DIY Raised Garden Beds That Don’t Suck

I’ll continue to update this post as progress continues!

Our huge tracts of land in the backyard needed something to make them not so.. empty. I found living in my previous apartment that I have an interest in gardening. I also found out that I have a knack for keeping plants alive, unlike other people in the family :). We decided this year we wanted to plant some vegetables in a garden. We have a large vermin population in the area, so we’d either need to fence off the garden or used some raised beds and pellet guns to thwart their advances.

All of the beds I saw online left me, well, wanting for more. In true Matt LaPaglia fashion, I set out to design a better looking garden bed that would: 1. Last more than a year without falling apart or looking like crap. 2. Be visually appealing to visitors or neighbors looking over into my yard (gotta keep the HOA happy!) 3. Not just be 4 timbers held into the ground with wooden spikes.

Due to the distance from the porch I decided 24″ beds would look the best. Anything smaller wouldn’t be able to stop small rodents, and looked too amateurish. Anything taller and I would have needed a ladder to get to the plants. Yes 24″ is overkill for the majority of vegetables that grow in the garden, but overkill is my middle name!

Making a 24″ raised bed out of 12’x2’x2″ cedar would make each bed cost ~$200-$300 to complete. That was entirely too much considering I wanted to build 6 beds. I found some beds online made out of cement blocks, what an idea! Even though they were very structurally sound and cheap (~$40-$50 in blocks to surround the bed), they weren’t very appealing to the eye. Most of the examples I found had random blocks not lying completely flat, or even just lying crooked on the ground because the ground was not leveled first. Browsing my local hardware store I found cheap cedar fence posts that were only 5/8″ thick. Because the cement blocks would supply the structural support, the thin cedar fence posts could simply wrap around the bed. I wagered staining and sealing the cedar would create a very professional look once completed. Wrapping each bed would cost around $45 after the mail-in-rebate.

Sun Surveyor can show the sun (and moon, and Milky Way)’s path across the sky at any given point in time

I started out by seeing how many 12’x4′ beds I could fit horizontally at the back of the yard. Any bed I would have added would need to be back there, the trees closer to the house are almost 60′ tall and block out the sun to the yard. A neat app called Sun Surveyor which I use for photography helped me visualize where the sun will be at any point in time. After March the sun would easily clear the trees and shine light on the beds. I added in spacing between the beds to account for the width of the cement blocks. 12’x4′ dimensions to be tillable soil, not the overall dimensions of the bed. With the blocks included, the dimensions were 13.5′ by 5.5′. I found through some trial and error that 3′ of spacing between the beds would give me enough maneuverability around the beds.

I strung two lines along the total distance of all the beds, making sure they were parallel to each other and the back fence.

Trenching

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Wooden garden stakes and twine were used to visually show where each of the beds would be placed. I decided to place a footer in the ground to keep the blocks from moving after they were in place. Frost heave can cause structures to move during the winter when water in the ground freezes, pushing the soil up. Digging below the frost line was overkill for this installation, so 8″ of stamped crushed gravel would have to do.

I pushed the shovel into the ground along the lines, then perpendicular to scoop out the earth in a square shape.

Using a tape measure and a straight piece of wood I measured out and then spray painted lines where excavation needed to take place. I’m a sucker for straight lines and I like clean looking holes in my yard, otherwise eyeballing it would have sufficed. I dug 12″ wide and 8″ deep into the ground around the 12’x4′ bed. I used a flat-head shovel to “scoop” out the earth. Thanks to Indiana’s excellent clay soil they came out in solid chunks.

Simon, our new 13 week old puppy, decided one of my corners wasn’t deep enough!

After getting the holes dug around the beds I set out to find reasonably priced crushed stone. Online calculators told me I would need around 1 cubic yard per bed. Sourcing this from the hardware store, which sells them in 0.5 cubic foot bags, would cost $1150 to prepare the 6 beds. Yikes! Bulk ordering through a local service priced a more reasonable $230 for 6 cubic yards delivered to my driveway. My poor Cavalier would be spared another day.

Cutting the channels for the beds was slow going. A coworker of mine, Tractor Tim, who runs a YouTube channel, offered some assistance. He helped me dig the rest of the channels. It did make a pretty big mess of the yard, but I didn’t have to dig the rest by hand!

Tim exchanged some assistance digging the trenches for rights to a YouTube video of the process.

The stone I ordered showed up:

Why did they need a big dump truck for this? It’s only 5 yards of rock isn’t it?

Oh my, 6.5 tons of #4 stone.

At the time I was thinking to myself “this is way too much stone Matt, what have you done!?”

After another few hours of digging and dumping another bed was complete

Tim was not able to help me get the stone into the backyard because it had just rained and the additional weight of the stone in his scoop was creating ruts in the grass. I’d have to continue doing that part the old fashioned way, with a wheelbarrow and shovel! After several days of shoveling rock from the front driveway to the backyard the channels were filled with stone.

Block Construction

Once the stones were laid down I checked them with a level and prepared the mortar. I used Mason’s Mix Type S to attach the blocks to the gravel. While laying each block I checked for level as well as against the strung line to make sure the block was pointing in the correct direction. I started stacking the second course on top of the first as I went, double checking everything was aligned correctly. I decided not to use standard mason practices on the blocks, since I didn’t have the finesse to make it look well done. I opted for a simpler solution, smearing crack resistant wall compound to the sides of the blocks. The manufacturer stated after the concrete cured it would be just as strong as normal Mason’s Mix, while requiring none of the honed skill.

I used a mason wood blocks and string to ensure the cement blocks were placed in a straight line and level to each other across the whole length. I also ran a line across all the beds to make sure they all started in the correct alignment.

Unfortunately I failed to account for the length of the blocks in my bed dimensions. Each of the beds were 4″ too long for the blocks to fit without spaces. I had to cut some blocks with a saw to fill in the gaps. To do this I used a concrete saw blade and my trusty circular saw.

Make sure when cutting concrete blocks you wear proper protective gear, including respirator to protect from the excess dust created while dry cutting.

like a glove

4 – 1/2″x48″ rebar were placed on each side of the beds for reinforcement. I used some quick setting concrete poured into the blocks to solidify their stability. After a few hours I could kick the blocks without them moving. This did make adding the cut block in later more difficult because I couldn’t move the other blocks to get the smaller ones to fit.

For the remaining 5 beds I modified the dimensions of the beds slightly to reduce the amount of cutting I would need to do for each bed while keeping the dimensions close-ish to the first.

That night we received a lot of rainfall.

The garden bed rock trenches had turned into moats!

I devised a plan to drain the trenches into the depression that borders my property line. I did a “proof of concept” first by creating a channel to move water away from one of the beds:

The water moved pretty freely, draining the bed below the gravel line relatively quickly. If I could do the same thing across all the beds and drain them through a drainage pipe I could keep the beds dry even after heavy rainfall. I could use the same trench to run water lines to each bed.

I purchased some 3″ perforated PVC pipe. It comes with holes alongside the bottom of the pipe that can be buried in the ground surrounded with stone to offer drainage. I could bury this at the same depth as the bed and ensure the slope would allow the water to flow away quickly. On the far end of the pipe I’d put a simple clean out pipe in case it ever gets clogged down the road. I also ran 3/4″ CPVC pipe and 14/2 direct burial wire.

In the meantime, all the holes in the first bed were filled and ready for concrete.

I used crack resistant surface bonding cement on the sides of the blocks to get them to stay together. The instructions stated it needed to be used on both sides of the bed for maximum strength. I had a bit of trouble getting the water to cement ratio correct starting out. It took a few hours to do the whole bed.

I jumped around between activities when I’d hit roadblocks. The drain pipe couldn’t be dug very well because the ground was saturated with a record amount of rainfall Indiana received. I took some time to think of wrapping the beds with some wood paneling to make them look presentable. I used the previously mentioned dog-eared fence posts, but instead of simply affixing them to the wall, I used a few pieces of 1″ furring to hold the siding off of the wall and layered them on top of each other like house siding would.

Concrete screws held the furring strips onto the concrete blocks, and general construction screws held the siding onto the furring strips. This would keep the wood away from the concrete, allowing both the wall and wood to breathe and hopefully last longer.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run bricks or something underneath the siding, but I needed something to keep the wood off of the ground. Cedar, even though it is highly weather resistant, will last longer if not in contact with the ground. In the meantime, I got the 26 fence posts primed.

I got sick of driving from Menards with 11 concrete blocks in the Cavalier at a time. For $69 they offered to deliver the remaining 375 concrete blocks.

The delivery guy had a nimble little vehicle, a cross between a ZTR and a forklift. He moved the pallets in with ease and was on his way.

The dogs were intrigued by the device as well.

All 5 pallets were ready to be moved to the backyard. Two at a time it would take 188 trips to move them all. About 1.5 pallets would be needed for each course across all the beds.

About halfway through the first pallet of carrying two at a time my arms were like goo. Trying to move all these blocks was going to take forever. I gave in.

I picked up a Ohio Steel 12.5 Cu Ft Dump Trailer from Tractor Supply and put it to use. It took about 30 minutes to assemble. One of the plastic bushings wasn’t drilled correctly, fixing it added to this time.

Think smarter, not harder. From 2 to 20 blocks at a time. The trailer is rated to 1,250 lbs, and 20 blocks only weigh 720 lbs 🙂 If anyone is interested in this cart, definitely look around because some of the models look similar but have varying prices depending on the capacity. Some of the models only carry up to 750 lbs that look similar to the cart I used. The wheels even had ball bearings and Zerk fittings, oh joy!

After a few trips the first course was in place and ready for leveling. It was refreshing not having to carry everything by hand that was certain.

Learning my lesson from the first bed, I got all of the cut pieces into the sides of the bed before I put concrete and rebar into the corners and sides. It continued to rain for the next week, hindering progress.

During the next weekend I got the siding for the first bed in place. I replaced the originally planned wood furring with 1″x2″x10′ pieces of treated lumber. I spaced the siding 4 1/4″ going up the sides of the bed, with the top piece having a 4″ spacing to come flush with the top of the bed. I planned on using my Dad’s left over window trim to create corners for the beds to protect the siding from impacts and hide where the pieces of siding met each other.

I also got the next 2 beds set up with cement on the bottom course of blocks. They still needed the surface cement though.

Tractor Time With Tim was also helping me with general yard drainage. We dug a trench alongside the fence in the ditch between my and my neighbor’s property. I planned on using this trench to run the electrical and irrigation from the house to the garden beds, which is why I’ve included the video in this post.

I planned on installing the ability to blow out the line when winter would come so burying below the frost line (48″ in my area) wouldn’t be necessary.

After a particular heavy storm I recorded how it was working, including a small feature on the garden bed drainge:

The next weekend after the yard had dried out I added electricity to each of the beds. Each outlet was housed in a waterproof container to keep the elements out.

CTRL+C, CTRL+V a few times to get them all done. I used a rotary hammer to drill the holes into the beds for the electrical boxes to mount to, and a circular saw to cut the 1/2″ PVC pipe to fit.

The beds still needed to be wired up to the house. I ran UF-B wire from the beds up the trench to the side of the house. The goal was to have the wire run up the side of the house into the attic where they could be fed into the circuit breaker box.

I picked up a Rainbird 6-zone outdoor irrigation controller to control water to the beds and attached it to the first bed.

I ran 110v and 4 Cat5e cables from inside the attic to the ground through PVC conduit.

I decided not to run the electricity and network through the irrigation box to keep things looking neater inside of it.

I tapped into a water line in the crawlspace leading to an outdoor spigot and used it to run water to the beds. I used a 1″ SDS drill bit and rotary hammer to get through the foundation from the outside. I got a water back-flow preventer from Menards to keep gardening water from going back into the house water in the event of negative pressure on the house side.

Unfortunately it wasn’t spaced nicely with the rest of the conduit due to space limitations in the crawl space. Knowing that PVC pipe is not approved for use with potable drinking water, I used CPVC from the water line to the back-flow preventer, then PVC to the poly pipe that runs down the trench.

The trench was about 90′ long 12″ wide and about 10″ deep. I used it to run the ethernet, electrical, and drainage for the swamp that is the side and front of my house.

1 month after groundbreaking the first bed had its watering completely automated!

Each of the beds has a 3/4″ irrigation pipe at its disposal. For the first year I am going to use flexible irrigation tubing that emitters can be “stabbed” into and then run to an area of the beds.

I used a simple 3/4″ to 1/2″ barb fitting for transitioning to the flexible irrigation hose. I attached one 2 gallon per hour regulator for each set of tomato plants.

I would eventually bury the lines to protect them from the sun.

For the cucumber bed I used 50″x8′ sections of cattle panel at 45 degree angles for the vegetables to grow up.

The beds were shaping up!

The cucumber seedlings were germinating in the sun just fine!

The tomato plants were getting larger every day.

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