Raising a garden bed: build or buy?

TSA garden

The local Transition group’s brand new community garden needed raised beds. So we tried a couple different ways to get them.

As part of our local Transition group’s efforts to make local food more widely available in our town, my wife Lindsay has been helping organize a new community garden. The site is a lot that has been vacant as long as anyone can remember.

You can imagine that there was a lot to do before planting: finding the property owner and convincing him to host the garden on his lot; clearing years of weeds; working with city hall on zoning and any necessary approvals; and of course, recruiting volunteer gardeners.

But one of the biggest challenges has been how to grow vegetables in soil that is less than ideal. It’s been years since the site was used as an informal parking lot, but Lindsay knew she needed to test the soil before anyone started growing anything to eat. So, she called in a friendly former agent with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He advised raised beds.

Since the site is located in an official historic district, the group wondered if the beds would pass muster with the local preservation authorities? Fortunately, the answer was yes.

So the project was on, just in time for the Transition US May Home and Garden Challenge, which Transition Staunton Augusta was taking part in.

Eagerness wasn’t a problem. But the group had never built raised garden beds before and didn’t have the faintest idea how to get started. Fortunately, a local builder offered to help build beds from some plans downloaded from the Internet and low-cost pine boards from Lowe’s. The beds came out nicely — 8′ x 4 ‘ x 1′ — though it couldn’t have been done without his help. Cost: about $50 each for materials but carpentry skill and planning required.

A head start

Much easier for to do for novices was building beds from a kit. The good folks at Naturalyards in Ashland, Oregon had sent a Planter Box kit for review by Transition Voice with test use to happen in the Transition Staunton garden. It’s quite a deluxe box, coming with a bottom and also optional trim to create a nice finished look at the corners and on top. The size we reviewed is 3′ by 4′ by 16.5″ but Naturalyards sells planter boxes ranging in price from around $100 to more than $400. And they seem to be having a 40% off sale now, bringing those prices down.

Since these boxes all have bottoms, they’re as suitable for your front porch as your garden, especially if you need to suppress weeds as was needed in the Staunton garden. Or, if you need beds specifically for a garden where you want to give the roots room to grow deeper, Naturalyards sells raised bed kits too, with an even wider price range and selection of sizes and shapes.

And both their raised beds and garden planters are made from durable cedar (which will last many seasons more than the pine that was used to build the other Transition Staunton beds) and nontoxic waterproof sealant suitable for organic gardening.

The one challenge was that the shipment included only generic instructions which were of little help putting together the review model. But once the proper instructions were in hand the planter box was built in about fifteen minutes.

Hardware is included, so it’s really just a matter of fitting the wood boards in place, sliding in aluminum rods to hold together the corners and then screwing some wood screws into pre-drilled holes. An easy and elegant design! Watch the planter box assembly video to see just how simple it is to put a Naturalyards box together.

Once it’s built, it wins the beauty contest hands down. But how will it hold up?

We’ll be reviewing the box after a summer in the hot Virginia sun to see how well it weathers, how easy it is to use, and how well the veggies planted in it — tomatoes and peppers — grew. Stay tuned for that review around October.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Things are looking great down in Staunton!
    Up here in the semi-close in suburbs of DC, we’ve just broken ground on Reston’s newest community garden at Cedar Ridge Apartments. This is a joint project of Reston Interfaith, Reston Association, Friends of Reston, and Sustainable Reston. We have 8 anxious gardeners ready to get seedlings in the ground as soon as our fence goes in. We are very excited about this project which will provide fresh produce for families at Cedar Ridge and for the community as a whole.

  2. says

    I built my raised beds out of my old picket fense. There is absolutely no reason to go out and buy wood to make them. That’s such a waste of resources. Look on craigslist for old fense. There is someone always trying to get rid of some. As for the bottoms, just take old cardboard or newspaper and line the bed. make sure it’s thick and you won’t have a problem. Newspaper won’t decay unless it has sunlight and oxygen. As long as it’s never exposed to the sun, it will last several seasons.

    Also, I tired the squarefoot garden method for a few years. It’s a colossal waste of space. You would be surprised at how much you can plant in tiny spaces. Square foot gardening is for anal retentive gardeners who are afraid to experiment.

    The problem with gardening these days, has nothing to do with gardening, people should be learing how to preserve what they grow. I’m slated to have a ton of tomatoes this year. My GF and I are going to roast them, puray them, then freeze them. We have done this the last several years and we never run out of spagetti sauce. Now, I’m faced with a ton of eggplants. We are breading them, frying them and freezing those as well.

    You can do the same with onions as well.

    • Jack Sol-Church says

      Here, Here!!! Buying wood for a raised bed is against what the Transition movement is about. If you want to use wood, a great source of wood are old pallets (I like the fence idea) and as many of them are made from cedar, they should last awhile. You can just as easily make them without anything. Mound up the dirt, make them only 3′ wide to avoid stepping in them, and cover with mulch to keep the edges from washing away.
      If you feel you really want an edge around the dirt, are there any branches that fell last year?
      To speak to Eric Gooch’s point, its a function of changing one’s view. The Transition movement is about being resourceful and thinking about the objective, not what the newest books say to do. In order to save something we feel like we need to go out and buy some new gadget. Sometimes this is true. I can’t can food safely if I don’t use new lids. Try to ask yourself “how would my grandparents have done it”? By the way, they used wax to seal the tops of jars but the newer lids are safer.

      No matter how much food we grow or can, if we need to go buy new things all the time we are still in trouble. If gas were $10/gallon and other prices were adjusted accordingly, how would you address your problem?

    • says

      Thanks for your thoughts even though they are somewhat bombastically presented. To that end, though we certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation, in order to use the land that was used for this project, we had to do raised beds. Yes, we could have just done mounded dirt, but not this first season and still be able to garden there. There are myriad issues with this project — we don’t own the land, it’s in an historic district with regulations, dog owners have taken to using the empty lot as a dog toilet and not cleaning it up, the ground is mixed with an old concrete foundation and then otherwise has immensely hard soil filled with rocks, there was no access to it for vehicles because of large boulders at the lot edge, etc., etc. We spent two months trying to source wood donations for the boxes and in this location it wasn’t possible to use pallets. Under the boxes there are seven layers of newspaper and a layer of cardboard. The only bottom is in the “planter.” Under the mulched paths there is also seven layers of newspaper and a layer of cardboard. All of the mulch is from the city’s recycled lot of processed yard waste and chipped wood from Christmas trees, etc.

      There is no one way to do Transition. Turning it into a dictatorship on message boards won’t win adherents. Because one buys or uses the occasional new thing doesn’t mean everything they do is new. I feel that after moving to a small walkable city, walking or biking almost everywhere, driving a Prius otherwise, insulating my house, keeping the lights off all day, making things like bread, kombucha, beer etc, at home, using my farmers market, buying tons of local food and beer/wine, supporting local businesses, and spending two years writing about Transition issues to spread the gospel, I have the chops to be able to make a garden the way I need to make a garden in light of the myriad details of doing so that compelled this particular choice–raised wood beds. The garden has a much bigger plan in the long run and will develop accordingly. For now it was important to create what we could in a very short time schedule using what we had or could source and investing using dollars when we had to.



  3. John Irvine says

    Waste of time and money unless your lot is rock…. Symptomatic of our materialistic culture.
    Next time try double dig – it gives you two feet of soil at little to no cost depending on your source of compost. See John Jevons and the Grow Biointensive method


  4. says

    You know what’s annoying? When there’s an article like this and all people can do is bitch.
    Apparently suburbandweller and John Irvine have had their collective feathers ruffled because you had the misfortune of not doing things their way. The horror!

    So now you find yourselves to be not only terribly wasteful by buying wood and using that awful waste of space called square foot gardening, but you are also apparently anal retentive and afraid. Add to that you are clearly a part of our materialistic culture for not double digging.

    Who knew?

    Speaking as someone who has both bought wood in the past and used raised beds, I can offer some small hope to you that all is not a catastrophe despite your shameful choices, and I have, in fact, lived to tell about it!

    Carry on!

    • says

      Thanks for your nice comment Eric! I appreciate your support and understanding. Sometimes I wonder if gardening has become a competitive sport!

      Seriously, though, we don’t claim to be the most advanced permaculturists on the net or to be writing for just the most adventurous gardeners. That’s why we try to offer advice and info for people at various levels of experience and skill. At the same time, we also appreciate tips to help us work smarter.

    • Erik Curren says

      Ann Marie, thanks for your nice comment. We’ll have a look at your friend Nate’s raised bed kit. A kit may not be the option for everybody but for some of us, it can really accelerate our gardening efforts.

  5. says

    My $0.02 is that raised beds with wood frames may make sense in a place that does not have slugs. I have lots of slugs in my garden and find that boards in the garden become prime slug habitat. They love to live in the crevasses between boards and the ground (or beds). If you do have slug problems, a saucer of beer is the most non-violent way to kill them – they will drown themselves in stale beer, which then can be added to your compost pile.

  6. Kelly Finigan says

    When I took my Permaculture course (many years ago now!) I recall a stock answer of the (really fine) instructors being “it depends”. Raised beds? Purchased wood? Salvaged wood? Double digging?

    Well, I’ve done all these and they all have their place. With a bunch of eager yet novice volunteers in a public garden, raised (I hesitate but will still say it) purchased beds yield a garden for many in short time where there was none before. A wonderful result! For a market garden, wooden beds may cost too much (time and money and loss of flexibility) and harbour slugs that eat into economics. In this case, mounded beds work well…Dougo Gosling, one of the finest growers I know, has used these at OAEC for probably 20 years. Again a wonderful result! For a couple of beds at my last home, I had some spare time so managed to salvage old construction forms, raw 2×8’s and various other “junk wood” for planter boxes on the driveway to feed myself and many, many house guests. Yet again, wonderful!

    What is best? “It depends”…looks to me like there’s room for all these solutions!

  7. Doug says

    Eric and Lindsey

    I enjoyed meeting and having discussions with both of you at the ‘Age of Limits’ weekend.

    I don’t understand the discussion for and against using ‘new’ wood for raised beds. Wood is, after all, a renewable resource. I buy most of my lumber from a local Amish sawmill. It’s all hemlock which is abundant in our area and the prices are far more reasonable than the box stores or lumber yards. In fact, I’m stocking up with quite a collection of different sizes stacked and stickered in my barn.

    Good photo of your raised beds. Question, that looks like wood chips in the pathways. Do you put down landscape fabric under the chips? I want to make pathways in our gardens and have plenty of bark from my firewood operation, but am examining the options to keep weeds out of the pathways.


    • says

      Doug, Nice to hear from you! And thanks for your nice comments. Lindsay is the brain behind the garden, but I can tell you that under our mulch (which we got for free from a pile of landscape refuse the city maintains in our park for citizens’ use) we put first newspaper and then cardboard. Seems to be keeping down the weeds pretty well so far.

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