Archive for April, 2011

3 boards and 12 screws…raised bed construction made easy

Many people shy away from gardening because they think it’s too complicated.  Gardening can be a daunting task at times, but for the most part it’s as simple as good soil, good seed, good sun, and lots of patience.

I’ll work backwards through the list.

Lots of Patience:  Rushing things is probably the #1 reason why gardeners are unsuccessful.  Don’t try to do everything at once.  Start off small…one or two raised beds or a small in-ground plot is plenty to get your feet wet in gardening.  Don’t try to plant too many different types of plants.  Plant things that are easy to grow and are things that you and your family will eat.  Follow recommended planting times carefully.  Planting too early is a recipe for disaster.

Good Sun: Vegetable plants need a minimum of 6, but more ideally 8-10 hours of direct sunlight to grow.  If your yard is shady, break out the chainsaw and clear out the canopy or find another location with more sun.  If you do have a lot of shade, you will be limited in what you can grow…stick with lettuces, spinach, radishes, and onions in your areas with less sun.

Good Seed: Make sure that when you buy seeds or plants that you are buying quality, fresh seeds and healthy, hardened-off plants.  Buy seed from reputable sources…avoid the mega seed companies and support those that provide quality and excellent service. Do not buy the biggest, most expensive plants at the nursery.  Tomato and pepper plants should be from 3-10 inches tall, have very stocky stems, have no open flowers on them, and should have a “rootbound” appearance when you pull them out of their containers.

Good Soil: Most urban yards have poor quality soil.  Too much clay, not enough drainage, and too many rocks.  All of these obstacles can be solved by building a raised bed.  A raised bed has a lot of advantages over panting directly in the ground and a few disadvantages.

Pros:  Excellent drainage.  Excellent soil quality.  Soil warms up more quickly.  Less bending over to plant and harvest.  Neat garden appearance.  Keeps the gardener cleaner.

Cons: Initial cost of materials.  Initial Labor.  Soil dries out quickly.

A raised bed doesn’t have to be expensive.  You can use recycled lumber to build a box, or use stones from around the yard to make a bed edging.  You can also just make a large, mounded row on top of the existing soil and reap some of the raised bed benefits.

I prefer to use treated lumber to build my beds.  Today’s treated lumber is much safer for gardening purposes than the old “CCA” type lumbers that are no longer made.  Check out this link to learn more about using treated lumber in your garden.  If you’re still not convinced, you can use regular lumber, but it will need to be replaced after about 3-5 years.

Once you’ve decided on your bed location, decide on the length of the bed.  I have raised beds that are as short as 4 feet and as long as 16 feet and everything in -between.  The length isn’t nearly as important as the width.  Raised beds should be no more than 4 foot wide.  Any wider than that and it’s difficult to reach the middle of the bed for planting, harvesting and weeding.  Many tomato gardeners say that 3 feet is ideal.  I prefer 4 foot wide beds.

Go to your local lumber store and purchase two board of the length you desire for your bed.  You can buy boards as wide as 18 inches or as narrow as 6 inches.  The wider the board, the higher the bed.  I really like my 12 inch high beds over my shorter ones.  Also purchase one 8 foot long board that is the same width of your other two boards.  Have the workers cut the 8 foot board in half for you (they will cut them for free).  This will make two, 4 foot long pieces that will be the ends of your bed.

Next, purchase a small box of 3 or 3 1/2 inch screws.  Make sure that you buy the screws that are for use with treated wood if you are using treated lumber. Do not waste your money on those fancy corner connector kits they sell for raised beds.

When you get the board to your garden area, partially install three of the screws in the ends of the longer boards.  Screw them in about 1 inch from the end of the boards.  This makes joining the boards together easier when you put them in place.

Place the boards in a box shape over your garden area, and fasten in all 12 screws.

You can  now choose to lightly till the soil in the middle of the box, or you can place a layer of 10-15 sheets of newspaper over the bottom of the bed to avoid weed growth, or you can just fill the box in over the existing soil.  I’ve used all three methods and haven’t noticed any difference in bed performance, so do what’s easiest for you.

Finally, begin filling the bed with compost.  If at all possible, don’t buy the stuff in the bags.  Go to Suburban Lawn and Garden or Missouri Organic and buy it by the yard.  Buy COMPOST…don’t buy topsoil.  Topsoil is a bit cheaper, but is not what you want to grow your veggies in.  Don’t worry if you can’t fill the bed all the way to the top the first year.  Fill it half-full and then add to it each year.

Total cost for a raised bed up to 12 foot in length should be no more than $100 including all materials and filling it with purchased compost.

Here’s a peek at some of my raised beds and the wonderful salads they are producing right now!

Well, I hope this helps those of you deciding to get into gardening or those wanting to expand their current gardens.

Plant sales start this weekend…can’t wait to see all of you again and talk tomato over the coming weeks!

Comments (6)

1,010 things to do in the next month besides plant tomatoes!

I know it’s 80 degrees out there and everyone wants to get a jump on the tomato and pepper growing season, but  starting too early is an almost certain recipe for disaster. Learn from my past mistakes and avoid the heartaches I’ve had over the years.

I remember a few years ago that March and early April were very warm like this and I decided to pull the trigger and plant early.  Well..low and behold, a nasty Easter freeze happened.  My wife and I spent hours building tents out of tarps and plastic sheeting and covering plants with straw…all was in vain though and we lost every plant in the ground…fortunately I had backups in a cold frame with a heater and I was able to re-plant.

Another year we had a great spring and all was well into early May,,the garden looked great and we had a shrimp boil here to celebrate with a bunch of friends.  I didn’t pay attention to the forecast because of the party and we had a weird frost that night…it didn’t wipe out the whole garden, just an oval diagonal pattern that took out a dozen tomato plants and nearly killed my giant pumpkin plant…somehow the pumpkin plant recovered, but the tomato plants in the frost path all died.  It doesn’t take much frost at all to kill tomatoes and peppers..not much at all.

The temps do not have to drop to 32 degrees  in order for it to frost.  Saturday morning the low was 40 degrees, but the wind was calm and the sky was clear.  I woke up at 4:00 in the morning and for some reason decided to check my plants I had put outside two days before.  I noticed a dew was forming and I wasn’t too concerned…I touched the windshield of my truck and it was just wet from dew.  I was about to go back inside and I caught something shiny on the roof of the truck…FROST!  I quickly grabbed my sheets of Agribond and covered all of the plants with two layers.  None died from the frost, but I would have likely lost several hundred plants had I slept in.

Even if we do not get any major frosts or freezes, you need to consider the tomato plant’s needs for temperature and daylight.  Right now we have about 13 hours and 40 minutes from dawn to dusk….one month from now we’ll have an extra 1 hour and 15 minutes of daylight for the plants to soak up. You also need to consider that tomato plants don’t grow much at all whenever the soil or air drops below about 50 degrees.. The long range forecast is calling for many nights in the mid-low 40’s….this will all but halt tomato growth.  When nights are consistently above 50 degrees…60 degrees is better, the plants will grow vigorously in response.  Patience is a gardener’s best friend…loads and loads of patience!

Ok…off my soapbox about planting too early, now for things you can do BESIDES plant tomato and pepper plants in the next month.  I don’t have 1,010 but there is no reason to not garden now!

  1. Amend your garden soil with compost, compost, compost!
  2. Amend your soil with balanced fertilizers and composted manure if necessary
  3. Build new raised beds…make them 4 feet wide or narrower for ease of reaching
  4. Trim away trees and branches that shade your gardens
  5. Plant lettuce, spinach, radishes, onions, peas, beets, cabbage, chard, kohlrabi
  6. Measure your bed lengths so you can cover them with Silver Reflective Mulch film (I’ve got plenty for sale this year) to prevent aphids
  7. Consider purchasing a drip irrigation kit
  8. Make a plan for your garden to ensure ample spacing of plants…tomatoes need 30 inches or more between them.
  9. Get online and check out the garden forums at, GardenWeb, and many others.
  10. Cover your garden paths with weed-proof fabric and a few inches of wood chips

Well…I’m sure there are a 1,000 more things you can think of to do in the garden!

For those of you that absolutely want to get your plants early this year, I’ll be open for business beginning the week of April 11th in the evenings after 5 by appointment only (just e-mail me when you want to stop by and I’ll know to expect you)  I’ll also be open the weekends of April 16th, April 23rd, 30th, and May 7th.

I’m looking forward to visiting with all of you again this spring and doing anything I can to make your gardens as successful and bountiful as possible!  Thanks so much!

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