How I build a raised bed

on Friday, April 16, 2010

If I'm gonna be providing veggies for more people, I'm gonna need more growing space! Plus, more raised beds equals less lawn to mow...and that's a good thing, right? Since our soil is such heavy clay, I've learned raised beds work wonders! So - here's how I do it.

First I gather a bunch of newspapers (the local recycling drop off, or sometimes the Periodicals dept at work, are both great places!). Toss 'em in a tub, and turn on the hose. I guarantee you, I don't care how still the air is when you start this project - as soon as you start working with newspapers outside, it WILL get windy! Wet papers don't blow around as much!

Start positioning your newspapers within the raised bed you've built. I've found 12'x4'x12" works great for me. A height of 12" seems to be plenty of space for most veggie plants roots (have you ever met a carrot more than a foot tall!?). A width of 4' makes it easy to reach in to the middle of the bed from either side. If your raised bed's going to be up against a wall or cliff or something, I'd recommend going no wider than 3'. Consider your arm length and how much stooping and reaching you want to do - this should help you decide the bed width. And the length - well, that depends on how much yard space you have, and how inconvenient you feel it is to walk AROUND the bed.

Connect the pieces of wood however you like. I just screw 'em together. I've never used brackets. Only one of my beds (which is three years old now) has had the screws on one corner break - which is really odd, and the edge of the bed's only pushed out maybe half an inch. No biggie...the soil's not pouring out all over the place.

You probably don't want to use pressure treated wood - that can have the chemicals used in the pressure treating process leach out into the soil, and then your plants are going to absorb those chemicals. That's a bad thing. You're going to eat those plants. How does arsenic sound to you?

Anyhow, back to the raised bed... Set the wooden frame in place. Get it as level as you can (it'll settle some over time), and start lining the bottom with damp newspapers. I've read "use layers about 6-9 pieces of paper thick" - I guarantee you, you're not going to have an easy time peeling the layers of paper to count them when they're wet. Don't bother. Just find a thickness that you're comfortable with, lift the edge of the frame, tuck them under the edge (I leave about an inch sticking out from under the edge - it'll break down within a couple weeks), and get to work. It's amazing how much newspaper you need for this job. You definitely want to make sure you overlap your clumps of paper - this kills off/composts the grass underneath, and usually stops any weeds from growing up through the paper layer before they're killed off.

BTW - if you have a good fist-sized (or slightly larger) rock lying around, and you're doing this yourself, it can be really handy to prop it under the edge of the bed where you're putting the paper so you don't have to keep lifting it. Move the rock around the edge of the bed as needed.

Here's the hard part. It takes quite a bit of soil/compost to fill a 12'x4'x12" bed!! I had put a bunch of the composted horse manure (three carts worth) into the bottom of this bed. Then I figured I wanted some "real soil" (not just composted manure), ran out to the store, bought five 40lb bags each of top soil and composted peat. That's 400 lbs!!! I dumped them all in this bed and it really only raised the height of the content a couple inches at most! I definitely suggest having some sort of delivery of topsoil, compost, bedding mix etc. There's plenty of online calculators to help you determine how much filler you'll need. You can do the math, and then use Eagle Creek Grower's listing of how much filler you'll need... Here's an calculator where you can enter the dimensions of your bed and it does the math!

That's just one cart load of compost in there...and trust me, my cart holds more than your average wheelbarrow!

At the time I was doing this, I was also dismantling my old compost bin (which was made from old pallets). I'd say the bin was about half full, and I added about half of that to this bed. It's not compact in any way. After this I added 400 lbs of top soil and peat, and then later I added three or four MORE cartloads of bedding mix I had delivered. Trust need a lot of filler!

It's expensive to set up a raised bed this size. You might find you can go with a considerably smaller bed. In a bed this size last year I had 32 pepper plants (each spaced about a foot apart) PLUS I'd guess about 30 leeks... Oh, and I had parsley and marigolds tucked in between the pepper plants!

When you have really good quality soil/bedding mix, and it's not all compacted, plus it's easily amended, I've found the plants are MUCH more productive and healthier. And that means you can actually overcrowd them a little. So it's quite possible a family of four could get away with cramming a LOT of different plant varieties in one bed this size and feed themselves all summer. I've tried growing the same types of plants in my in-ground bed, and they've been no where near as productive as those I've grown in raised beds...

If you think about it, this is the same as three beds if you're using the Square Foot Gardening technique, and the beds using that method of gardening are highly productive.

Happy gardening!


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