; and seed tags.

            We cleared a spot in our yard for the raised garden bed that previously was covered in wood chips / mulch with an aging fire pit. We removed all of the wood chips and used the double digging method to prepare the ground. Double digging is a way to improve aeration in the soil and is beneficial to new garden beds. In brief, we dug down approximately one foot and mixed in 1 bag of compost and 1/3 bag of peet moss. It is a somewhat controversial digging technique, but we thought it was a good idea to work up the soil since the area hadn't been planted as a garden in many years, if ever. We flattened the ground gently to prepare for placing the garden bed.

            We didn't have any specific plans for how to build the actual structure; K came up with a plan as shown in the photo above, and it ended up working well. He added six 4x4 cedar posts, one and each corner and two in the middle, in order to anchor the garden bed in the ground. Note that in the photo above, the garden bed is upside down as it is still being nailed together.

            Flipping the garden bed to place it in the ground is definitely a two person job. In retrospect, we recommend using a rubber mallet instead of a hammer to avoid damaging the cedar. Once the bed is placed and flush with the ground, it's time to add the rest of your dirt.

            Our garden was full with sixty 40-pound pages of topsoil. This soil was added on top of the flat surface of topsoil that we prepared using the double digging method. We also mixed in one bag of manure compost and one bag of peet moss while filling in the garden bed. Keep in mind that a lot of extra soil was needed since we built a 1-foot high raised bed. You will need less soil if you build a shorter bed; another option is to build one only six inches tall.

            In the garden bed, we planted spinach, kale, snow peas, leeks, carrots, turnips, beets, and butternut squash. In planters on the deck, we also planted mini bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs.

            Lessons Learned 

            We had a great experience gardening for this first time together this year, but we definitely learned a few things that will make for a better planned garden in 2016:
            1. The lumber we purchased ended up being too long to bring home in the car, so we had to cut the 12 foot pieces in half and brace it when building the garden bed.
            2. Pay close attention to the planting guidelines on your seed packets, especially if you're planting kale. We planted a few vegetables too close together, and learned that kale is a very hearty plant. The kale ended up taking over and our spinach, leeks and carrot plants didn't reach maturity as a result. Our best plants in the garden bed were the kale, radishes, and snow peas. The cherry tomatoes and mini bell peppers grew very well on the deck garden.
            3. Add a fence if you want to keep critters at bay. We have a yard bunny that lives under our deck, so we knew it was important to add a fence before planting any seeds. We used a 2-foot tall "rabbit fence", purchased at Menards. The fence was also useful for snow peas to climb. The fence height was low enough that we were still able to plant and tend the garden.
            4. A smaller raised bed likely won't be able to contain growing squash plants. We planted two zucchini and two butternut squash plants, and they didn't survive one month. Next year we will stick to smaller vegetables and greens!
            5. Plan your garden year in early spring. Make sure to take advantage of multiple planting seasons. For example, we planted mesclun greens and snow peas in September for a fall harvest. Next year we will focus on planting a second crop earlier, in August.
            6. Lifting and moving sixty 40-pound bags of dirt is a very good workout!
            As part of our first garden experience, we also purchased a rat-friendly {aka off the ground} compost bin. We bought the Yimby Tumbler Composter and loved using it this summer. We started composting in May, and already had homemade compost dirt to add to the fall garden in November after harvesting our final plants. If you have a smaller yard and are looking for a composter, I highly recommend this one. We plan to continue composting through the winter months.

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            Do you garden? Are you ready for spring yet? :)

            1 comment:

            1. We still have lots and lots of snow, so I long to see gardens again. Raised gardens are easier to work on, as are raised green houses. Enjoy your garden.