For beginning gardeners and homeowners, this handbook shows you exactly how to plan, build, and plant a simple raised bed. Fully illustrated step-by-step instructions make it easy and ensure success! In just a weekend, using a few basic materials and minimal building skills, you can set up a complete garden bed adapted for vegetables, flowers, or herbs.
About the Author
Fern Marshall Bradley, author of Building Raised Beds and Saving Vegetable Seeds, is a long-time editor of books about organic gardening, organic farming, and sustainable living. Bradley lives and gardens in Cambridge, New York.
Read an Excerpt
The best time to set up a raised-bed garden is whenever you have the time to make a garden plan and put it in action (although you can't build a raised bed when the soil is frozen). The first step is to find the right site. Next, evaluate the soil there and decide whether to loosen it for planting or leave it intact and build a bed from the ground level up. Plan the layout of the bed or beds and what kind of frame you'll use, if any.
The final step is deciding whether your garden will be a solo do-it-yourself project, whether you'll enlist the help of family or friends, or whether you'll hire some help. There's some heavy lifting involved in the beginning phase of most raised-bed projects. But once your beds are built, tending them is generally light work for all the years that follow.
Investigating Sunlight and Soil
If you're planning to convert an existing vegetable garden to raised beds, then your choice of site is already made. But if you're starting from scratch, look for the sunniest spot you can find, because most vegetable crops grow best in bright sunshine. Lettuce and a few other crops can tolerate light shade, but the best site is one that receives at least 6 hours of direct sun per day, especially during the middle of the day.
Siting for Sun
Choose a sunny day to investigate your site. In the morning, use bricks or rocks to mark the corners of an imagined garden site; then return throughout the day to observe the sun and shade patterns. Make adjustments in the position of the bed if needed. Consider how the patterns will change over the course of the gardening season, too. In summer, the sun is high in the sky, so shadows are minimal. The sun is lower (closer to south) during spring and fall, so trees and buildings cast longer shadows that might extend across your garden site.
If your surroundings include lots of trees or buildings that block sun, your yard may offer only isolated pools of sunlight. If that's the case, you can set up a single raised bed in each pool. There's no rule that beds have to be grouped together. A group of beds is more convenient to tend, but sun trumps all when it comes to growing veggies and most flowering annuals — so set up beds wherever the sunlight is available. If some parts of your yard are always in shade, you can still grow many beautiful perennials there, including hostas, violas, pulmonarias, and astilbes. These will thrive in a shady raised bed.
What if you find that the sunniest site available is a driveway or patio? If you don't mind giving up a portion of the paved area, you can work with the site by setting up a sturdy frame and filling it with a growing mix such as compost mixed with peat and sand. Be aware that the surface underneath may degrade over time. If you decide to remove the bed in the future, you may find the paved surface is pitted or stained.
Checking the Soil
Soil seems solid; after all, when you walk across a lawn or along a woodland path, you're walking on soil, and it feels firm under your feet (unless it's been raining hard and the soil has turned to mud). When you take a closer look at soil, though, you'll find that it's not solid like wood or stone. Rather, soil is made up of myriad tiny particles; bits of rock worn down through centuries become soil.
Types of Soil
Technically speaking, there are three types of particles in soil, and they're defined by their size. The largest group of particles is called sand, the middle group is called silt, and the smallest group is called clay. The relative proportions of these particles affect the qualities of soil: how fast it dries out, how easy it is to dig, and how well it holds nutrients that plants need for growth. For example, sandy soil dries out faster than clay soil. A soil that has a fairly even balance of all three types of particles is called loamy soil. Loamy soil can be ideal for gardening, but it's possible to grow great plants in clay and sandy soil, too. Adding organic matter will help a lot to improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soil and to loosen up clay soil.
Once you've picked your site, dig a little hole to check out the soil. Scoop some soil into your hand and rub it between your fingers. A handful of soil can feel sandy, or it may feel like a loose powder (silt), or it may feel sticky (clay).
Organic Matter and Beneficial Organisms
More important than these mineral particles is the living component of soil. As you dig in the soil, you'll see some living things such as plant roots, earthworms, beetles, and centipedes. In addition, you'll see formerly living material — dead leaves, bits of plant stem, and old roots — which gardeners call organic matter.
There's also a universe of living organisms in the soil that you can't see: bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and more. These living creatures are the most critical aspect of soil for gardeners. They digest nutrients in organic matter and transform them into substances that plant roots can absorb; in other words, they turn organic matter into plant food. Your work as a gardener is to provide a hospitable haven for these beneficial microbes.
If you don't see any signs of life in your soil, that's a cause for concern, but it's a problem you can fix by adding organic matter in the form of compost and by mulching (covering) the soil surface with organic materials such as shredded leaves. There's more information about improving the organic matter content of soil later in this book (see Soil Amendments).
Like most living things, plant roots and soil-dwelling organisms need air (specifically oxygen) in order to live and grow. That's why soil drainage is so important. Some soils, especially those with lots of clay, don't drain well: water tends to stay trapped in the surface soil, filling all the pore spaces, which can suffocate plant roots.
To test drainage, dig a hole at your site about 1 foot deep and 1 foot wide. Use your garden hose to fill the hole with water. Let that water drain away completely; then turn on the hose and fill the hole again. Note the time or set a timer; then check the hole now and again until all the water has drained away (it will likely take hours). If the hole isn't empty within 8 hours, the soil drains poorly. Building a raised bed and filling it with purchased topsoil or compost is a great solution to poorly drained soil. The bed should be at least 6 inches deep to allow space for roots to grow and thrive above the heavy natural soil underneath the bed.
No soil is perfect, and while digging a hole for a drainage test, you may discover other problems, such as an abundance of rocks, very sandy soil, or a wild proliferation of persistent weed roots. The good news is that many soil problems can be lessened simply by adding organic matter. And if your site has soil with a difficult problem, you can choose simply to cover over the existing soil with cardboard or newspapers to block weed growth and build your raised garden from the ground level up.
Dig Down or Build Up?
One approach to starting raised beds involves loosening the soil and heaping it up into low mounds. The other basic bed-building method employs a solid frame constructed at ground level and filled with materials gathered off-site. Both approaches require some physical labor, and both have pros and cons. You'll make the decision whether to dig down or build up based on the soil characteristics of your site, the type of plants already growing there, and your budget.
If your soil doesn't have any major problems, it's a good idea to dig down; that way, you'll avoid the cost of buying topsoil or soil mix to fill the beds. But if your soil has a major problem, such as poor drainage or contamination by lead or other pollutants, it's best to build frames and fill them with topsoil or compost. Building beds at least 1 foot tall offers the advantage of allowing you to tend the beds without stooping over.
Dimensions and Layout
Before you start digging or building frames, draw a layout plan for your garden. How many beds will there be, and what dimensions?
Start by deciding on bed width. Get down on your knees and pretend you're reaching out with one arm to plant seeds or pick beans from a garden bed. How far can you reach without straining? For most people, the comfortable distance is 18 to 24 inches. Measure your own comfortable reach and multiply that distance by 2 — that's the maximum bed width for your garden. (If you're designing a bed along alongside a fence or wall, don't multiply by 2, because your access to the bed will be limited to just one side.) A bed that exceeds your reach will lead to the temptation to step onto the bed while you work, and that negates one of the primary goals of raised-bed gardening: maintaining loose, airy soil.
Bed length is a more personal choice than bed width. It may depend on the overall shape of your garden site. For a square site, a grid of four beds may work well. For a long and narrow site, consider lining up three beds in a single row. Take care not to make beds too long, or you'll end up frustrated by the repetitious walk around the end of the bed to get to the other side (more temptation to step onto the bed to shortcut across). If you're a beginning gardener, it's a good idea to start out with beds of a standard size, such as 4 feet × 8 feet.
Orientation to the Sun
In midsummer, when the sun is high overhead, there's very little shade in a vegetable garden. But in spring and late summer, the sun doesn't travel as high in the sky and tall garden crops can cast shade on the plants on their north side. Consider this when you're deciding how to orient your beds. Should the long dimension run north to south, or east to west? Both north-south beds and east-west beds can work well, as long as you're aware of which direction is north and plant accordingly to avoid shading crops, as shown below. Occasionally, creating shade in a vegetable garden has advantages. For example, if tall tomato plants create a lightly shaded spot, that can be a perfect place to plant a summer crop of lettuce, which benefits from some shade during peak summer heat.
As you map your layout, be generous with path width. Pathways between raised beds serve more than one purpose. They're your workstation — the place where you will stand, sit, or kneel while you tend your garden. They're the spot where you'll put your bucket of work tools and supplies, and your harvest basket of produce. And they'll be the highway and the parking spot for a wheelbarrow full of compost or transplants. Be sure your garden pathways are wide enough to accommodate all that activity. In most cases, 2 feet is the minimum comfortable width for pathways between raised beds.
Building Your Beds
With your garden plan prepared, it's time for the work-intensive stage of gardening in raised beds: building the beds themselves. If you're creating beds with native soil, that means digging or tilling. If you're building a framed bed, you'll need to buy materials, gather tools, and assemble the frames. There are some shortcuts you can take to save time and labor, but it's a good idea to set aside a full day or a weekend for a bed-building project.
Building raised beds with native soil is less costly than filling frames with purchased soil materials, but there's no doubt it requires more physical labor. It's important to clear the soil surface of weedy growth before you begin digging.
Removing Surface Growth
Before you dig, you may need to remove the surface vegetation, especially if the site is covered with lawn grass or weeds. Mark the outside perimeter of the overall garden, and then use a sharp spade to cut through the surface vegetation vertically to isolate a strip. When you've cut a strip the width of the garden, slide the blade of the spade horizontally underneath the sod at one end of the strip and slice through the roots. As you work, you can roll up the strip of sod or simply cut and lift squares, as shown on below.
Put the removed sod into a wheelbarrow and take it to your composting area; it will eventually break down into compost. (For more about making compost, see here.)
Assessing Soil Moisture
After you've removed surface vegetation and before you turn the soil, check soil moisture. If the soil is too dry or too wet, turning it will cause serious damage to the soil's natural structure — damage that is difficult to repair. If the soil is too dry, water it or wait for rain. If it's too wet, check it daily until it's dried out a bit. Test soil moisture by squeezing a handful of soil in your fist. If the soil sticks together in a muddy ball, it's too wet. If it feels dusty dry, it's too dry. If it forms a ball that crumbles apart into smaller pieces, it's just right.
Remove sod one square at a time, or roll up a strip. The strip may be heavy to move!
Turning the Soil
You can dig the bed by hand or turn the soil with a rotary tiller. There's no denying that hand-digging a garden bed is heavy labor, but you can make it less arduous by breaking up the job over time. If, for example, a garden is 30 square feet, and you allow five days, then you have to dig only 6 square feet per day — that's less than the surface area of a standard card table.
To dig an entire garden in a day, though, using a tiller may be the only realistic choice. If you don't own a tiller, it's easy to find one to rent. Ask at a local garden center or hardware store. You can also "rent" labor, perhaps from your kids or the neighbor's teenage children, to dig a bed by hand, or you can probably find someone locally who owns a tiller and will do custom tilling for hire. Or throw a gardening potluck: you provide all the food, and your guests bring along their own shovel, digging fork, or rake. Take turns digging and eating!
However you decide to approach the task of turning the soil, be moderate. Turning the soil is a necessary step for creating a raised bed, but it's not a soil-friendly process. Turning the soil disrupts the natural structure of the soil, ruining it (in the short term) as a habitat for the organisms, both macro and micro, that call the soil home. The more you pulverize the soil, the more soil life is destroyed. But once you've shaped the raised beds, there are steps you can take to encourage microbes and other beneficial organisms to recolonize the soil. And keep in mind that the digging/tilling process is a onetime evil. From here on, you should never again have to dramatically disrupt the soil in your raised beds.
Shaping the Beds
After you've worked the soil by tilling or digging, the next step is to shape the beds. First, gather the tools and equipment you'll need: your garden plan, a tape measure, stakes and string, a hammer, a garden rake, a shovel, a digging fork, and soil amendments. It's good to have a helper to assist with marking out the beds.
1. Following your garden plan, use your tape measure to determine the location of the four corners of each bed and hammer in a stake at each corner. Run string between the stakes.
2. Shape the beds by using your garden rake to pull soil out of the pathway areas onto the beds. You can rake the soil right up and over the strings. Move about a 2-inch depth of soil out of each pathway onto the beds. For unframed beds, it's best to limit bed height to about 4 inches; otherwise, the bed edges will slump and erode over time.
3. With your shovel, spread soil amendments such as compost, lime, and kelp meal over the surface of the beds. (See Soil Amendments for information on which amendments to use and in what quantities.) Caution: Many types of soil amendments are dusty. To protect your sinuses and lungs, wear a dust mask while working with soil amendments.
4. Use your digging fork to lightly mix the amendments into the top few inches of soil.
5. Back to the rake. Flip it over so the tines face up, and pull and push the rake over the surface of the bed to smooth and level the soil.
Excerpted from "Building Raised Beds"
Copyright © 2015 Fern Marshall Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Built-In Benefits of Raised Beds Sized Right for Success – Perfectly Designed for Super Soil – Ready to Plant Right from the Start – Easy to ExpandChapter One: Getting Started Investigating Sunlight and Soil – Dig Down or Build Up? – Dimensions and LayoutChapter Two: Building Your Beds Digging Down – Building Up – How to Build a Wood-Framed Raised Bed – How to Build a Frame on a Slope – Soil Amendments – PathwaysChapter Three: Planting and Tending Planting How-To – Watering – Mulching and Feeding – Dealing with Weeds, Pests, and DiseasesChapter Four: Accessorizing Your Bed Setting Up a Support System – Installing a Watering System – Sending Your Garden into Space – How to Build a Sturdy Vertical Trellis – Adding Artistic Touches Resources Metric Conversion Chart Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Building Raised Beds is a great book on how to make your gardening a little bit easier by putting them in raised beds. From easy to read charts on how to build your bed, where to put the raised bed to how to get the best soil and how to get the most out of watering without drowning the plants, this book has it all! I always like reading books like this that give you big tips on how to get the most out of your garden. The hint I loved the most was putting a milk jug that has holes and a cut of top in the ground to water the plants without overdoing it! Thank You Fern Marshall Bradley for giving me more ideas for my garden!! I received this book from the Publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.