Benjamin Franklin, founding father, genius inventor, French speaker, and all-around smart guy, is credited with the oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I mean, if any one knows about proper planning and preparation, surely Ben is the guy.
This quote, and its frequent re-imaginations of it, is my personal mantra that I use constantly. Work, home, play…it always applies. Maybe it is because of my inherent laziness, and without a focused, single-minded organizational goal, my life would literally be buried in piles of take-out and weeks of laundry. I learned early in college that if I was going to accomplish anything other than day drinking and waiting for meal times, I would need to set goals in writing and work a process. (This would seem an appropriate time for an AA joke…but I am not always sure where my audience sits.)
Anyways, my whole point here is that if Ben were a passionate urban farmer, I feel like he would have a plan. Probably a genius, world-changing plan. I, on the other hand, have purchased tools. One of the best investments I have made is a subscription to an online garden planning software. There are a lot of them out there, and I use GrowVeg.com, which is $45 for two years. It makes it super easy to plot out your plan, with locations, equipment, plants, etc., and even has the ability to do succession planning and year-to-year crop rotations. Full disclosure, they are NOT offering me any money for supporting them (but I am very open to it). I just happen to like the program. With it, I created a three-year plan to expand my garden, so it would grow as my skill in managing the garden improved. Eventually it would look like this:
As is typical of my finely-tuned, well-developed and thoroughly-researched home plans, it did not meet CFO’s expectations, as he was not interested in spending the next three years involved in garden construction. So…he bumped up the timelines a little…to now. In 72 hours, we went from modest suburban veggie garden, to raised bed city. Fortunately, one of the great benefits of a good plan, is the ability to adapt and modify. CFO did a few trips to the lumber yard, and over the course of a weekend built me an additional 4 raised beds, ready to install.
Raised beds are my preferred gardening style. We live in heavy clay, with poor drainage, and lots of water in the spring. It would take years to get our soil to the plant-friendly loam I need. Raised beds allow me the benefit of top notch soil (because I choose it), and also put up walls to the unrelenting weeds. Another great benefit, is the lack of tilling needed. Each spring I can rake in some fresh compost, and be good to go. When I first began this garden-adventure three years ago, I broke my back installing the first beds by ripping up the sod to install the first bed. What a waste of a good back. This method is super easy to do.
Step One: Build the Bed.
A good blueprint to follow is at this website: http://www.sunset.com/garden/backyard-projects/ultimate-raised-bed-how-to. Pretty straight forward and I don’t think I could describe it any simpler for basic construction. You do need access to a saw (12” is ideal, but I have made less work) and drill. For these you can beg, borrow, or steal (with permission) from friends or family. My standard size of garden bed is 4 ft x 8 ft, and I use 2×6 rough sawn cedar stacked to make the edges 12” high. Rough sawn wood is not planed as many times, the corners are not rounded, the measurements are more true-to-size and you will get one million wood slivers when you touch it. Because of this you can purchase it at a slight cost savings. I use cedar because I like the smell and it has more natural rot-resistance than some other woods. Cedar should last around 10 years. Pine is a much less expensive alternative, won’t last as long, and you should be cautious about the old green treated lumber. It’s not for food-stuffs.
Step Two: Install Bed.
If you were a smart cookie, you would have a plan for where you want your bed to go. Someplace with at least 6 hours of sun, preferably 10. Also, someplace on your property. I used to spend a lot of time removing vegetation, leveling, making things look neat and tidy…no more. Place the bed where you want it to end up, mark where the corner posts will sit with something, I use landscape staples. Move the bed (actually, try to have someone move it for you because its heavy, while you enjoy a cold beverage), and dig up some holes for the corners. My corner posts are about 4” high, so I dig an area roughly 5” x 5” x 5” to be safe. Set the bed in place, stand on each corner and jumpjumpjump to let it settle
Step Three: Smother the Grass.
I know what you are thinking…its pretty, but its full of grass and weeds! Stick with me young grasshopper. Its important you read this little how-to so you can prepare this step in advance. I used to line my beds with black landscaping cloth, but that adds some more costs to the project and its really unnecessary. If you are like me, you insist on ordering the Sunday newspaper for the coupons and as a result have stacks and stacks of unwanted papers lying around. Newsprint is completely biodegradable and even the ink is made out of soy. Take that stack and completely cover the grass/weeds in the bottom of your bed. This will smother the unwanted green stuff, and will eventually break down into your soil. You can take a hose and wet the paper down, but I didn’t do that because I am always in a hurry and it seemed like an unnecessary step and also my outdoor water was not hooked up yet.
Step Four: Protect your Crop
You might think all you have to do is add some dirt, but this step is kind of important if you want to see any carrots at all. Line the inside of the bed (on top of that newsprint) with 1/2” hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is not cloth, but a metal netting, similar to chicken wire. I am sure it has uses outside of garden beds but who cares. It is perfect to keep moles, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. from tunneling under the frames and stealing your root veggies just as they become ready. This step is kind of putzy, as it does involve sharp scissors or wire cutters. I try to find a roll that is the same width as my bed. Roll it out, cut to size, and use landscape staples to tack it down around the inside edge. If a little critter was desperate, he could make it inside your raised bed. But, if the little guy was that hard up for food he probably needs it more than you anyways. Most won’t bother because getting stuck makes them very open to becoming food themselves. If you neglect this step, thats cool too, but you could regret it some day.
Step Five: Fill ‘er Up!
This is the fun/backbreaking part. I recommend
tricking asking someone else to do the heavy lifting in this step also. You need to fill up your new garden bed with some good quality black gold. My preferred medium is a half-and-half mixture of top soil and compost. I have always purchased this mix from a local compost facility at a great steal at $25/yard, but some other gardeners caught on, leading the composter to advertise their “organic-ness” and rebrand themselves. Same good stuff, and now even more cost! But, I digress. About 1 yard of material (give or take 32 cubic feet) will be enough for a 4x8x1 ft bed.
Step Six: Go nuts, Get Planting.
Hey look! You have a garden! Not so bad for an afternoons work. Now you can fill it with veggies and fruits to your hearts desire. Here are some baby tomato plants I started in my basement.
The total cost for this style of garden can vary depending on materials. Where I live, I can make a 4×8 cedar raised bed for about $100 a piece, including the soil, but not including the vegetables. At a 10-year investment, that is not so bad. And once you make one, it’s really hard to stop. A garden after Ben Franklin’s own heart.