Build a Raised Garden Bed

December 18, 2012 by | 1 Comment

I highly recommend storing plenty of food to sustain your family through an emergency, but that’s only part of the solution. You’ll get sick of eating canned or freeze-dried foods day in and day out, and unless George Soros is your favorite uncle, you probably can’t afford to stock away as much as you’d like to. Never mind the massive amount of storage space you’ll need; my wife would love that space back for her maternity clothes that I’ve relegated to the attic. However, a basic garden makes it easy to produce a virtually endless (and renewable) supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, and nuts in a fairly small space; often more than enough to supplement a small families food needs. Plus, the scraps can be used to produce compost or bio-fuel, or even to feed certain livestock like rabbits or guinea pigs.

Raised garden beds, also called garden boxes, are great for growing small, easily managed gardens. The frame walls help to keep weeds out, prevent soil compaction, provide excellent drainage, serve as a barrier to certain pests such as slugs and snails, and even keep your valuable garden soil from being eroded during heavy rains. In many regions, you may be able to plant earlier in the season because the soil is warmer and better drained when it is above ground level. You’ll want to build your raised garden bed at most, about 4′ wide, with enough space on either side to work on it without stepping in the soil, as this compacts it, making it difficult for roots to penetrate or water to properly drain. Also, place it in a location where it gets six to eight hours of direct sunlight, and if possible, orient it north to south lengthwise for optimal growing conditions.

Before I built the raised garden bed, I first had tried just clearing the grass and weeds with a shovel. Unless you have super human strength and a lot of time, I don’t advise this for a large garden. Especially during a hot Florida summer while being devoured by mosquitoes the size of humming birds. I quickly gave up on that idea and rented a tiller—much smarter. It got the job done, but I still had two problems; my soil was crap so my crops didn’t grow, and the grass and weeds quickly grew back into the garden. Before long, it was overgrown again. The raised bed helps keep the weeds out, but I still had to remove the initial grass and weeds inside the frame. Rather than renting a tiller for a second time, I simply filled the frame with a 3-4″ thick bed of paper strips from our paper shredder…

Shredded Paper

then proceeded to burn them. Come on baby, light my fire! It burned hot and long enough to destroy the grass and weeds, but didn’t even leave a mark on the pressure-treated lumber I built the frame from. Do not use any accelerants because they will contaminate the soil; the paper will burn just fine on its own.

Fired Up

At this point, I simply poured in a combination of composted manure and high quality soil, which I then leveled out with a rake. I didn’t line the bottom with anything (newspaper, cardboard, or weed barrier) because the fire should have killed any existing vegetation and seeds, and I want the root system of my crops to be able to go deeper than the 6 inches that the bed provides. Any weeds that happen to remain should have a hard time pushing their way up through 6 inches of soil—or so I’m told. Time will tell.

I’m not above using slave labor; it seemed to work out pretty well in building the Egyptian pyramids. Anything Papa does, my little buddy wants to be right there working by my side, so I’ll take his help even if it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Plus, he’s always fun to have around.

Slave Labor

Ideally, you should use the following proportions for your soil mixture:

  • 60 percent topsoil
  • 30 percent compost
  • 10 percent soilless growing mix that contains peat moss, perlite and/or vermiculite

All together, my 4′ x 8′ raised garden bed required 16 cubic feet of soil. I was never very good at math, but calculating volume is pretty straightforward; length x width x height, but I still couldn’t seem to get it right. It turns out I missed a step in converting to cubic feet. My math teacher would not be surprised. I won’t bore you with the details; instead, just use this handy online soil calculator.

I then planted a couple of potted plants (tomatoes and cilantro so far) because who doesn’t love a little instant gratification? Then I planted several different types of vegetable and herb seeds. Here in Florida, I can get away with planting pretty much anything, anytime of the year, but depending on where you live, you may need to wait for the warmer seasons. Your seed packages will usually tell you the ideal time to plant-based on your location.

Raised Garden Bed

Finally, I added some earthworms (you can get them at any bait shop, or even Walmart) because they tunnel through the soil, keeping it loose to help the roots grow and improve drainage. I tossed in 40 of them.

I spent a few dollars each for three 8′ x 6″ x 2″ pressure treated boards; one of which I cut into 2–4′ long sections, used 12–1½” drywall screws to hold it all together, about $40 on compost and soil, at most, $10 on plants and seeds, and $7 on worms, so the project was less than $70, and I’ll more than make my money back in one or two growing seasons.

I’ll probably pour some sand (perhaps playground sand, which plants can’t grow in) around the edges to help keep weeds well away from the frame, and eventually, build an irrigation system. When I get a chance to do that, I’ll post a step by step tutorial along with a downloadable PDF blueprint. I estimate an irrigation system for a garden this size shouldn’t cost more than $50 between the PVC pipes, couplings, sprinkler heads, and PVC cement.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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