Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Building Raised Garden Beds

These days many people are getting back into the art of growing some of their own food. This could be anything from a few herb plants in your window box, a couple tomato plants on your stoop, some rows of greens, cucumbers and a small raspberry patch, or full on homesteading where you grow most of what you consume. Whatever level of gardening you chose to take on, it is important to make sure that you are raising plants in healthy, uncontaminated soil. For those of us living in urban environments that can be a challenge.
We have an area about 5 feet by 30 feet in which we can grow food in our yard, which feels like an incredible luxury, and a great opportunity to grow as much food as possible.  I spent many years growing food and flowers in tight spaces and pots both in Boston and Brooklyn which was wonderful as well. You can also yield a good amount of food from just one or two beds if that is all you have room for.

For the past few years, I have been gardening in mounded beds on one side of our yard (see photo above). We dug up all the grass and added some lime, and a few bags of organic soil, compost and manure we bought at a garden center. This was a fairly quick inexpensive way to build our garden, but by mid summer the grass and weeds would be climbing up the vegetable beds and starting to strangle our plants.  This year we took the leap and built raised beds with a wood frame. Raised beds can have many advantages for the backyard and urban gardener. The first advantage is that you can control the quality of the soil you grow your food in making sure it is not contaminated with lead or other harmful toxins, and that it is rich in nutrients for growing food. Raised beds also allow you to create a clear boundary for plants to grow in, making weeding easier and keeping children from trampling them. Raised beds also allow you to raise plants closer together and maximize your growing space and the yield from your garden.
This year, we horded away a little bit of our tax rebate money to build some raised garden beds. We did this project in one day. It was a lot of work for one day, but well worth the effort. One of our neighbors watched one of our kids for a few hours, which was a considerable help! You can find raised beds for sale online made out of all kinds of materials. We chose to make ours out of wood, and we used fir (pine would rot too fast, and cedar was way to expensive). We went to a local lumber yard (West Haven Lumber for you local folks). We built 6 raised beds 5' x 3', for a cost of $23 each. this is considerably less than if you buy a kit. We used 2'x12' boards that were 8' long. We only had to make one cut in each board so that we ended up with a 3' section and a 5' section. We purchased cedar railing posts which were 2" square by 3' we cut those in half to use for the corners. the 18" length allowed 12inches to attach the corners of the boxes, and then 6" to stick out the bottoms and sink into the ground to stabilize the beds.
I didn't get a good side view picture, but this corner piece extends 6" below the frame and is set into the ground to stabilize the bed.

To build one bed:
2 - 2"x12"x8' boards of fir or cedar
2 - 3' long cedar 2'square railing posts
electric drill
  1. Cut boards into a 3' and a 5' length
  2. Cut post in half so you have two 18' length
  3. Screw boards into the cedar posts to make a rectangle. The three foot lengths should go flat across the front of the box. The posts should stick out from bottom of the bed by 6 inches.
To install beds:
there are various ways to do this, and you can google it to read about them. you can cover the existing ground with newspaper or wire mesh or other things to inhibit weed growth, create a barrier from toxins with landscaping material or wire mesh to keep moles out. we were covering existing garden beds so just built right on top.

Dig down 6 inches in each corner to set the cedar posts into the ground and secure the bed. use a level to level out each bed before filling in the holes for the posts and adding soil to the bed.

Filling the beds:
If you buy a large amount of soil it is sold by the cubic yard. In other words, 1 yard of soil is 3'x3'x3'. to fill a 1'x3'x5' raised bed you would use slightly more than half of a cubic yard. multiply it out depending on how many beds you have. The soil/compost mix i got cost $28 a cubic yard. This price and quality can vary widely, so look around.

You can now buy organic soil, compost and manure at many garden stores. Contact your State Cooperative Extension Services through the department of agriculture or an Organic farming organization in your state for resources on soil testing and resources for quality, safe soil and compost.
We needed a lot of soil for this project, so I called a local (New Haven area) nursery that I knew was involved in a lot of our local CT NOFA  (Northeast Organic Farming Association) organic land care workshops; Natureworks in Northford. They recommended a place in Milford called: Greencycle Grillo. I have to admit that I did not investigate this soil company beyond this recommendation, so  feel free to ask questions of your own. The next day they delivered a pile of dirt at our house. We  also added some to the back of our yard where there is concrete poured under the topsoil, so nothing was growing there. We ordered a little bit too much dirt, so we were shoveling soil from noon till after dark, around 8:30pm, exciting and exhausting! If you are just getting dirt for a few garden beds, it should be more manageable. 

Making your own compost: It is easy to start a compost pile if you have a small yard. I'll post about it soon, but search Google for some tips on how to do it. You don't need to buy a fancy composter, a few wood pallets screwed together to define the pile or piles can work well. This compost won't be ready for the start of this season, but you can transform most of your kitchen scraps into nutrient rich soil for your fall garden.  This is a compost Bin at the Barnard School for Environmental Science in New Haven take during last year's garden building party.
Info on soil testing:
There are free or low cost places to get your soil tested in every state at your State Cooperative Extension Services Office run through the Department of Agriculture.  It is important to ask that your soil be tested for lead or other toxins in addition to their standard soil testing. There are certain crops you can grow safely in soil with lead, and you can sometimes adjust the soil acidity to keep other crops from absorbing the lead. You can do some searches on line to find info and articles about this. If the idea of growing anything in soil contaminated with lead bothers you, you might want to consider building a raised bed and filling it with soil that you know is safe.

In the New Haven Area Contact the CT Agricultural Experiment Station at 123 Huntington St. Phone: (203) 974-8521.

Local Garden Event:
Seedling Sale and Farm Festival at Common Ground High School, Saturday May 22, 10:00-3:00 seedlings $1-4. click here for more info. 

Other great local resources for growing your own food:

CT Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA) - gardening resources and workshops
New Haven Land Trust - community gardens
Master Gardeners program - gardening workshops and assistance

Are you growing food near your home? If so, what are you growing and where? 
Leave any comments below.


  1. Nice! We're in San Francisco and just put in a single 8'x4' raised bed in our backyard, complete with gopher proofing.

    What a fun project and we're looking forward to the output.

  2. How fabulous! I am hoping our neglecting the gopher proofing wasn't a mistake! what are you growing? also, can you tell me if you get this response to your comment? I can't figure out how to contact you directly. hope the garden keeps on blooming! I envy you on the west coast with your lemon and avocado trees, I don't think I would ever leave my yard if I lived out there! thanks for reading! Tagan

  3. Hi Tagan, any tips for squirrel-proofing?

  4. Just built a 5 x 3 but I left out the corner posts and nailed boards together at the end.

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