Building Raised Garden Beds

By Darryl Birkenfeld

Growing up on a family farm near Nazareth, TX, everything seemed big to me. Even our garden resembled a miniature farm field—plowed by a tractor and disk, formed with furrows like a field of irrigated milo. Though we had the advantages of large machinery, we spent a lot of time hoeing weeds and pulling cheat grass. When I became an adult and lived in my own home, I didn’t garden, since I had no tiller tractor, no time to hoe weeds, and no plot big enough that wasn’t already a lawn. Then, someone told me about raised garden beds.

Raised garden beds are boxes that enclose and elevate a section of soil, anywhere from a few inches to 2-3 feet. Since 2003, I have built over two dozen raised garden beds…of different types. Raised gardens can be built with all kinds of materials: hay bales, sheet of scrap plywood, 4”x4” posts or logs, 2” x 12” boards, cinder blocks…I even saw a farmer stack up old aluminum irrigation pipes for his garden bed. What’s the point, you ask? I would summarize the advantages of raised garden beds in this way: Raised garden beds require less labor—though initial construction takes some effort, you don’t have to rebuild year after year. When I built my first beds using straw bales, I did no digging, but built from the ground up using the lasagna method: layers of straw, composted cotton burrs, and finally, topsoil. You can even build a raised garden bed over a former lawn, as long as you use a couple layers of weed barrier underneath the beds.

Raised garden beds reduce water use—because you are concentrating on a 2-4 foot bed instead of a large cultivated area, you can target your water with drip irrigation to just your raised garden. It is easy to apply mulch to your beds, and that helps to conserve moisture, and so does your ability to create shading of your bed as your garden plants grow taller.

Raised garden beds greatly reduce weeds—this can happen in two ways. First, because your beds are elevated a few inches or feet, that prevents most weed seeds from blowing into your beds during the dormant season. Second, if you use composted amendments and topsoil in your beds, you should start out practically weed-free. You will have a few weeds that germinate, but they are easy to pull out. I own a hoe, but I have never used it in my raised-beds.

Raised garden beds help to build rich soil—during the first two years, your introduced soil may be a bit loose and ashy. But as the organic matter breaks down and your plant residues are worked in, your soil will gain more structure and tilth. Instead of becoming depleted, your raised beds become richer, and require less and less fertilizer.

Raised garden beds are easier to plant, maintain, and harvest—to me, this is the key selling point! As I grow older, I have less energy and capacity for stoop gardening. The main reason I had someone build two steel-sided beds for me that are 32 inches tall, is that I can grown, maintain, and harvest green beans, onions, beets, and peas from a “standing-up” position. Not only is it better for my back–these beds should last my lifetime (knock on steel)…and so should cinder blocks.

Perhaps you would like to start growing some of your food, but you don’t own a tiller tractor, have much time to water or weed, or much space for your garden. With raised garden beds, you can overcome these barriers, and re-claim your role as a food producer without having to own a farm.

For step-by-step information and diagrams on raised garden beds, visit this link:

A 4’ x 8’ raised bed built with 53 dry-stacked 3 high, using 16-inch cinder blocks, and 2-inch toppers for covering the top layer of blocks.

A 30’ x 4’ bed gives you a 36-inch-wide growing space…easy to reach from both sides…and the toppers give you a place to sit on or to rest your arms on while you work!

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