Monday, September 13, 2010

Raised bed-building Revolution

© 2010 Joshua Stark

This year, I built raised beds, and I must say I learned a ton.  Unfortunately, what I learned included some cost, both financially and emotionally, but it was worth it.  I'm a changed man, raised-bed building-wise...

In years B.D. (Before Ducks), I'd built raised beds for gardening, but without any sides; I'd merely build up mounds of dirt, and was very satisfied with my results.  However, with the imminent invasion of the greens-loving critters, I decided I needed to build up some walls, a fortification against the marauding Welsh (harlequins).  So I looked at prices for wood.

Well, raised bed "kits" were out of the question, as most were over $150, so I settled on redwood for my first bed attempt.  At four feet wide by eight feet long by eleven inches high, my materials still came out over $90.

A terribly expensive way to keep out ducks... note the white fencing, another expensive way to keep out ducks... the free river reed poles are the only thing in this picture that actually keep out ducks (sigh).
That first bed taught me a number of lessons, the first being that I wouldn't be making four of 'em (my original plant) if I wanted to stay financially stable.  I also learned that one shouldn't build beds after dark when one is tired, even if that is the only time one has available for a few weeks and one is frustrated at any attempts to accomplish anything in the backyard.  Despair is not a good mental state for woodworking.

Wow... Bob Vila, I am not.
Ah, well.  I ain't building a piano (my woodworking battle cry).

I'd gone about that first bed backwards - trying to draw out a plan, get perfect 90 degree corners, sink in the corner posts, cut exactly 8 ft. blah, blah.  Looking at it, I realized what I was making:  big boxes for dirt.  The next bed I'd just cut all my boards, lay them out, screw them together on top of the dirt, no frills.

For my next bed, then, I decided that I didn't need it to last for years, so I'd buy simple pine 2x4's, which lowered my costs considerably.  My efficiency increases for the actual labor (work during the day, don't care about perfect corners, etc.) gave me some serious confidence boost.  And at just over $30, I thought I'd done well in the money department.  But, I still felt bad knowing that in two or three years I'd just have to replace it.

That there is just about the only plant a duck won't eat... tomatillo.  If you are a friend of mine, start researching tomatillo recipes, because you can guess what you'll be getting this time next year.
Walking down the wood aisles of the local, annoying and gigantic home stuff store, I was stuck.  I felt I could either jeopardize my already-tight finances by building an extravagant home for some beans and corn, or I could build something that wouldn't last or look very good.

Then, I noticed I'd walked into the fence material.  I glanced at the prices:  $2 for a five-foot piece of cedar seven inches wide.  $3 for a six foot redwood seven inches wide. 


Here were two woods that I knew would last in the dirt.  Though considerably skinnier than the 2x4's, I instantly realized that it didn't matter... I wasn't building homes, I was building small walls for dirt.  My mind, torn open by the revolution in cost cutting for long-lasting materials, fell upon the notion of support beams:  River reed!  I also had some leftover pieces of redwood from the duck ark that could be used as supports. 

So my next bed at the edge of the pond would be made of fencing.  I quickly realized that this choice had another advantage, in that its thin dimensions were much easier to cut with hand tools and much easier to move around.  I decided to try a different pattern for my bed, and the ease of use of the materials allowed me to cut a different pattern.

That cost me about twenty bucks.
Here's what I did:
First, I marked the spot where I wanted the walls to go (you can use yarn tied to sticks at each spot where a corner would go... I just stuck the sticks, without the yarn).
Then, I determined how much wood I'd need by measuring where I wanted the walls to go.
The other measurement is with a protractor, measuring the angle at each corner (skip this if making a square or rectangle).
Next, I cut off the dog-eared top of the fence board (if you think I just threw them away, consider this link to post on saving everything), and cut my boards (at the appropriate angles) to their proper lengths.
Last, I attached the boards to each other, as I put them in place.  I used multiple river reed stakes to keep the boards in place while I attached them, and I mostly used screws, but there are many different fasteners out there. 

If I'd wanted to, I could have built walls twice as thick for double the cost, and still have come out at half the price of the redwood 2x4's.

The two things to keep in mind when building a raised bed are:  1) the pressure on the wall will come from the inside out and it won't be much at all; and 2) you ain't makin' a piano.  If you screw up a corner, or a nailhead gets bent, don't get bent, yourself.  Don't do anything.  Cover the corner with a plant or a rock.  Put another nail there next to the messed up one.  Believe me, the person who will notice that when surrounded by the beauty and bounty of your garden shouldn't be your friend, anyway.

Now, as I consider other beds I will build (possibly trying a potato hay bin again, or a marshland pond filter), and even considering a stepped section of the lawn, I'm set free by the notion that I can build a sturdy, long-lasting wall for at least half the cost I'd previously considered.

That, at certain times in a person's life, can be a liberating revelation, indeed.

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