Read any of the many healthy activity reports published each year and you will see that gardening is good exercise for the body and mind. Also, as a spinoff, if you know what you are doing, you and your neighbors can enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of the land.
I have always enjoyed gardening and enjoying the fruits of my labor, but what I don’t enjoy is the backache that comes with working at ground level for hours. Each year as I age the backache from gardening six months or more out of the year makes the growing of the “fruits of the land” less fun and more of a chore. That is, until I began learning about the many advantages of gardening in a bed (or box, if you will) that raises the gardening ground to a comfortable height, with the edge of the bed frame serving as a convenient seat to sit upon while tilling the soil or harvesting the crop.
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With the raised-bed garden being a box in which all the dirt is confined to a small area, this allows the gardener to control the fertility of the soil and the amount of water needed to be productive. In fact, most of the raised-bed gardens I visited when I began to study this gardening method out-produced many of the ground-level gardens I had known in the past, and on a fraction of the land used.
Raised garden bed frames have been made out of a wide variety of materials. I have seen them made from concrete blocks and 2×6 (or wider) treated boards. Many I have seen are made from treated 4×4 treated posts, railroad crossties or landscape timbers. The heights of these gardens range from a few inches to some, designed for wheelchair-bound gardeners, as high as 30 inches. The surface size is usually 48 inches wide, as that is a convenient width to reach the middle from each side without straining oneself, and 4 feet to 12 feet long.
After looking at all these variables, I decided that the raised-bed garden box I wanted would be made out of a natural, untreated material that would have a long life out in the elements and be strong enough to give years of maintenance-free service. Eastern red cedar grows abundantly where I live, so I elected to use that as my box material. With a gravel base upon which to sit the bottom timbers, it will last for many years. I am told that western red cedar will also last just as well, and several of the gardening TV shows use this material to make their raised-bed gardens.
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The most attractive and practical-sized boxes I saw during my research were those that had inside measurements of 48 inches wide by 9 feet long. The most comfortable height for me to sit upon while gardening is about 18 inches. Those measurements became the basis for my plan. The reason for using 6×6 timbers is that a 10-foot length of 6×6 timber is about all I could handle alone. Unlike most lumber, my local sawmill cut these timbers to a true 6×6 so that three timbers high gave me a comfortable 18-inch sitting height.
- (9) 6x6x10-foot eastern red cedar timbers
- (12) ½x24-inch steel rebar
- One box of 10-inch TimberLOK wood screws
- 10-foot coil of 3/8-inch copper tubing (for drain holes)
- (10) 50-pound bags of garden soil
- (10) 50-pound bags of compost
- (1) 100-foot roll of landscape cloth
- 25 landscape pins
- 100 pounds of gravel
- Porter Cable 7 1/4-inch circular saw
- Porter Cable 20V battery powered 1/2-inch drill/driver
- 5/16-inch driver bit for timber screws
- Extended 1/4-inch bit for pilot holes
- Steel tape
- Framing square
- Long carpenter’s level
- Shovel and/or spade
- Extended 1/2-inch spade bit (for drain holes)
Making The Cut
I ordered the nine 6×6-foot eastern red cedar timbers to be 10 feet long at the sawmill. When I got them home, I found them to be a little longer than 10 feet in length and the end cuts were not exactly square, so I cut them to length and squared each end. These were simple 90-degree cuts, but it takes a second person to help handle the heavy timbers during the cutting. Also, each cut on the 6×6 timber required that I cut on line, on each side, and the timber was still attached by a small core in the center. A handsaw made the simple final cut. For the short end of the raised garden box, 5 feet in length, I took three of the 10-foot-long timbers and cut them in half.
I located my raised bed garden on a level site so there was little digging to do. I measured a 6-inch-by-10-foot-long area for the sides and a 6-inch-by-5-foot area for the ends and dug a 2-inch-deep trench. I filled the trench with gravel. Next, I placed the timbers in place on the gravel bed and made sure they were square at the corners and level across the length of the top. Be sure to arrange the timbers so the butt end of one meets the side of the next in a clockwise fashion. (See illustrations.)
Once they were in place, level and square, I took a 1/2-inch extended spade drill and drilled holes from top to bottom every 2 feet, three holes to the 10-foot sides and two to the 5-foot sides. This is to drive your 24-inch rebar anchors through to give the bed a solid foundation.
Using a sledgehammer, drive a rebar through each of the pre-drilled holes until the top of the rebar is flush with the timber. Check the timbers for being square and level as you do this. Getting the first tier correct makes the second and third tiers easy.
Now place the second tier of timbers on the first. Be sure the butt end of each timber meets the side of the next at the end opposite those on the first tier. This will give you a strong, lapped pattern. Using a powerful drill/driver, drive the 10-inch timber screws down through the top timber into the timber below. I used two at each corner and one in the center of each side. While the timber screw manufacturer’s instructions said a pilot hole was not necessary, I found it to be much easier to screw-in the 10-inch screws if I drilled a pilot hole in the top timber using a long shank bit.
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Once the timbers for the second tier were secured in place, I used a 1/2-inch extended spade drill to drill a weep hole every 4 feet in the second tier of timbers. I drilled the hole from the outside in, and at a 45-degree angle up. Using a short coil of 3/8-inch copper pipe, I cut lengths to line the weep holes for long service and ease in unstopping clogs.
The third tier of timbers went on following the instructions for the second, less the weep hole, and lapping the timbers at the end opposite from those on the second tier. With that, the box was built.
Searching For Soil
This is an important part of the building a raised-bed garden. Fill the box with the wrong soil mix and you can have a nonproductive garden. Since each geographical area of the country is different, I suggest you make a quick call to your local Cooperative Extension Service agent and have him recommend a soil mix based on what you plan on growing and the local conditions. For my area, the recommendation was to first cover the bottom of the bed with 2 inches of gravel to help the soil in the bed drain. Then I mixed in 60 percent composted topsoil, 20 percent loam and 20 percent manure compost. These were available at the local garden store. Fill the bed to within 2 inches of the top.
The final step to my raised-bed garden was to put down a 48-inch layer of landscape cloth, using landscape pins, around the box. Upon this I shoveled 2 inches of gravel. This gives a weed- and mud-free walking and working area around the garden. Since I planned on planting four tomato plants, I went ahead and drove in four steel electric fence posts I had on hand to use as tomato stakes. Once you have the building materials, this is an easy one-day project that can provide you a lot of great eating for years to come.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.