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Intrepid Urban Farmer: The real dirt on raised garden beds — how to build them once and enjoy the crops

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune columnist

A few years back, when I was starting to really ramp up my gardening operation, I decided to put in a couple of raised beds. I had been gardening in a regular plot in my back yard for many years. The lure of this new innovation was powerful. I knew it would be the perfect solution for my garlic crops and make a much nicer growing environment for radishes, carrots and other root crops.

Being an urban farmer, I am well acquainted with the archaeology of my back yard. Glass, pieces of china, nails, marbles (I have a whole collection) and even a little bisque doll’s arm have been unearthed. I really enjoy these little finds, but they are not exactly conducive to growing nice long carrots or round beets. To say that some of my produce had “personality” would be an understatement.

The beds after assembly

The beds after assembly

I knew it would take a lot of work to build and fill a raised bed. I anticipated that it would take lots of dirt. It did. There was no way to get a dump truck of loose dirt into my back yard, so I had to schlep it in.

The traditional plan of building the beds out of wood, which will eventually rot, was a non-starter for me. I wanted to do this ONCE. And once only.

I was lucky to find a raised bed kit on the internet that was made from recycled plastic milk jugs. Perfect! I ordered two, put them together, filled them with dirt (I felt like I was on a chain gang), and have enjoyed them ever since.

Eight years have gone by since I installed these beds. They are still perfect! I knew I had made the right decision.

Since, over time, I have developed a rapacious need to garden (more, more, more!), I decided it was time to install more raised bedding. By this point, I have completely abandoned the idea of having a traditionally landscaped yard….not that it was ever any great shakes to begin with. I like flowers, but all I think about when I see them is, “I could put another tomato plant there, I bet”. Martha Stewart I am not.

I thought all I had to do was order two more of the same type of beds that I already had. But, once again, one of the truisms of my life occurred–nothing is ever easy.

The company I ordered the original pair of beds from had gone out of business. Dang.

Marking the footprint to till and amend the soil under the bed.

Marking the footprint to till and amend the soil under the bed.

Now what?!

After looking all over online and at the usual big box “everything-but-what-you-need” stores, I couldn’t find anything that came up to the standard of my original two beds. I was spoiled.

It came down to the fact that I was going to have to build the beds from scratch. So I did.

First, I had to find the appropriate material — not wood. After a short search, I found polymer board siding that was the perfect size and shape. This was at the big box “everything but what you need” store (I guess I’ll have to retract that now).

I bought six 8 foot by 9 inch by 3/4 inch boards and had two of them cut into 4 foot lengths. These will be the sides. I also got one skinnier board (2 1/2 inches) and had it cut into two 4 foot sections as well. These smaller pieces will be center positioned supports to help prevent the beds from bowing out from the weight of the dirt when they are full.

The beds are in place and ready to fill with dirt.

The beds are in place and ready to fill with dirt.

With my trusty cordless drill, I assembled the pieces with coated deck screws. Four screws are at each corner. I thought at first I would need some type of corner bracing, but since I had such good luck setting all of the screws, I decided against it. The center braces were put in place last. A good cordless drill truly is a girl’s best friend.

I picked a good level spot in my yard. Fortunately, this placement also coincides with at least six hours of sun exposure. I positioned the beds and marked the outlines of them with diatomaceous earth (a type of powder used for insect control—it is not toxic).

I spaded the marked edges and broke up the turf. I amended these footprints with peat moss and manure, got the tiller out, and created mayhem. I really went at it. I love my tiller. Is it wrong to say you have two best friends?

I think it is important to break up the dirt under your raised bed and amend it as if there were no bed being put in place. Larger plants, like tomatoes, will want to take advantage of that extra room if it is an inviting environment. Deeper roots make for happier plants. I did this on my first two beds and I believe it is a plus. This will make your beds more functional for a good crop rotation plan. The more options you have for this, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

I put the beds back in place, putting a weed barrier fabric in between them. I also cut strips of this fabric and put in down in the bottom edges of the bed to help keep dirt from sifting out underneath.

Now for the real fun! Dirt. LOTS of dirt.

The finished beds. Filled and ready to go!

The finished beds. Filled and ready to go!

I visited my friends at Jackson Florist and Garden Center in Latonia. I got the dirt—thirty-six bags of it at forty pounds per. I also got peat moss and cow manure. Buying the dirt was easy. Watching the folks at Jackson Florists load it up in the Jeep was easy. That was the end of easy.

Back at the garden; back on the chain gang.

I got out my third best friend, a kid’s Radio Flyer wagon, and started the process of transporting the dirt and filling the beds. There’s no easy solution to this. You just put your head down and do it, knowing it will be over at some point.

The beds are filled mostly with top soil, one large bag of a compost/cow manure mix in each, and a good amount of peat moss. They are ready to go.

I cannot wait to see how these beds will work out. It’s always exciting (for us serious geeks) to have a new place to dig in the dirt. The seed is lined up and ready to go. I’m just waiting for the right temperatures.

It should be soon!


Intrepid Urban Farmer Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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