The (R)Evolution of My Yard Part Four: Making Raised Beds

22 Jun

When last I spoke about the (r)evolution of my yard, we were seed starting.  We started a bit late, I know, but our starts have actually grown!  Our tomato starts aren’t as big as some of those mammoths I keep seeing at home improvement stores and farmer’s markets, but they’re alright!  Plus, our kale, lettuce, and cabbage look great! Everyone is ready to go out on their own, finally and they did about two weeks ago.  Double S and I are experiencing a little bit of empty nest syndrome.  All of our starts had their paltry belongings packed, were talking about  riding the rails, and are ready to brave the elements on their own.

They've got their hobo sticks and they're heading out!

Thee next step in the awesome change of our yard from mere water sucking lawn to food producing garden, was to figure out what kind of digs (ha!) we wanted to give our veggies and herbs.  We wanted something that would look good, as we only have one main area of our yard and thus the garden will always be highly visible to friends and visitors (sometimes not one and the same!)  Second, we wanted to maximize growing space.  We wanted to be able to plant the crap out of the area we designated as food producing.  As opposed to the other part of our yard, which I officially designate, Party Deck and Party Yard ™.  Soon to feature a kiddie pool or slip n’ slide!  Third, we wanted structures that would last for awhile, but not be so expensive to make and install as to make us to sad to leave them when they’re still in their prime.

After much debate, we decided on raised beds.  The benefits of raised beds are many.  Raised beds keep the soil well drained.  Raised beds are convenient, as long as you build them that way.  Raised beds are nice for organizational purposes, especially when it late summer and plants and leaves and green are everywhere. You can plant more in raised beds–productivity per square foot is increased.  You can create good soil in a raised bed–you can start with whatever you want; you’re not tied to the pre-existing soil in your yard.  Soil gets warmer in raised beds.   Soil can improve in raised beds, mainly because it’s not being impacted by feet and tools, which makes water, air and roots harder to travel through the soil.  Also, the dimensions of a raised bed make it easy to install cloches to gather more heat or protect tomato starts from pouring rains, and to add a deer or bird net to keep animals away.  Raised bed frames make it easy to install a drip irrigation system, which of course prevents run off and watering unnecessary parts of the garden, thereby increasing weeds and wasting water.  And you can get creative and make your raised beds look however you want them!

We decided to make our raised beds out of Douglas Fir, which is a fairly renewable resource here in the Pac NW.  In other parts of the country you might want to use Hemlock or Pine for the same reason.  I checked around to see how long Dour Fir should last, and I got a lot of different estimates.  Anywhere from 2 to 10 years.  As my pops always said whenever we asked for anything that we probably weren’t going to get: We’ll see!  We had originally wanted to use cedar for it’s well known durability and longevity, but it’s price tag was hard to swallow with all the other money we’d put in to this yard revolution so far: seeds, heat pads, seed starting lights, soil, and our Party Deck ™ expansion.  So if you can afford it and plan to be at your current location for awhile, use cedar.  Or better yet, find someone on Craigslist or Freecyle who is giving away (untreated) wood in good condition, or cinder blocks or bricks.  Raised beds can be made out of a lot of different materials, yo!

Next we needed a plan.  My pal Meg sent me this link to a set of plans in Sunset magazine (an awesome publication for bougie people who live in the West) for raised beds.

The raised beds from the the plans in Sunset magazine.

These puppies look nice!  And the plans make the construction of the beds look so easy, right?  Well that’’s because they skip like eleventy million steps that you need to be told in order to make these beds, if you’re not super handy.  But we decided to throw caution to the wind about our utter lack of carpentry skills!  Our caution was like the wind…through our trees.  RIP Swayze…dude was a triple threat.

So if you want to make raised beds, and you want them to look cool like the Sunset beds above, I’m here to help.  First, you need to measure your space and visualize what you want.  Our yard looked like this before.

The way our yard used to look. It's a tad different now.

Raised beds shouldn’t be more than 4 feet across so that you can easily tend to the entire bed.  We decided to make four 10ft x 4ft beds on the right side of the above picture, and three 8ft x 4ft beds on the left side.  When measuring, don’t forget pathways between your beds.  You want your pathways to be at least 2.5-3 feet wide around each side of the bed, so you can easily walk though, carry items and wheel a wheelbarrow, if needed.  Don’t skimp here!   I wanted to, but I had self control.

How many more 80s song titles can I reference?  Answer: many.

Next, we ordered our lumber.  It’s easiest to have lumber of this size and quantity delivered.  If you have a friendly neighborhood lumber store like I do, they’ll likely deliver it for you, as 10 foot long lumber doesn’t fit in our Toyotas.  Thanks, Alki Lumber!  Consult the Sunset plans above for the rest of your supplies.  The plans call for using landscape cloth to line the beds to keep out moles.  I consulted with a master gardener at my local farmer’s market, who told me that this step was not necessary, at least in this area.  If you have digging critters, you might want to take this precaution.

Besides the materials listed in the Sunset directions, you’ll need a few more things: preferably two drills with drill bits, a handsaw, saw horses, a hammer, a knee pad for your kneeling, 4-6 ml plastic sheeting for your cloches, and hopefully 2-3 friends to help you–preferably non-weaklings with carpentry skills.  Enter Double S’s uncle Gary.  Remember when I mentioned Party Deck?  Gary did that too.  Dude is good.  He also taught me how to use a wrench (embarrassing!) when I was building my ComposTumbler (which is composting well, FYI).

So to make the beds, follow the directions from the Sunset link above, but here are some extra tips, if you, like me, had no discernible skills but want nice beds made out of wood.

1.  Order your lumber.  This will depend on the number of beds you are making, and the size of each bed.  To order your lumber, use the Sunset plans as a guide.  The instructions contain a list of materials for one bed.  Obviously, order shorter or longer boards depending on the length of beds you want to make.  Regarding width, I highly recommend sticking with beds that are 4 feet across.  You will need a table saw to cut your wood to size, or see if the lumber store from which you are ordering will cut it for you.  They often will.

Lumber delivery!

2.  Purchase the rest of your supplies.  The tube straps and PVC pipes are in the electrical section of your local hardware store, FYI.  If you live in an area that either doesn’t get hot enough or you just want the option to be able to extend the growing season, I highly recommend adding the tube straps and PVC pipes.  We did so, and have created beds that function as greenhouses for our tomato starts.  It really gets hot in there, which we need due to the short growing season in the northwest and our semi-late start in actually planting our beds.  However, the Sunset plans are a little off if you do want to cloche.  If you want to put plastic on your bed as a cloche, or any kind of netting or other protection, you will need to build some kind of frame to keep the material up.  The PVC pipes alone will not hold the plastic up, especially if you have wind and rain.   I needed another solution.   I went here and checked out Oregon State University Extension Service’s plans for making a raised bed cloche.  Luckily, we had some wood scraps around the house that we used to build a frame.  If you don’t have any scrap wood that will work, you will need to purchase a few more items to build the frames for your cloches.  For each bed, you will need a long thin piece of wood to go across the top of your bed, and two shorter pieces to mount to the two shorter sides of your actual bed and to the long piece across the top.  We used 1-by-2’s, and you need them to be the length of each of your bed, so we used 10ft and 8ft 1-by-2’s. Our beds with cloche frames ended up looking like this:

Our beds! Pictured are the makeshift frames for our cloches.

As you can see, we used 4 PVC pipes per bed.  We had already followed the plans and installed the tube straps in the middle of the beds, so we had to improvise.  I just stuck a third and fourth pipe into the two ends of the bed, and the cloche worked perfectly.

3.  Then you need to cut your 4-by-4s into 16 inch posts, one for each corner of each of your beds.  You will need a table saw.

Measure and mark your 4-by-4 into 16 inch segments. Each segment will be a post for the corner of the bed.

Uncle G rocking the table saw. Saw horses or a work table are needed.

Our pile of 16 inch posts, waiting for action.

4.  Now it’s time to attach the posts to the sides of the beds–to the 8 or 10 feet long 2-by-6s.  As I said, we found it easier to do this as a team.  So we made the sides of all of the beds first.  Attach the posts to the 2-by-6s with the 3.5 inch screws you purchased.  What makes this much easier is to line them up, and then drill pilot holes for the screws.  Meaning, use your drill to make a hole all the way through the 2-by-6 into the post–a pilot hole.  Then, have a friend go next and use a different drill to keep the process moving, drill the 3.5 inch screw in, to attach the post to the 2-by-6.

Drilling the pilot poles. Put the two posts on the ground, then line up the 2 2-by-6s on top.

Have a friend stand on the boards to stabilize them and keep them in place while you're drilling the pilot holes. Have them stay there until you've drilled in at least one of the screws.

Once the four pilot holes are drilled, drill in the screws.

Because we were making a lot of beds, we did all of our sides at the same time.  We stacked them on top of each other, which made the process easier.  As the stack got higher, there was less crouching and bending.

Here are the two sides of one bed. We stacked them up, and then later attached them to the 4 foot sides.

5.  Once you’ve made the long sides of all of your beds, it’s time to attach them to the 4 foot sides and finish the beds.  We laid the just finished long sides out on the ground first.

The two 8 or 10 foot long, whichever you chose, sides of the beds that you just made.

Then line up the 4 foot sides–one of the 2-by-6s that you’ve cut into 4 foot lengths.

Line up the 4 foot sides. Here's where you'll need something to kneel on.

Now, have a friend hold them in place, and again drill pilot holes through the 4 foot sides into the posts.  Then, drill in the screws.

Finishing up the frame!

Drilling in the pilot holes...

...and drilling in the screws.

The finished bed before it's flipped over. As you can see on the right and left, we have the next two 8 foot sides ready to go.

A finished bed! Looking good!

Once you’ve finished the construction part of the bed making process, relax and have a beer.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!

Three raised beds, almost ready to go into the ground.

6.  Now it’s time to add the tube straps. First, cut your PVC pipe into 12 inch segments.  A handsaw worked fine for this task.  Next, you’ll need a drill and some screws long enough to attach the straps to the sides. Then, drill in the tube straps.  You need to do so while holding the PVC pipes in place, so that they are held tightly to the wood.

Attaching the tube straps to the sides of the bed. See my take above as to where these straps should actually be placed.

The instructions from Sunset tell you to drill the tube straps 2 feet from each end and 4 feet apart–if you’re making an 8 ft bed that is.  As I’ve said, it’s better for cloching to have tube straps at the corners of your bed.  We didn’t know this, so we simply pushed two more PVC pipes into the corners of each bed, into the soil, giving us 4 PVC pipes per bed.  It’s worked fine, and seemed very sturdy.

And you’re done.  Now you just have to place them.  We had our soil marinating for the last few months, as I’ve blogged.  And we had it covered with burlap.  So we removed the burlap, dug trenches for the sides of the beds, and then placed our beds, using a level.   We then shoveled the dirt back in that we had dug out of the trenches.  With all of the materials that we used to sheet much, pre-existing now amended soil, some additional sandy loam we purchased, and compost we had enough sil to fill all of our beds.  You might need to have a truckload of good soil ready to go into your beds if you haven’t been sheet mulching your yard.

Here they are! We put black plastic sheeting down first before we transplanted, to heat up the soil. You gotta work hard in the northwest to get heat in June!

And here they are a few days later, after we added our tomatoes.

The cloches have been really helpful, as it has been a cold and rainy June.  But when I check the temps under the cloches, it’s nice and toasty.  And on actual warm days so far, it’s been downright hot inside the cloches.  Great for plants like tomatoes, eggplant, cukes (I’ve planted a lot of cukes, out of sheer determination to be able to make pickles this  summer.  Wish me luck), and squash.

Our cloched beds! You're supposed to use clips to keep the plastic on the pips, but our system of rocks has worked okay so far. We have our heat loving plants cloched right now, until the days AND nights stay warm around here. Cloches are also good to keep rain off of the delicate leaves of tomatoes and cukes, which should not be watered from the top, just watered at their roots.

And that’s the story of how we made our raised beds.  But the (r)evolution is not complete!  Now we are planting our beds.  Stay tuned for more about trellising and drip irrigation!


4 Responses to “The (R)Evolution of My Yard Part Four: Making Raised Beds”

  1. meg June 22, 2010 at 8:09 AM #

    These look awesome! You have done an amazing job– even without the missing eleventy millions steps!

    • ohbriggsy June 22, 2010 at 7:32 PM #

      thanks friend! and thanks for the original link to sunset!

  2. sonja June 28, 2010 at 6:47 AM #

    Where can the masses inquire about and acquire these Party Deck TM’s that you speak of?


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    […] Plus, I wanted to use potatoes. Why? Well, it’s kind if a funny story.  As you may have read here in the past, Double S and I moved into the old homestead in 2009, and immediately turned the yard […]

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