Tuesday, April 23, 2013

the backyard: raised garden bed

I've told you guys before about how Tony and I are tackling our backyard transformation in a no-rush, piecemeal way. Our latest project has been putting in a raised garden bed. Tony spent a few weekend days this spring on demo and prep work. Then he and my dad did the bulk of the construction over Easter weekend. And on Sunday, Tony put a coat of stain on it, so I finally have some photos to share! Ta da!

Isn't it beautiful? Don't you just want to ... grow things in it? And then eat those things up?

Tony was the braun behind this project, and I was the brains. I spent a lot of time brainstorming, sketching, and pondering the placement, size, and other logistics.

As for placement, our backyard has a sunny side and shady side, so obviously the garden bed goes on the sunny side.

For shape and size, I got a lot of ideas from the book Square Foot Gardening, which I checked out from the library last year. The idea is simple: You divide your garden into square-foot sections, and you grow a different vegetable in each section. You might be able to grow one pepper in a square foot, but you could fit maybe nine spinach plants in another square foot. The concept makes a lot of sense, especially in urban gardening, where space is a premium. Based on the book's advice, I decided I wanted the surface of my bed to be two feet wide. I wanted it to run much of the length of the fence, which turned out to be 18 feet long. I also wanted the bed to be sufficiently tall, so I wouldn't break my back when I was working in the garden. The whole thing ended up being 20 inches tall. And I wanted to build a ledge where flower pots could sit. Here's a draft version of my schematic:

You probably can't make that out very well, but here is a side view:

So we had a plan. This is where the braun comes in.

The project started with demo. Tony used a sledge hammer to break up a large chunk of the concrete patio:

He hammered away until all the concrete was in golf ball-sized pieces, and we saved those pieces to put at the bottom of the bed for drainage. Two birds, one stone: We didn't have to pay to haul the concrete away, and we didn't have to buy drainage gravel.

Then Tony had to excavate the entire area, which involved digging out a whole lotta dirt. Again, we saved this less-than-quality stuff for filler dirt toward the bottom of the bed, where the plants' roots probably won't reach. We hung a line level on a string between two stakes at either end of the demo'd area to make sure the whole thing was flat.

And that was just the prep work. Then came the construction phase, starting with the post holes. You can see from this photo how the excavated area looked as Tony and my dad got started on the construction. Tony appears to be smiling in this shot - probably because he's only on hole No. 2. He dug a total of eight holes, 30 inches deep, which appears is the frost line for this area. He slept well that night. There's a reason the post hole digger's nickname is "Tool from Hell."

Here he is in action, bringing dirt to the surface:

And here is some of the yucky clay soil he was bringing up:

And then the assembly started. My dad was kind enough to pick up the boards in Ohio, pre-cut them, and drive them down in his truck, so we didn't have to arrange for delivery. How's that for a great dad?

Here's the corner of the bed. In each post hole, Tony and my dad poured a 50-pound bag of fast-setting concrete, which is good for post holes because you don't have to mix it. They sprayed it with the hose and then filled the holes back up with that clay.

Here's the work zone and all those empty concrete bags:

The project also involved running a flexible elephant drain down half of the bed. The idea is to eventually move the gutter to the side of the house and connect it to the elephant drain at the end of the garden bed. The water then will flow down the drain and out the side of the garden bed right near the stormwater drain that's already in the backyard. Tony and my dad drilled two large holes in the bed for the drain to come in and out - and the entrance hole is a couple of inches higher than the exit hole, so the water drains downward.

As a bonus, that pipe's also going to provide some extra drainage for the bed itself. Tony perforated the top of the drain with dozens of holes, so extra water could flow there.

I should mention here that we decided to use pressure-treated wood for the garden bed. I had researched buying cedar, which also holds up well outdoors, but holy guacamole is that stuff expensive. I did a lot of research on the chemicals in pressure-treated wood, and the Internet is not the most reassuring place for good information. We know that arsenic is no longer used to treat wood, but there still are other chemicals. So, for some peace of mind, since we're going to be eating food that's grown in this garden, we covered the inside of the bed with a sheet of heavy duty plastic. Here are Tony and my dad getting the plastic in place. They stapled it to the wood, then attached the ledge to hide the staples.

And here's a photo of Tony using a grinder to smooth out a few screws that poked their way through the bed. So I don't cut my fingers while I'm gardening. Aww.

Now here's the garden bed with two inches of concrete pieces for drainage.

And I threw in a copy of that day's newspaper, protected in a plastic bag, to let future generations know when we were here. This was Uncle Mike's idea :)

Next step: landscape fabric. Water can pass through the fabric, but soil won't be able to get down there to clog things up.

And then came the soil. I made up my own soil recipe here. I mentioned that we re-used some of the excavated top soil. Other ingredients include compost, peat moss, garden soil and top soil. And a little bit of sand and mulch.

And banana peels. Because we were all eating bananas and just threw them into the bed for the hell of it.

By the way, it was cheaper for this project to buy the soil in bags at Home Depot, rather than having it delivered in bulk because of the bulk delivery fees.

Over the next couple of weekends, Tony and I made progress cleaning up the mess in the backyard. And on Sunday, he got out the tinted protectant stain and gave the bed a coat. We used the same color for the bed that we used for our farmhouse table in the backyard, so the two will be tied together.

And the best part is that things are growing now! We didn't really get a good spring growing season in D.C., so I have both cool-season and warm-season crops in the ground now, and we'll see how that shakes out.

Perhaps the coolest-looking plant I have growing are fava beans:

My cucumbers are coming up:

As are a whole bunch of radishes:

And lots of other little things sprouting:

I'm using trellises for the cucumbers, tomato cages for the tomatoes, and poles for the pole beans and to support the peppers. I'm ready for you, summer!


  1. wow, very impressive! That is so great!

    1. Thanks :) Tony gets a ton of credit - he worked really hard and did a great job!

  2. Tomatoes require consistently rich, moist nutrient soil for adequate growth. The soil you start out with will depend on whether you will be cultivating your tomatoes from seeds or from seedlings.

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