Sunday, October 14, 2012

building raised garden beds

raised beds made from repurposed playground lumber- before filling with soil

Apparently people enjoyed the post on building with salvaged things, because that has been one of the most-read posts I have written recently.  I must not be alone in my love of building things from junk- or what others have perceived to be junk- and which I've found to be valuable raw materials for my creations.

A project that I've been working on lately have been some raised garden beds for our rental property in Minneapolis.  If you haven't read earlier posts-  Gita and I bought  a foreclosed building across the river that had been badly neglected by the previous landlord and have been fixing it up for the last two years.  Now, finally, we have it to a point where we can stop doing triage, and can do fun and aesthetically pleasing things with the building and grounds.  So this fall I'm building raised beds for the tenants.

This may seem like a strange thing for a landlord to do- but so far the tenants are really enthusiastic.  And the yard was crying out for something to be done with it.  Previously, there were two badly neglected dogs chained (year-round, in Minnesota) to a tree in the yard, and they (and their owners) left the yard a hard-packed dirt lot.  Add in almost a century of lead paint chips, and the soil wasn't fit for vegetable gardening.  So we put down six inches (or more, in spots) of wood chips, and have begun building raised beds in the recovered space.

I wanted to make them so they would last decades, but didn't want to add to the toxicity of the soil by using pressure-treated wood that would leach copper and chromium and possibly arsenic into the soil.  Cedar was my first choice- but out of my price range- or so I thought.

Then I found a lumberyard in NE Minneapolis -Siwek's*- that has rejected playground lumber at really, really good prices.  The lumber may have been rejected for a variety of reasons; holes in the wrong place, an inch too short or long, but I couldn't see any major flaws in the timbers I purchased.  I was able to get 6"x4"x6' pieces of beveled and sanded western red cedar for $7.20 each.  If you haven't priced out red cedar lately- you'll find that it normally costs three or four times that much.  So this was a find.  Yes, there are holes drilled in strange places, but raised beds need to drain, yes?

*This isn't a blanket endorsement of Siwek's by the way.  I don't know much about their business, but they do sell cedar awfully cheap.  I don't take money or products in exchange for endorsement.  I endorse stuff I like.  And I like getting good wood cheap.

So anyway, these weren't dumpster dived, but they were acquired at a very good price- a price that made constructing four 6' x 6' x 12" beds possible, where otherwise they would have been cost-prohibitive.  I also bought the spikes- that is, really heavy 12" nails- from the lumberyard- and since I bought the remainder of what was in the box, they sold me 14.5 pounds of nails for the price of 12 pounds.   Happy day for Jeff!

secure the pieces together with lag bolts first
But I soon learned that constructing them solely out of spikes was too difficult.  Even if I drilled pilot holes in the end of the board, pounding them in was difficult, as the board being nailed into would just bounce away.  I tried propping it against a concrete wall, and that helped, but still wore me out.

So I had a bright idea, and went to the local hardware store to get some lag bolts- and that was the ticket to getting the timbers together.  
drill a hole for the spikes
I used the
bolt-head driver on my cordless drill to drive one into the end of each timber and made the tiers that way.

Since I had lumber of all the same size, I made sure to lap all the ends, so each end lapped another piece, then lapped the tier on top of it in the opposite direction, so there wouldn't be a joint all the way to the ground, in the same way that stone masons always make sure to lap their stone joints.
then spike the tiers together with a nail- this required a twelve incher

Once the ends were lag bolted together, I drilled a hole in both tiers with a 7/16" paddle bit, and pounded a 1/2" spike through with a 8 pound sledge.  Hard work- but a lot of fun too.  I sang the John Henry song to myself for a while while pounding the spikes home, but got too winded to sing much of anything after a few.  Winded or not- pounding half-inch spikes makes you feel really manly- I can tell you that.

line with heavy, water permeable, landscape fabric
After the beds were assembled, I lined them with porous landscape fabric.  I use the 20-year contractor grade type and cut it to fit.  Because I had some concerns about the soil mixing with wood chips, and about lead, I lined the bottom of the bed as well, though this wouldn't be necessary in a situation where the soil below is OK.

add good quality garden soil
Then I added soil.  The soil in the photo was left over from a tenant's summer tomato growing project, and will be added to, once I order a pile of good growing soil from the landscape yard.

Then it's pretty much ready to go!

I will plan to post pictures of the occupied garden beds next summer when the tenants are gardening in them.  Two have been claimed already, with one tenant asking to garden in any unclaimed beds!  Not a bad start.

Building raised beds feels good.  Working with red cedar is wonderful- the smell of the wood is sublime- and working with sanded, beveled lumber is a pleasure.  If you can get your hands on some rejected playground wood, I'd highly recommend it for this sort of project.

And it also feels good to be building a little bit of food security for our tenants, building in the possibility of veggie gardening at an apartment, which usually isn't possible if you're a renter.  Access to home-grown food shouldn't only be for people who own their own houses, or those lucky enough to live near a community garden that has spaces available (because some people are on a waiting list for years).   Having access to homegrown tomatoes exceeds, in my humble opinion, the benefit of having an in-ground pool or a tennis court in back.

Not that I was going to build a tennis court anyway.  Have you noticed that the big apartment complexes in the suburbs are now having difficulty filling their units- even though they're cheaper, and have those swimming pools and tennis courts?   And that city apartments in 100-year old buildings with no fancy amenities, and where tenants have to park on the street, rent out immediately?  I have.  And it think it's indicative of a cultural shift going on.  Of a growing desire to live in a place that has culture and that is also walkable and bikeable.  And of a desire for authenticity, rather than convenience.

The pendulum is swinging, returning to where it was 100 years ago in many ways.  It may be a little bit cultural shift and a little bit peak resources and a little bit reacting to the suburban mistakes of the previous two generations, but I think it's gaining momentum and it's a good thing.

Here's to living where things are actually happening, and also having homegrown tomatoes.


A postscript-- and a question to anyone else who blogs on blogger/blogspot/google (and I know that there a few of you out there).  I noticed today that my 'stats' have all been erased.  Not a huge thing, becuase the site still works, but I was getting close to 20K all time views, and that was pretty exciting.  When I checked just now it was at 13- as in 13 all-time views.  So a year and a half of information has been lost, and it's starting from the beginning again.

Has this happened to anyone else recently?  Given this and the two day unexplained outage at last year, I'm wondering if this platform is very stable.  Would it be  wise to switch over to one of the other free blog sites before this one gets crashier?  I've noticed that things haven't seemed to work as well since they redid the format six months ago or so- so maybe that has something to do with it.

I'm open to your thoughts and suggestions. 


  1. What a nice thing to do! Our first serious forays into gardening were due to an easygoing landlord who let us take over the backyard, so you are definitely encouraging future gardeners! I talked to a woman on my winter bus route whose (rather large) apartment complex offered community plots for their renters, it's a very cool trend!

    Can't help with the blogger stuff as I'm totally clueless on that stuff, sorry!

  2. Nope my all time views are still at 3500, so it's not system wide. I wouldn't necessarily switch, but I absolutely would go to Layout->Settings->Other->Export Blog and download a copy at least once a month so you have the option without losing too much.

  3. Hi S- Thanks for the compliment! I also had an easygoing landlord (more slumlord really, but a benign one) when I rented a duplex years ago, and my roommate and I were able to take over the back yard for gardening, even going so far as to mow the lawn each week before the hack caretaker could get there and wreck everything. It was fun. I want to help facilitate that if I can, without the slumlord part.

    John- thanks for the tip. I've never backed anything up- and now I've been doing this for a while, so I suppose I ought to. I'll try the export blog command you suggested. The stats are back today, so I guess it was only a one day outage. Still- it kind of shakes my trust in our webhost when stuff like this happens. BTW- I checked in at your blog the other day and enjoyed it- I need to update my links soon and add The Long Ascent.

  4. I do love the raised beds - they look very handsome, and will be gorgeous filled with food. Your tenants are very lucky. Are the beds in the front yard? It looks like that from the number on the front door. If so, even more radical!

  5. Glad to have found your blog-- via the comments on Kunstler's blog. Yes, I too have had some problems with blogger. It's become occasionally extremely slow, like it's gummed up, while, on both my PC and my Mac, I'm experiencing no other surfing problems whatsoever--so I conclude it's not a problem on my end. I've long had the impression that WordPress is much better. I've yet to get around to switching, however. One of these days.