Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Raised garden bed construction

Photo courtesy of Colorado State University

Several people have asked me about how we built our garden beds. It's not that difficult, and it's a great project for a person with limited carpentry skills (like me!).

So what's the big deal about raised garden beds? You get more bang for your buck with RGBs, in that you can produce more vegetables in a smaller area since you are not having to walk in between the rows of plants. Planting veggies so close together that the leaves touch can create a microclimate under the plants, keeping the plants warm and blocking out sunlight which discourages weed growth. RGBs will ensure that no one tramples across your garden soil, and keeps the dirt from getting compacted, making it easier for your plants to root. Above ground garden beds also stay warmer than the earth. Rodents and insects may have a harder time penetrating your crop -- some people tack up copper strips around the outside of the bed to keep out slugs. Plus, they are easier to work in since you are not bending over the ground -- the planting surface is at a higher, more ergonomic level. And last but certainly not least, you can fill up the beds with the perfect mixture of sand, loam, compost, and soil to give your vegetables the best possible start to growing their way into your kitchen.

The first step is planning out the layout of your beds. Where in your yard do you have the most south facing sun? Keep an eye on the area of your yard that you are thinking about building beds, and watch how the sun falls on it during the day. Does the whole yard get sun, or only one part? Is there plenty of exposure to the south, or is the neighbors tall fir tree or house blocking you out?

Once you determine where you want to put your beds, decide on what kinds you want to build. The width and depth can vary depending on what you intend to grow. For instance, the Colorado State University Extension Program recommends that tomatoes be grown in a bed only 2 feet wide. They recommend that ten tomato plants would be best in a 2 x 20 ft bed.

Most raised beds follow the 8 ft x 4 ft model at a one foot depth. You don't want your garden beds any wider than four of five feet. If they are wider than this, you may have trouble being able to reach the center of your bed from the outside, causing you to have to climb up in the bed to work in the middle of the bed, and in the process defeating the purpose of uncompacted soil.

The depth of bed determines on how deeply the vegetables you plant will root. Here are a few examples from the Clemson University Extension Program:

Shallow Rooted

Moderate Rooted
Summer Squash

Deep Rooted
Lima bean
Winter Squash
Sweet Potato

Also plan how much space you want to leave between beds and around beds. Experts recommend at least three feet in between beds so that you can comfortably get down on your knees or kneel between them when working with the plants. You may want to leave more room if you wish to be able to maneuver a wheelbarrow through them.

Once you decide how many beds you want, how big they will be, and how far apart, you can plan your layout.

Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Don't make the mistake I did -- I built the beds first, and then had to drag the heavy things into place. If I had to do it over again, I would have staked it out first, or at least where I wanted the corners of my beds to be. Mark where the corner posts will go, and dig out a one foot hole with a post hole digger. Build your beds in place, and simply drop the corner posts into their respective holes as you go.

When deciding what materials to use for the bed, you must decide a) how much you want to spend b) how long you want it to last c) how pure you want the wood

Hardwoods such as cedar will last a long time, but may cost a pretty penny if buying new. Other woods may degrade faster over time. Reclaimed lumber can be utilized too, but ensure that it is free of hazardous materials or chemicals. Likewise, try to avoid buying pressure treated lumber if at all possible, as many of them contain arsenic and other goodies that you won't want to leach into your soil and vegetables.

I used to use lag bolts to hold the beds together, but this requires more tools -- sockets, wrenches, drilling pilot holes .... save yourself time (and money) by using outdoor deck screws. I used 3 1/2 inch deck screws from Home Depot and they worked out great. The beds were nice and sturdy, and the tan screws blended in well. I think it gives the beds a better aesthetic, and we always shoot for a balance of function and beauty.

You can build a raised garden bed in any number of ways. Some people use bricks, some people use wood -- my mom recently used a kiddie pool with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, which seems to work well, too.

Regarding the wood construction, here is a diagram that I prepared for a class I recently gave to my Sustainable Food Systems and Education Farms class. It will produce an 8 x 4 ft raised bed that is one foot deep.

For the above model, you just need to buy six 8 foot 2x6s, one 8 foot 4x4, and box of deck screws. Too easy! If you wanted it an extra six inches deeper, just adjust the length of your 4x4 to 2.5 feet, and add another 2x6. Get creative and build more as you need, play with the dimensions and create exciting patterns in your yard!

Once you have the bed constructed, you may want to take it a step further. Before adding dirt, add a weed barrier which will significantly reduce weed growth once your beds get going. Place PVC pipes every four to six feet and arch them over the beds. Attach plastic sheets and transform your bed into a greenhouse. Or install drip irrigation systems or sprinklers to make watering easier on yourself. My good friend Ben recently came up and ran a drip system for me. It was cheap and easy and a Raindrip starter kit only runs about $30 from Lowe's.

Finally, decide what you want to do with the land around and between your garden beds. Some people cover the aisles with gravel, others choose to spread mulch or grass. Leaving a mulch bed can be an excellent way to discourage weed growth but encourage the presence of beneficial insects.

Here are some more resources that you can use for your project. Have fun!

Building the Ultimate Raised Garden Bed

Sunset Magazine's Garden Section

Mother Earth News

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Halfway house

CHICKEN update:

The coop has stalled at about 80% completion. I will post pics once it's all done, so I can have photos from beginning to end.

In the meantime, in just over a month, the chicks have more than quadrupled in size, and are now pullets. My folks loaned me a cage that they use to house feral cats and it's plenty big for them right now.

I put their waterer and feeder up on bricks so that it's high enough that they can reach but not kick bedding in.
I ran an extension cord out a hole in the basement wall and up around to the porch.

So they are covered, warm, fed, and happy. And growing more every day.

Nevertheless, I can tell they are looking forward to their ... dream home. Nothing a couple more swings of the hammer and a coat of paint can't complete.

Now I just need to find the time!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


One of the big problems facing urban composters is that the bins can serve as a smorgasbord for rats. Compost bins can attract large numbers of rats, and the neighbor next door might not be as jazzed as you are regarding your attempts to create humus out of table scraps.  

The other day I went to dump our recycle bucket into the large bin.  I opened the lid and was startled by movement amidst the rotting apple cores and onion skins -- a big rat!  I shrieked like a little girl and instinctively jumped back.

Moments later, my manhood back intact, I peered down into the ground cover next to the base of the bin to where the rat had scurried.  A tunnel entrance the size of my fist gaped at me. I had set the compost down on uneven ground and therefore the plastic bottom that is supposed to keep rodents out was not fully meeting the edges.  The rat's tunnel came up right next to the bin, just like a subway entrance comes out right next to Times Square.  Instead of hot dogs he was eating corn husks from my tamales.

I half-assed fixed the problem (I was too preoccupied with coop construction) by setting a large chunk of concrete over the hole.  I figured he'd move the tunnel entrance accordingly, but I wasn't that worried about it.  I thought back to one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, Charlotte's Web, and Templeton the funny rat who was always pigging out on the rotten garbage around the farm and later the fair. (As a boy I believed the voice to be Jack Nicholson, I later found out it was center Hollywood square Paul Lynde!)  I figured the rat had to have a name, so Templeton would work.  I wondered how many more Templetons there were.

Two days later I found Templeton laid out in the center of the lawn with tooth marks around his neck. I can only imagine that Cricket had done the deed, as he was in the open and there were no fallen anvils around him. I have a basic love for all animals, but I felt especially proud of my dog at that moment.

I buried the rat in the flower beds next to a tree stump that I had dug up.

The next night I struck up a conversation with my next door neighbor. Our chat drifted from coops to chickens to his Shar-Peis and their experience with previous chickens (messy), and how they killed three rats earlier that week.  I mentioned Cricket's score as well. He voiced support of composting but lamented that it brought rats.  

I'm going to do my part to churn my compost more often, add lots of carbon and other soils to speed up the breakdown, and to make sure that I level out the bin so there are no more backdoors!

As for Templeton,

"From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."

             -Edvard Munch

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Coop! Coop! Coop!

Marie wanted the chickens out. They were starting to stink, and they were kicking up huge dust clouds in the dining room. I promised her that they would be out by Mother’s Day weekend.

I ended up spending Friday and Saturday prepping the coop area and collecting supplies. Before I knew it, Saturday night had come and I still hadn’t swung a hammer.

She began to worry.

“I’m just a little worried because you said it would be done by this weekend…” she started.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get up at the crack of dawn and –"

“That’s what you said this morning!”

“This time I’ll really get up early, and you’re gonna wake up and come downstairs and be like, 'Whoaaa! It’s beautiful! I’m really impressed! You did it!'”

She looked skeptical but said okay.


At 6:30 am the alarm clock buzzed. I got up and dressed, made a pot of coffee, and headed outside.

The night before, shortly after I assured Marie all would go perfectly, I envisioned myself amping up on caffeine, hauling out my power tools and radio, and playing some classic rock while I erected the perfect chicken coop. It wouldn’t take me more than a few hours. When she got up at 9:00, it would be almost complete. In other words, it would work out as seamlessly as a movie montage.

Instead, I would find myself with a bleeding, blown out index finger and Googling (with one hand) "how to hammer a nail."

The first thing that went awry was the music was all wrong. I couldn’t find any good yard work/construction music. I turned it to KMHD, one of my favorite stations, and one that has music instead of talking or commercials. With some scratchy crooning and clarinets in the background, I set forth. But it wasn’t exactly construction montage music.

I started to assemble four 2x4s into a square, but I couldn’t get a nail to go in straight to save my life. I wondered if they were somehow defective. For every one that I nailed in successfully, I had to pull three out. The hammer wouldn’t grab them and mostly just tore the heads off.

Earlier in the week I had hinted on my Facebook page that coop construction was near ("Tonight we sleep, tomorrow we build," I had boldly announced). One of my friends had become antsy. Checking my email before heading out that morning, I saw a request for pictures. It was followed the next day with simply “Coop! Coop! Coop!” Now, frustrated and wondering how the hell I was going to build it if I couldn’t even hammer a couple of damn nails, the words kept going through my head like a taunt. I closed my eyes and saw the black letters on white background – COOP! COOP! COOP!

I put things aside, and had a moment of reflection. I considered putting out a call for help, but realized it was Mother’s Day, and most people were probably busy. I decided that I couldn’t be that bad a carpenter, took a deep breath, and tried again.

With renewed confidence, I confronted those 2x4s. But I lacked a solid surface to work on and had to hold the boards between my knees, hammering at odd angles and elevations. I got mad at the nails. I hammered harder. I blinked. And when I opened my eyes I felt excruciating pain. I raised the finger to inspect it. Just in time to see dark red blood oozing out, the end looking like a squished grape.

After continuing unsuccessfully with a lot less vigor, I decided to rouse Marie. I prodded her gently with my good pointer finger and woke her up. “Happy Mother’s Day,” I whispered, so as not to awaken the sleeping baby next to her, while sticking my smashed and bleeding finger in her face. "I'm a terrible carpenter," I admitted. She agreed to help.

After that, things went relatively well; at least in relation to the previous two hours. I Googled how to effectively hammer (who knew that there were so many facets to it!). She found a decent hammer that a friend had forgotten (with the recommended waffle print on the head). I consulted a contractor friend via text message and found out that yes, you can cut a 4x4 with a skillsaw.

We cut a 4x4 into four pieces (legs) and nailed our 2x4s to them in the form of a square frame. Plywood was attached and another set of 2x4s to secure it. By the time we left for my mom’s house for a Mother’s Day barbecue, we had our foundation.

Driving to Salem, Marie erupted into a giggle.

"What is it?" I asked, looking at her in the rearview mirror.

“We worked for four hours and all we have is four posts nailed to a piece of plywood!”

We laughed the rest of the way to Salem, with “Coop! Coop! Coop!” echoing in my mind.

Another 2 hours were spent touching it up

*The Coop has since made serious progress. Pictures to come soon!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On the Fence

Building a straight 40-foot wire fence proved to be a lot more complicated than expected. V and I planned a simple low fence to divide the backyard into two sections: one area for our vegetables and the other for a brick patio. We wanted something that would keep Cricket from digging in the garden beds, but we wanted it to be unobtrusive.

However, our attempt to build one has magnified the divergent approaches that V and I have towards home projects.

I am a planner and a percolator. I like to do a lot of research and then consider all my options. I also like to talk it through. Sometimes all this planning means that I lose steam before I even get started because I am overwhelmed by possibilities.

V, on the other hand, just wants to get things done. Often this is wonderful because he accomplishes more in one day than most people do in a week. He usually has a list or a plan in his head, and he likes to stick to it. Problems arise, however, when he forgets to tell me what is going on in his head or I bore him to death with my over-analysis of minutia.

The other day, we put up some curtains on the window of the upstairs landing. The curtains were too long, and the fabric pooled on the floor ready to trip someone down the stairs. I wanted to take the curtains down, measure and hem them. V just laughed at me and suggested we leave them hanging and cut off the extra section. He knew I would take forever to figure out how short I wanted to make them.

I agreed.

The curtains are horribly crooked, but I have to admit that sliding the sharp blades along the silky fabric and hearing it rip was kind of fun. I am only slightly bothered by the raggedy edges that confront me every time I climb the stairs. That's because I know that I can always fix it. For now, I am enjoying the fact that our neighbors won't be able see us dashing out of the shower to the bedroom whenever we forget a towel.

The fence, however, is another story. This story involves me coming home one afternoon to find the fence posts spaced 5 ft apart on one side of the gate and 6ft apart on the other. It also involves a bit of shouting and stomping, and V insisting that I wouldn't have noticed anyway. The story ends with little cartoon light bulbs flashing over our respective heads when we realize what went wrong and some sheepish apologies to V's family who had driven from Salem to help.

So for now, the fence is on hiatus. We've decided to move on to the chicken coop first, even though we need a fence soon. The spindly starts are asking to be transplanted ASAP.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What's in your patch?

I really enjoyed the article Marie mentioned in the post below, "The Art of Self-Reliance." I didn't realize that there was a whole movement of backyard bloggers, but I suppose the more coverage of it there is, and the easier people view it, the more likely it is that people will realize that they too can do it.

Start small, and grow a couple of tomatoes and peppers in pots on your patio. That's what I did. I used to have a small apartment in Virginia, with an even smaller third floor balcony, not much bigger than a case of Bud. But I was able to grow vegetables in planters and hanging baskets quite easily. And I've been "cheesemaking" for years.

As far as a new name, I'm not sure what a better name would be. I have to admit that I, too, feel that calling what we are doing backyard "farming" is a stretch. And I have always slightly bristled at the term "homesteading." It makes me think of the Trail of Tears and blankets infested with smallpox.

I definitely like the word urban as part of it. "City" would be good, but I feel that that would leave out the suburbs, which sometimes can feel like they lie outside of the space that makes up the city environment.

So--no "farm," no "homestead." "Victory Garden" seems dated (especially since no "victory" seems to be in sight), and "greenspace" feels more like a city parks and recreation term.

I like the word "patch." It definitely alludes to gardening, beds, or a small tract of land. Urban patch is not at all catchy, and even sounds like some kind of city renewal endeavor--or worse...

What about Green Patch? Start your own green patch. You mention at a cocktail party, "I have a green patch." No, that might draw funny looks from your audience. Especially if you say that you your neighbor sometimes complains of the "fowl smells coming from your patch." Hmmm, a bit too English sounding maybe.

I challenge others to continue this chain of thought.

This may or may not require the ingestion of alcohol or mood altering drugs.