If you’ve never grown your own food, just imagine it for a minute:
You lovingly prepped the soil to ready it for those itty-bitty, vulnerable roots. You planted a baby tomato plant, watered it ever so carefully for weeks or months, chased away all those bastard aphids who dared gnaw its precious leaves, and now you're in the kitchen on a sweltering summer day slicing a cool, red, juicy tomato gifted you by your fuzzy-leafed offspring. You did that!
OK, dry your misty eyes…you’ve got work to do.
From big garden plots to beds, boxes, and containers of all sizes, there are options for most everyone to express their inner veggie and/or herb farmer -- bib overalls optional (but encouraged, obviously).
The Benefits of Gardening in Raised Beds and Boxes
Raised beds, which have no bottom, are essentially fences built to contain the soil. Garden boxes have built-in bottoms and are typically elevated or rest on hard surfaces. The benefits of either are many: prep them well and they put your crops within easy reach, help prevent soil compaction and erosion, offer better drainage than many standard gardens, and protect your goodies from burrowing animals, weeds, and other nuisances that plague gardens planted in the ground.
Plus, they don’t need annual tilling--just some nutritious amendments mixed in every year. They allow for earlier planting in spring in some regions since the soil in a raised bed will dry more quickly, they’re functional, look great, and if you DIY’d that baby, well, we can hear your friends now… “You made that yourself?” Hell yeah you did.
Whether you want to grab a saw and screwdriver and build a bed from scratch or let your thrifty side shine using repurposed materials (or both!), here are some things to consider before starting.
Yes, we know that one guy on YouTube said you can use pine, and that pine is seductively inexpensive; we also know pine harvested in the past few decades will be consumed by the elements and wood-wrecking insects faster than you can call that same YouTube guy a long list of very bad names. Spring for better stuff.
With a bit of stain and sealer applied, fir will last 5-7 years and is more affordable than our fave picks (cedar and redwood, in case you were wondering) which will give you up to 15 or 20 years, respectively. Although redwood and cedar are durable without sealer and fade to pretty greys, a touch of sealer will help them keep their original color.
To keep nasty toxins out of the soil (and your body) and protect the wood, apply stain and varnish (if using) to outside surfaces only. Tung and raw linseed oil will do the job as well without the risk of questionable substances seeping into your soil. Check out this page for more non-toxic alternatives. To avoid weeds coming up in your raised bed, lay some landscape materials or, better yet, compostable material like newspapers or cardboard inside before adding soil.
How Do I Do That?
We love a video tutorial and this one is perfect for a beginner DIYer.
Thinking of elevating your garden game? This might be the simplest, clearest tutorial on the Internet for building an elevated garden box (on legs) and the guy gets extra points for making his plans available for purchase, cheap-cheap! (We love you, man.)
There are some beautiful raised beds and boxes out there made with corrugated aluminum. Keep in mind that metal rusts, affecting both the appearance of your raised bed or garden box and its longevity.
In small boxes with little soil to dissipate heat, metal walls can mean soil gets too dry and warm for tender plant feet, so consider placing metal boxes and other metal containers where the walls won’t get direct sun and be extra vigilant about watering in hot weather. A layer of mulch will slow evaporation.
How Do I Do That?
There are a few good tutorials out there. We hope you’ll build this redwood and metal beauty and send it our way.
Stacked Stone or Cinder Blocks
Stack ‘em if you got ‘em. Stone will give your raised bed an organic look and cinder (concrete) blocks make building a bed about as easy and economical as it gets!
How Do I Do That?
Get yourself a big pile of stones (flat makes things easiest) and start stacking. Well...almost. For the rest of the story, look over here. Dry stacking means keeping your bed under about 18” but it also means no messy mortar -- which is good, because less messy, but also bad because we have an inner 3 year old who feels ripped off by that whole “less mess” thing.
Stacking concrete blocks (“cinder” blocks) is as easy a way to build a raised garden bed as we can think of, but there is some prep involved to do it right.
Here’s an easy-to-follow tutorial covering everything you need to know. (Learning to grow squash is a bonus!)
Keep in mind that over time, lime in concrete will leach into the soil and change its pH, so you’ll want to test it now and again to be sure your soil is in the sweet spot for the plants you’re growing.
The Good Stuff
If you want your veggies and herbs to live their best life, start with the best quality, preferably organic, soil you can get your wallet on. Mix in food-safe compost and fertilizer and your raised bed or box will be the place to be for veggies in-the-know.
Of course, while protecting your garden from unwelcome intruders, garden boxes also prevent earthworms from enriching and aerating your soil. Earthworms are your garden’s slimy best friend, so pick some up and move ‘em in.
Since the soil in your garden will feed your plants (or not), grab a soil test kit like this to find out -- and keep track of -- exactly what yours needs to feel complete. (Awww.)
Tip number one for any DIY building project: don’t just look for what to do. Look for what not to do so you can learn from other people’s mistakes before you make your own! Here, some clear tips on major beginner gardening mistakes to avoid--like making soil an afterthought.
What, Where, When
What you plant will depend on where you live and on the size and location of your garden box. If you need some help answering the what/when question, you’re going to love this site’s simple by-state search and user-friendly visuals.
Plants like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and summer squash are ardent sun bathers, as are a huge variety of herbs; if your box will get only partial sun or shade, try your hand at salad greens and root veggies. If you need to create your own shade, planting a row of vining vegetables like beans or peas will do the trick.
Wanting to herb things up? This post will help!
Respect the Perimeter
No matter what you plant, note spacing recommendations. When planting in garden boxes and raised beds this is an especially important consideration. Some plants don’t mind some crowding, others are more of the “gimme some space” type. (We relate.) If you’re vigilant, that bouncing baby tomato plant will one day become a dense, leafy Godzilla greedy for air flow all around and as much sunlight as possible--not just on its head.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plants out there that don’t need tons of room to stretch out. If you’re a root vegetable lover, you’re in luck! Radishes, carrots, parsnips, garlic, and more will thrive in a garden box; even potatoes are happy to take up residence on your patio. (Who knew?)
Your plants should come with sunlight, watering, and spacing recommendations. Need a little more help? The experts at your local independently owned garden center are usually all about that education.
Let’s Get Physical
Look at you, getting all informed and such. Next? Making a plan, snagging some materials and tools, and making some garden magic happen. Don’t forget, if you’re missing some needed tools, Sparetoolz is here to connect you with neighbors who may have just what you need for the job.