How to Make Cheap Garden Beds

You’ll have your best garden ever if you create permanent garden beds — whether they’re raised beds, at ground level, framed or unframed.

| April/May 2013

Cheap Garden Beds

Here's how — and why — to create permanent garden beds and paths, and why framed or raised beds may be optional.

Photo By Matthew T. Stallbaumer

Sometimes garden writers make things involve more work and expense than necessary. Raised garden beds are one example. Your crops will grow fine whether your beds are level, raised or even sunken (a good choice in dry, windy regions).

Maintaining dedicated beds — where you plant crops — and dedicated pathways where you walk is the important piece.

Compacted soil is the enemy of strong plant growth. The more easily a plant can send roots into the soil, the faster the plant can absorb the nutrients it needs and the more drought-resistant it becomes. If the plant has to spend energy pushing roots into hardened soil, the plant has less energy to grow and produce well.

In nature, meadow mice, moles, earthworms and other critters tunnel throughout the soil — and thus counteract compaction — and humans and other large critters do not walk over the soil often. But in a garden, we walk back and forth a great deal, and our footsteps definitely compact the soil. “One winter, we took a shortcut across a fallow field, using the path almost daily,” reports market gardener Anthony Boutard in his splendid book, Beautiful Corn. “When I looked at an aerial photograph taken three years later, I could still see that pathway reflected in the reduced growth of the crop planted there.”

The best way to minimize soil compaction is to lay out defined areas for growing and defined areas for walking. First, measure the entire area and make a drawing on paper (or use our nifty Garden Planner software). Choose a bed width that lets you easily reach to its center from the path. Think about where you want composting areas, where you will want gates if you fence the garden, and where to leave room for a worktable or two and a bench with a nice view.

You can make paths as narrow as 1 foot if your space is limited, but always make a few main paths wide enough to accommodate a garden cart or wheelbarrow comfortably. If your garden area slopes, arrange the permanent garden beds across the slope rather than down it to minimize erosion. Build most of your beds the same size so you can use row covers, critter protectors and chicken tunnels interchangeably. Use wooden stakes, pipes or rebar to mark the corners of the beds. The stakes can do double duty as hose guides — simply slip a length of plastic pipe loosely over each, and hoses will slide around them easily.

7/29/2013 12:25:26 PM

our problem isn't with beds or soil. It's with squirrels, rats, and bugs eating every blessed thing we plant before it even ripens kr matures. We finally put a wire cage over one of the beds but to cage in every garden bed we have to keep them out is going to be expensive and time consuming.

7/11/2013 10:56:17 AM

I'm wanting to use concrete block, 4x8

2 high.  Will need to haul most of the dirt in. Will this work??

5/25/2013 5:59:30 AM

This was very informative post on garden beds..Just wanted to know what type of fence is the one show in your snaps...can I use this type of fence ???

5/24/2013 9:57:15 AM

One thing about raised beds that should be considered is that, since cold air is denser than warm air, any frost affects the ground level planting first. If you have a "raised-enough" bed you can almost avoid frost altogether (depending on your local climate).

5/24/2013 9:56:44 AM

One thing about raised beds that should be considered is that, since cold air is denser than warm air, any frost affects the ground level planting first. If you have a "raised-enough" bed you can almost avoid frost altogether (depending on your local climate).

5/24/2013 9:56:18 AM

One thing about raised beds that should be considered is that, since cold air is denser than warm air, any frost affects the ground level planting first. If you have a "raised-enough" bed you can almost avoid frost altogether (depending on your local climate).

5/23/2013 1:36:05 PM

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stephen bryant
4/21/2013 5:02:42 PM

Jami, I'm in the South (TN) with lots of clay soil. I follow a strict formula that gives incredible results. I build the beds in the fall and add 1/3 sand, 1/3 top soil and 1/3 rotting leaves. All winter I dump garbage scraps (I am a cook) into the beds. (Shovel three or four loads, dump, cut finely with the shovel, cover and let the worms do their thing.) The only problem is that the soil is TOO good and must sometimes be leavened with plain top soil. Good luck.

roland green
4/8/2013 6:24:58 PM

Our soil is heavy clay and I have used raised beds fro a number of years and as we get a lot of rain here in Ireland it helps with drainage enormously. For the sides of the beds I used 6" x 2" rough timber which absorbs preservative, I use the same sort as used on fences applying it to all sides. I then fix 6" wide plastic damp proof course material to the bottom and turned up the inner face and then another 6" wide piece over that, these are fixed with galvanised clout or felting nails. The plastic is the same used in building and very durable and in the raised beds keeps the wet soil out of contact with the timber thus prolonging the life of the boards. The whole thing is very inexpensive and easily maintained.

ray white
4/5/2013 11:32:27 PM

Raised beds are an absolute must in the desert SW where our "soil" is caliche and rock with no organic matter. On the plus side, once the beds are established we can grow crops year round--cool weather stuff from September till April or May and warm weather crops the rest of the year. Also, using drip irrigation to keep soil moist, square foot plantings and silver mulch greatly increases productivity.

jami hendren borgus
4/5/2013 8:07:17 PM

OK. You've convinced me that I don't need to truck in black dirt for my raised garden beds-to-be. We recently moved to a home with a large untouched-for-years lot with the most exquisite black dirt I've ever seen! It's 2X4s for me! Used to do square foot gardening, but it's so expensive to start up. Thanks for the timely article!

margie meehan
4/5/2013 4:55:25 PM

Is it ok to use mulch from "trees" that have been dead for along time - to mulch your garden?

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