By Susan Beal
If you’ve ever wanted to try building a raised bed for vegetables, herbs, flowers, or anything else you want to grow, it can be as simple as this pared-down version: a few pieces of inexpensive lumber and a short afternoon’s worth of drilling and digging. I built our second 8′×4′ bed, just big enough for a very productive summer garden in a small yard, with plenty of help from my friend and neighbor Patrick Vinograd — who got lots of practice building three beautiful raised beds last year with his wife, Caitlin. This project rang in at about $30 total, including reclaimed lumber, hardware, and soil bought in bulk.
8′ 2×8s (2)
4′ 2×8s (2)
9″ 2×4s or 2×2s (4) for corner posts
We found our reclaimed Douglas fir boards in great shape at the Rebuilding Center (rebuildingcenter.org) here in Portland for a total of $10.40; for new boards at a lumberyard, it might run you $20-$25. You can also invest in more expensive cedar or redwood for a lovely raised bed.
Circular saw or handsaw if you’re cutting your lumber to size (you can also have it cut at your lumberyard)
Drill fitted with a 1/8″ drill bit and a driver bit to match your deck screws
2½” deck screws (16) plus a few extra in case any corner needs extra reinforcing
Clamps (2) optional, but helpful
Small hand spade
About ½ yard soil of your choice I used 4-way mix from Mt. Scott Fuel (mtscottfuel.com) locally that cost $19; you can choose any type that works for the plants you want to grow. Starting with this much soil, I had a nice amount left over for other gardening.
Handcart or wheelbarrow
Step 1: First, cut your boards to size: two 8′ lengths and two 4′ lengths from 2x8s for the walls of the bed, and 4 stakes, each 9″ (or the depth of your bed walls plus 2″) from 2x4s or 2x2s.
Step 2: Place your first stake underneath one end of your first 8′ wall, aligning them at the top so the stake extends 2″ past the bottom edge of the wall. Clamp them (as shown) and drill 2 pilot holes into the paired pieces of wood, closer to the center than the edges to avoid splitting.
Step 3: Next, drive a deck screw into each hole.
Step 4: Repeat Steps 2 and 3 at the other end of the first 8′ board, and at both ends of the second 8′ board.
Step 5: If you’re working on grass so far, move your operation to a flat surface like a sidewalk or driveway so your bed will be neatly aligned as you add the last 2 walls. Clamp your first corner (as shown) with the excess 2″ of the stake pointing up, and drill and then screw the 2 longer pieces, connecting them through the stake, to form the first corner securely.
Step 6: Repeat Step 5 to join the other 3 corners. Your (upside-down) bed is ready to place in your yard!
Step 7: Thoroughly weed the area where you’ll place the bed. If you are dealing with tenacious menaces like dandelions, I highly recommend an efficient tool like Grandpa’s Weeder for eradicating them. For this simplified version, there is no need to remove plain grass from the bed area, but the more you can do to take care of weeds now, the better. Of course, if you have clean, plain soil to build a bed over, that is even better.
Step 8: Now carry the finished bed to the place you want it to rest, place it upside down again, and mark the 4 corners. Use a small hand spade to dig out small recesses in the dirt where the stakes will rest. Now flip the bed right side up, with the 4 stakes pressed firmly into the ground.
Step 9: When you’re ready to fill the bed with dirt, take about a week’s worth of daily papers out and unfold them to full size, layering them about 10-15 sheets thick and covering the base of the entire bed. Spray them evenly with water from a garden hose to smooth and weigh them down so you don’t end up with newspapers flying everywhere. This will stop most weeds from coming up through and infesting your garden. There are more protective materials like mesh screens available at hardware and garden supply stores if you are concerned about mice or gophers making their way in, too.
Step 10: Using a handcart or wheelbarrow, bring loads of dirt to the bed, filling it with soil from both sides if possible. There’s no need to pack the dirt extra firmly — just let it fill naturally. I like to leave a little space at the top for plants, mulch, and compost.
Step 11: When you’ve chosen your starts (or grown seedlings yourself) that are ready to transplant, plant them in the bed in neat rows, following guidelines on spacing and timing. Amend the plantings with compost or other natural fertilizers as needed.
We have our two 8′×4′ raised beds, one for greens and one for tomatoes and peppers, in a narrow side yard of our house (getting lots of south-facing sun!), but here are some other ideas for placing beds efficiently in a city yard or other tight quarters:
Our friends and neighbors Mark and Mary Dahl fit five 7′×4.5-foot raised beds into their parking strip, elegantly tucked between the sidewalk and the street. Because their property is sloped, they adjusted the bed walls to measure 11″ tall on the left side and 8″ tall on the right side, fitting it perfectly.
And Caitlin and Patrick have 3 larger raised beds, beautifully arranged for maximum garden yield, in their backyard: two measuring 12′×4′ and one 10′×4′.
Tailor these basic instructions to make 4′×4′ (or other-dimension) square beds for smaller spaces, or build the walls higher using wider or vertically layered boards. Sunset magazine has a lovely how-to for building a deeper and more detailed 8′×4′ bed, with an estimated total cost of $172.
You can also use other materials instead of wood, like scrap metal, to build your raised beds. Add extras like built-in curved PVC hoops, included in the Sunset tutorial, for the option to cover your bed with tarps or mesh if needed.
About the Author:
Susan Beal is a crafter and writer in Portland, Ore., who loves to drink coffee, sew, and make things with buttons. Her book, Button It Up, is out now!