February 19, 2008
this weekend, i got the first of 4 planned raised beds started. trundled off to the big box store where i got the boards measured and cut and the very helpful salesperson gave me, as it turned out, the wrong advice. Three beds will be in the existing garden and will measure 10′ x 2′, 10′ x 4′ and 10′ x 4′. One bed will be 10′ x 5′ – this is the one located between our house and the neighbour’s and will contain a small fruit tree, underplanted with strawberries and perhaps a small shrub or two (got to practice my forest gardening techniques…).
This is one way to build the box for a raised bed: in the backyard, nail the 4 pieces together into a box with the help of your able assistants, ages 1 1/2, 4, 5 and 7. Nail the stakes to the corners. Notice that the nails seem to keep popping out of the wood and add a few more to compensate. Try to maneuver the whole contraption between the two houses. Witness the whole thing fall apart. Say some bad words under your breath, mindful of the presence of minors. Hammer a square stake that is still attached to part of the box into the ground. Eyeball the placement of the others and walk out to the sidewalk to see if it looks relatively level from a distance. Add more nails, randomly. Squint, shrug and plan to grow many trailing plants to disguise the whole thing.
You get the picture. I don’t know what the hell i’m doing when it comes to building anything. The kids (my three plus the neighbour’s little boy) were having a grand time hammering and digging (“We’re builders!” “Let’s take a lunchbreak!”) and my oldest is always a useful source of information (“Did you know that the garden fork is descended from the pitchfork?” “Really? What was the pitchfork used for?” “I dunno. Angry mobs?”), but I wasn’t feeling the end result.
My neighbour came over to chat and offered the expert advice of her partner re: the slippery nail issue. He used to work in construction. He came over, took a look, and i could see the silent battle taking place. His inner perfectionist was at war with his desire to keep working on his Sunday afternoon project.
The perfectionist won. We took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it. Well, actually, he rebuilt it and i watched and learned. How awesome is my neighbour? For those of you similarly challenged in carpenterly ways, this is how to build a box: (thanks Steve!)
1. Buy untreated cedar boards and get the store to cut them to the right length for your raised bed. You definitely do not want pressure-treated wood which is nasty and poisonous and will leach bbaaaaaddd things into the soil. Some people feel the same way about railway ties.
2. Move your boards close to their final location.
3. Nail your boards together in a box – it helps if this is done on a level surface to ensure that your corners are square (use boards from the next box!). Use a level to check on your progress. Also, make sure that you’ve constructed both ends in the same way – i.e., if the end board on one side is inside the two side boards, the other end should also be inside. This is really obvious to anyone who knows anything, but I am obviously not part of that contingent.
4. Screw your boards securely together at all four corners, using long, threaded screws suitable for wood. Use at least 2 per corner.
5. Move your box to where you want it. Trim the ends of your stakes (I used 2″ x 2″ cedar, cut to 2′ lengths) so that they are pointy – did you know that pointy sticks are much easier to get into the ground? – and hammer one into the ground, on the inside of the box’s corner, making sure that it is square to your already perfect corner. Keep hammering until the top of the stake is about level with the top of the box, or else trim it with a handsaw (do this after everything is screwed in and level).
6. Screw the box to the stake. Do a second stake, again, making sure that it is square with the corner of your box. Check to see that your box will sit level on the ground. If the box isn’t level, add or take away earth until the little bubble on your level is between the lines, and then attach the box to the second stake with screws.
7. Repeat with all remaining corners. If your box is especially long (like 10 feet), add a few additional stakes on the inside of the box, about halfway down the length – just for added reinforcement.
I chose cedar because these will be in contact with the ground and this wood will resist decay longer. I used 1″ x 6″ boards, partly because of cost (thicker boards cost more), and partly because I’m planning a modified square foot garden – a combination of digging down and amending the existing soil, as well as filling the box up with fresh compost/soil. This area is also visible from the street, so I wanted to have a fairly low-profile box that won’t be too visually obtrusive.
Next up: planting the box!