Posts Tagged ‘raised beds’

I’ve been in my house for most of the time that I’ve lived in California — 19 years. And in all that time I’ve missed having the big, productive vegetable garden that I had in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of reasons that I haven’t been growing vegetables here; too little time, not enough sun, etc., but the big one is the really crappy soil in our area.

Soil is so very important for growing veggies. Of course light, water and nutrition are key elements, but you can have all of those and still not be able to grow much in the way of vegetables if your soil is lousy.

My soil is compacted and low in organic matter, a result of building practices in developments such a mine. Builders come in and level the ground, bulldozing away the fertile topsoil. Add the fact that the soil in this area is full of heavy clay, which stops tiny little roots dead in their tracks, and you have very inhospitable veggie growing conditions.

The solution is to build raised beds that you can fill with beautiful, fertile soil and loads of compost. Which is what I did last week.

This project is pretty easy. In spite of having only the most basic woodworking skills, I had no problem getting good results. I started with plans, which I modified it to match my needs, that I found on Sunset Magazines website. Now some of you may laugh at how little mine is (4′ x 4′), but I have only one tiny spot that gets enough sun for growing anything but part-shade plants.

I decided on a smaller version than Sunset’s also because this is test run that I didn’t want to sink a lot of money into. If it works, I’ll get some of the eucalyptus trees that surround my yard trimmed or removed (Have you priced this kind of job lately? Yowzers!) and redo my landscape to accommodate larger beds. In the meantime, this project cost me about $90 and took about 4 hours. Here’s how I did it.


  • One 16-foot long 2 x 12 cut into 4 equal pieces (ends up being a tad less than 4′ each due to the saw cut)
  • One 8 foot long 2 x 4 cut into 4 16-inch pieces with some left over
  • A box of 2 1/2″ decking screws – you’ll only need 12 of them though
  • One roll of 1/4″ hardware cloth (I had to get a 3′ x 10′ roll — a 4′ x 10′ would have been better)
  • Five 1 cu. ft. bags of organic topsoil
  • Three 1.5 cu. ft. bags of organic planting compost (total topsoil + compost should be 9 – 10 cubic feet)
  • 2 cups organic Tomato & Vegetable food
  • One small Jack Russel Terrier, optional

I went to Lowe’s (wish there was a real lumber yard in the area) and bought top grade pine. You can use pine, redwood or cedar. The latter two will last a while longer but there are sustainability issues with the cedar. DO NOT BUY TREATED WOOD even if they say it’s the new, safe kind. I don’t believe any of it is food-safe and it’s certainly not organic.

When you are selecting the wood look down the length of the board to make sure it’s not warped. A tiny bit bowing or twisting is ok, but it should be very, very slight. Also eliminate any lumber that has more than very minor splits on the ends or lots of knots.

Lowe’s will cut any lumber you buy to your measurements for no additional charge — good thing because these boards would never have fit into my car, nor could I have managed the larger piece by myself.

Some of the changes I made to the original plans were: I used 12″ lumber for the sides because I couldn’t see any reason to use two 6″ boards as they did in the Sunset plans. And I switched out their recommended 4″ x 4″ corner posts for 2″ x 4″ because my bed is smaller and I thought it wouldn’t compromise the sturdiness factor — besides it saved a little $$. I didn’t add the piping for the row cover hoops because it never gets that cold here, however my resident bird population may cause me to regret not being able to float some bird netting.


  • Electric or battery-powered drill, plus a screw driver bit and a drill bit that is slightly smaller in diameter than the decking screws
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Metal snips or shears

I assembled the bed upside down right where I was going to place it. In retrospect this was probably a mistake that accounted for my not getting the box perfectly squared. So I recommend assembling it on a flat surface like your patio, deck or garage. I did the whole thing myself, but if you can recruit a helper (one with opposable thumbs) so much the better.

  1. Lay down two of the 2 x 4s and place one 2 x 12 on top of them so they are right angles, lining up the 2 x 4s at opposite edges.
  2. Drill pilot holes to prevent splitting the wood. Use 3 decking screws for each end. Screw through the 2 x 12 into the 2 x 4s.
  3. Repeat for one more side. You should have two sides with legs and 2 sides without. (As you can see I switched out my little battery-powered drill which didn’t have enough torque for my electric drill)
  4. Attach one plain board to one board with legs, making sure that the corner is square and the legs face inside the box. Be sure you place the screws so they go into the wood and not the gap between the side and the leg.
  5. Attach the second legged board to the opposite side.
  6. Attach the final side.
  7. Next you should try to get the site as close to level as you can. 
  8. Then turn the bed right side up and mark the soil where the legs will go.
  9. Dig holes four inches deep for the legs.
  10. Place the legs in the holes and fill them in tamping the dirt around the legs.
  11. If there are slight gaps under the sides, take some dirt and mound it along the sides to fill them.
  12. Cut the hardware cloth to fit and lay it on the bottom. This is important if you live in an area with moles and gophers.
  13. Dump the soil and compost in and mix thoroughly using the shovel and the cultivator. Soil should come to within 3 inches of the top.
  14. Add the organic fertilizer and mix that into the top 4 -6 inches.
  15. Using the bow rake, level the soil
  16. Gently spray water to moisten soil.

Now you’re ready to plant!

It is little, but I’m very excited to have a vegetable garden again — no matter how small. Now Emmie needs a nap and so do I!
Update: I should have mentioned that you can increase the size of this raised bed by at least two feet in length with no issues. I wouldn’t recommend increasing the width. For raised beds 3′ to 4′ is as wide as you’ll probably want to go. It makes it easier to reach into the bed for weeding, planting and harvesting.

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Mary Beth: This was my project last weekend for my raised vegetable beds.

I got this idea from the Sunset web site and it worked amazingly well. Ray and I modified the design a bit based on how I made the beds which are on a slope and are very irregularly shaped. When I made them I used rocks for the sides of the beds instead of lumber, but it actually turned out to be a perfect way to protect my crops.

Ray used 2 foot pieces of rebar for the stakes. We hammered the bars into the ground along the long sides of the tomato and squash beds and slipped the PVC pipe on each opposite pair creating a half hoop. Then I covered the hoops with plastic.

The plants seem to be responding well. I think the plastic covers over the squash and tomatoes are keeping them warm at night when our mountain temps get down to the low 50’s. Cool nights will slow them down, but by using hoops to retain the warmth it should extend the season so I can have veggies well into October and maybe even November.

I also put hoops on my cool-weather plant beds, but I covered these with netting to protect those crops from the birds.

This is one of those “Why did I take so long to do this?!”  projects.

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Ah gardening! It’s all so simple, and yet it can get so freaking complicated, so quickly. Planting seeds for instance. The simple question is, “When can I plant seeds?” And the answer is…well, there are many answers depending on many factors, but let’s try to make it simple.

The simple story about seeds is they need the right soil temperature, the right exposure to light, and the right amount of water to germinate. Sounds easy and it is, kind of. If you follow some basic guidelines you’ll get a pretty good germination rate, not 100%, but good enough.

Here’s where we can make it complicated. This chart that shows the “practical” soil temperature for planting seeds to get a good crop versus the “optimal” temperature for seed germination.


From Gardener's Supply Company

I found it very interesting that the optimal soil temperature where you can expect almost all the seeds to germinate for corn or cucumbers would be 95 degrees. Really! My soil never gets that warm and I’m betting yours never does either. So ignore the optimal temperature and focus on the practical temperature.

Now the next question could be how in the heck do I know what my soil temperature is? And the answer is that there are a couple of ways to do that. One would be to get a soil thermometer to test your soil (a little complicated), or you might go to your local extension’s website and find a record of soil temps (still a little complicated). Or you could say, “It’s late March/early April in Zone 10 (when, generally speaking, the soil temps should be good) and that means it’s time to plant.”

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to your soil temperatures. (In fact, if you regularly have trouble with a particular crop seed, this might help you figure out where you’re going wrong.) It’s just that you don’t have to be so precise.

A good rule of thumb is to plant warm season crops when the soil temps are between 50 degrees and 60 degrees and the daytime/air temperature is between 65 degrees and 80 degrees.

Most of the veggies on the following list are warm season crops, but a few are cool season crops that need a long time to grow before they are mature. Still others can be grown all year round in our zone. But let’s just make it as simple as possible to avoid further confusing anyone. Here’s your list of vegetable seeds to plant right now in coastal Southern California (USDA Zone 10/Sunset Zone 22, 23, 24) in late March/early April.

Seeds to plant in March/April

  • Beets
  • Bush Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Collards
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Jicama
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Lima Beans
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Radish
  • Snap Beans
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Summer Squash
  • Tomato
  • Turnip
  • Watermelon
  • Winter Squash

Planting tips:

  • Nothing short of full sun is going to cut it for most plants. Make sure you place your veggie garden where it will get at least 8 hours of sunlight.
  • If you have heavy clay soil, do yourself a huge favor and build a raised bed. The truth is that unless you have perfectly loamy soil, you will have much better results with a raised bed.
  • Raised beds are absolutely the way to go if you are in an urban area where your soil is likely to be contaminated with lead and other pollutants.
  • If you have gophers, nail 1/8″ – 1/4″ hardware cloth on the bottom of your raised bed frames to keep them out.
  • Use topsoil in your raised beds, NOT potting soil.
  • Amend with a good organic amendment.
  • Keep you seeds evenly moist until they sprout – use a hose sprayer or a sprinkler.
  • Install drip lines. Ditto on the success factor with drip watering for vegetables, plus it will conserve water.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch. Conserves water, keeps soil temperatures moderated and plants happy (i.e. not stressed), and cuts way down on weeds.

This is a link to an awesome UC ANR chart that shows when to plant vegetables in all California regions, how to plant them, how much to plant for a family of 4, and how to preserve your crops.

Folks in cooler planting zones should be starting seeds indoors for planting when the air and soil temps warm up. For Durango and all other zones — find out from your local extension or nursery when the soil temps will be 50 – 60 degrees and plan on getting seeds or seedlings in the ground then.

Mary Beth will be writing about Durango area planting in the coming weeks.


Good planting.

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Mary Beth: I love this time of year. It’s a time when I like to make a few changes in the garden beds. Some work, some don’t and, while the main bones of the garden will always be the same, it’s fun to have a few surprises to look forward to the next year. And changes here and there are especially nice for those of us who like to take photographs.

Today I dug up one of my favorite plants, the Blue Star Amsonia. This plant looks especially good contrasted with the red poppies that grow next to it (it’s one of my favorite photo subjects) but, it got too big and began to take over the bed.

Red poppy and Blue Star Amsonia

Red Poppy and Blue Star Amsonia

So I moved it, leaving behind an Amsonia seedling I found to keep the poppies company. This also gave my father’s pretty yellow rose some room to be seen. In the Amsonia’s place I transplanted a white coneflower, a dozen crocosmia ‘lucifer’, and a clump of Red Switch Grass that has beautiful leaves blushed with red. I think this combo will look amazing with Dad’s yellow rose and a delicate white rose, ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, that’s nearby. It will also give the bed color throughout the entire season which it lacks this time of year. I planted the Amsonia on the other end of the bed with the yellow daylilies and blue Japanese iris, where I think it will look especially nice and give me more pretty combos to photograph.

I’m planning on more garden changes, but right now they are still swirling around my brain. I’m one of those gardeners who doesn’t plan on paper. The ideas pop in my head while I’m having a bout of insomnia, while I’m working in other people’s gardens, or while weeding in one of my beds. When things start to come together and the picture I’m painting in my head seems right, I’ll  grab my shovel and start creating a new work of art.

Speaking of changes, this fall will be extra busy for me because Ray and I have decided that we won’t be coming back to live on Block Island next year. We’re going back to our home in Colorado and will stay there year round. It’s a very bittersweet time for us. I’m very excited about living all four seasons in the mountains and working in my Colorado gardens again after 5 years on Block Island, but heartbroken to leave this special garden that’s filled with so many wonderful memories.

Laying out the vegetable garden 5 years ago

Laying out the vegetable garden ...

The vegetable garden five years later

The vegetable garden five years later.

The flower bed in front of the vegetable garden

The flower bed in front of the vegetable garden...

And five years later

And five years later.

In spite of leaving so much behind, I know that these changes will be good for us. I can feel it. And my Colorado garden, which has endured on it’s own all these years, is calling me.

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