Raised Vegetable Bed

The Part-time Gardener #5: A real life tale of building raised vegetable beds

This is a detailed account of our first attempt at building a raised vegetable bed.  Though we actually built two beds, this guide refers to only the larger bed measuring L 8.5′ W  2.16′  H 1.38′.

  • Materials and Costs – $123.65
    We had all materials already on hand, unless indicated by a price. Excludes taxes:

    • 8 full 2″ x 6″ x 8′ pieces of untreated lumber – $30.40
      • Prices vary at Home Depot. Our local cost was $3.80 each.
    • 12 8″ x 8″ x 6″ tan brown planter wall blocks – $35.28
    • Vegetable Mix – $25
    • Compost
    • Newspaper or cardboard
    • Wheelbarrow or other transport method
    • Buckets
    • Large shovel(s) – $32.97
      • I recommend the Ames 24.5″ D-Handle Aluminum Scoop at Home Depot
  • Time Needed:  Approximately 5-7 hours
    • Accounts for gathering materials, assembling beds and transporting soil!

STEP 1: DECIDE WHAT AND HOW MUCH TO GROW

In my ideal world, I have a vegetable and fruit bonanza in my backyard, with enough produce to feed my family. In reality, though, I know I don’t want dedicate the time necessary for that.  I felt I could handle 1-2 more beds similar in size to the one we already had.

I learned the #1 rule for edible gardening is to grow what you’ll actually eat.  In the past, I grew a lot of eggplants because it was the season for them even though I don’t particularly like them so much. It wasn’t too thrilling when it came time to harvest. However I love tomatoes and I want to try pickling cucumbers, so for these beds, I decided to focus on tomatoes and cukes.

STEP 2: CHOOSE THE APPROPRIATE AREA AND BED SIZE

  • Some considerations include:
    • Previous use of the site: What was in the area before? This could affect what’s in the soil.
    • Soil: A soil test of the area is usually recommended. For more details, see The Part-time Gardener #2 and #3.
    • Sun exposure: Is the area exposed to the necessary amount of sunlight?
    • Space: How much space is needed for what you need to grow? How much space can you afford to allocate?
    • Water: Do you have access to water from the bed location?
    • Level ground: Level ground is easier to manage than sloping.

I selected the sunniest part of our yard, since tomatoes require a ton of sun (16+ hours/day).   As for the raised bed itself, tomatoes have deep roots so they need to have at least three feet of soil for proper growth. In this case, I intend for the roots to also extend into the soil below the beds.  I felt beds about 2′ high would be sufficient.

STEP 3: PREP THE AREA

This area was a previous mess of natives and other random plants, so I either trimmed them or moved them to other areas of the yard. Next, I tilled the soil where the beds would be, which makes it easier for roots to penetrate. Since our soil test revealed that I have relatively high levels of lead, I also amended the soil with compost from my own bin (see The Part Time Gardener #4).  I cleared away debris such as rocks and raked the ground so it was even.

STEP 4: BUILD IT!

Luckily the pieces of lumber as is were the right size for the length of the beds. With the help of a partner, I sawed the lumber for the width of the beds to approximately 19″. We stacked the blocks on top of each other – 3 to each corner – and inserted the lumber into the grooves.

20170328_093902

This was just a trial run of the set up. You can see how easily the wood pieces fit into the blocks.  Note the ground has not been prepped here. You can even spot a weed!

STEP 5: PURCHASE SOIL

Next, I calculated the amount of soil by volume needed to fill the bed – about .94 cubic yards.

There are many different “recipes” for what to fill vegetable beds with, some requiring more effort and cost than others (you can Google this and find many options). I decided I wanted to try purchasing a “ready made” garden soil specifically for growing vegetables. Often this is called a “vegetable mix.”

Without knowing any better at first we considered the bags of vegetable mix at our local nursery.  That would probably be easier logistically but we found a more affordable option is going to a landscape supplier who sells in bulk.  Some quick math:

  • 1 cubic yard at landscape supplier: ~$25-$40
  • 1 cubic yard bagged: ~$216 (A 1.5 cubic foot bag like this costs ~$8-$12. Multiply that by 18 bags to make 1 cubic foot)
  • Cost difference: $191!! Assuming $25/cubic yard at bulk dealer and $12/1.5 cubic foot bag

I haven’t seen too much on this subject online (most people seem make their own mix), so I understand it is a little sketchy  since the supplier may or may not be able to give you real specifics on the composition of the vegetable mix.  It doesn’t hurt to call and ask. Considering all the factors, I decided this was still the easiest and most cost effective method for us..  

Soil and Sod Depot in Pacoima was recommended to me by another landscape company we use. (Another place that has been recommended to me in the past is Cal Blend Soils in Irwindale.) When I called, they told me their vegetable mix was made of “organic” materials (no added chemicals) and that the mix was 2 parts compost and 1 part soil. No extra amendments would be needed.  Since the delivery cost 4x more than the cost of the vegetable mix itself, we decided to pick it up ourselves.

At Soil and Sod, I ordered the vegetable mix at the office and then moved our truck into the loading area. If you have an open bed, they’ll use the loader to dump the vegetable mix directly into your truck bed.  We unfortunately only had a truck with a camper, so the loader dumped it on the ground and we then had to shovel it into the back of the truck (Note: this is NOT RECOMMENDED!).  It took about 20 minutes for two of us with shovels and buckets to fill the truck.

20170424_113550

The various soil mixes at the landscape supplier

20170424_113607

One cubic yard of soil = one “scoop” in the loader


STEP 7: FILL IN THE BEDS

We didn’t have a wheelbarrow  handy to transport the vegetable mix out of the truck when we got home, so we used the green waste bin provided by the city. This is probably not the best idea, given the pests and diseases that could be in there. However, it’s all we had on hand.

20170424_173617

This is about halfway through one cubic yard

It took me about 2 hours by myself to move the entire cubic yard of vegetable mix out of the truck to the backyard.  In my eagerness to get the job done, I made a mistake by dumping the vegetable mix directly on the grass instead of onto a tarp, which has potentially opened it up to weed seeds in the grass. Also, had we used pesticides on the lawn, that may have also become an issue (luckily we don’t). Ideally you’d want to dump the vegetable mix directly into the ready beds or onto concrete or some other medium where it wouldn’t come into contact with other live plant material.

DSC_0341

One cubic yard of vegetable mix dumped on the grass. It doesn’t look like much here, but it is!

I lined the bottom of the bed with newspaper. You can also use cardboard. This helps to supress weeds.

DSC_0345

I lined the beds with newspaper.

It took me about 1 1/2 hours by myself to move the vegetable mix from the grass into the bed. I incorporated compost from our bin into the layers as I went along:

2 layers of vegetable mix (bottom)
1 layer of compost
2 layers of vegetable mix
1 layer of compost
2 layers of vegetable mix

I’m a little concerned I may have put too much compost in, but we’ll see.

STEP 8: CELEBRATE!

20170427_100736

Beds complete! This guide refers to the bed in the back.

Whew! I thought it would never end… This raised bed project took several weeks of planning and several days spread out over weekends to finally finish. But the fun part is yet to come, actually getting some vegetables going. I’ll share about those adventures in future blogs.

Was there something I missed? What are your pro tips to getting a raised bed up and running? Please share questions or comments below!

With hands to soil,

Erin

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