Location, location, location
- Choose the best location for the bed. Look for an area with already-level ground and easy access to a water source to make your work easier.
Make sure you have room to work the bed. If you're locating it against a wall, make it no wider than 3 feet across so that you can reach all parts of the bed without stepping on the soil. Since you're going to provide perfect soil, why ruin it by compacting it? If the bed will be an island, it can be 4 feet wide because you'll be able to reach the center from either side.
If you're planning more than one raised bed, leave enough room between beds for a wheelbarrow or lawn mower to pass.
Raised beds need more water than in-the-ground gardens because their drainage is so good and because the sun can heat up the sides of the soil as well as the top. So be sure to water frequently.
Framing the bed
- The easiest and cheapest raised bed of all is simply a pile of soil heaped on the ground and planted. Granted, it's not the neatest looking bed in the world, but building a frame is not absolutely necessary, and you save by not buying materials.
If you want to hold the soil together a little better, frames for the bed can be built from materials you have on hand. Be creative. All kinds of found objects or inexpensive building materials can be used to make walls for a raised bed: brick, stone, concrete blocks, concrete rubble from demolition projects, and bales of hay or straw.
You can even use newspaper--fold layers of 10 or more sheets, soak them completely, and pile them into walls, overlapping for strength. Add stakes every few feet to keep the walls from bowing under the weight of soil.
Old tires are very popular for making circular beds. However, the black rubber heats up in the sun, so this kind of bed will need even more water than most raised beds.
Small plastic "kiddie" pools make a great container for planting, though they will only last a year or two because the plastic degrades. Cut out the bottom and pile soil between the walls. You can pick these pools up cheaply when they go on sale at the end of the summer or find them at yard sales.
Large-diameter PVC pipe can be sawed into rounds to make walls for circular beds.
You can use cheap window boxes to make walls for the bed, and then plant in them.
You can use L-shaped shelves set on their sides.
If you build a wood frame, be sure not to use treated wood (especially avoid wood treated with creosote or compounds containing arsenic), because the toxic chemicals may leach into the soil or get onto your skin. You don't want chemicals if you're growing food plants in the bed. If you can, use naturally rot-resistant wood, such as cedar, redwood, or black locust.
Whatever frame you use, take some pains to spread out the soil evenly inside the framing. Use a level to make sure it's even. This is important because if the soil settles unevenly, you can end up with water running away from one place and pooling in another.
Odd container ideas
- In addition to building walls for a raised bed, almost any container can be used as a planter, provided it has drainage. If you can't remove the bottom or drill holes in it, add a layer of rocks with newspaper over it and pile soil on that.
You can plant in an old bathtub or trough.
You can plant in old dresser drawers. Seal the wood, line with plastic and drill drain holes in the bottom.
You can plant in old barrels, including plastic supply barrels from restaurants. (The restaurant might give you these for free.)
You can plant in a child's wagon with the wheels removed.
You can plant in plastic washtubs, old cooking pots or even a garbage can. These make a nice garden if clustered together so that the ugliest planters are hidden.
There are many other frugal possibilities for garden containers, limited only by your imagination.
Raised beds are easy enough for beginners, but they offer so many advantages that sophisticated gardeners use them too.