How to build a raised vegetable garden

Raised Vegetable Garden

Building a raised vegetable garden is a very easy and with the right planning can also be very inexpensive.  First you need to answer a few important questions before you get started.

The first you have to pick a location.  There are a few things to keep in mind when choosing the location; sun, water, convenience, and competition for nutrients.

SUN – You want to pick a location where the plants will get adequate sun for success.  If this is an area where you will be growing summer vegetable a southern facing location should be used.  For other cooler crops East/West facing should suffice.

WATER – You want a place that is convenient to water your plants.  If you have to unravel/coil up 200 feet of hose every time you water you most likely will begin to have under watered plants during the summer months.  If a hose is not really even an option the method of filling a couple five gallon buckets and bringing them to your garden is great exercise.

CONVENIENCE — The more often you walk by your garden the more likely you will not forget about (or neglect it)  If it happens to pass it on your trip from my car to your back door you most likely will notice suffering plants or potential additions for tonight’s dinner to harvest.

COMPETITION FOR NUTRIENTS — Make sure your garden is not too close to other planting such as established plants or trees.  This will force both sets of plants roots to compete for water and nutrients where both may end up coming up short.

Now you know where to build your garden next is to determine the best materials to build you garden out of.  Personally I like cinder blocks since they never have to be replaced, relatively inexpensive, have ability to hold solar energy and as an added bonus have great little holes to grow strawberries in.  Now on the negative side I will be the first to admit they are not the prettiest thing to look at and don’t really make the most comfortable bench to sit on.

Cinder block Raised vegetable garden

Below I have included some of the pro and cons of various building materials.

Building Material Cost per linear foot Tools required Pros Cons
Cinder Blocks $0.97 None (other big muscles) Extra plating area in holes Hard to sit on, not as aesthetically pleasing
Chiseled Wall blocks
(2 high)
$5.96 None (other big muscles) Most aesthetically pleasing Expensive
(3 high)
$1.36 None (if dry stacked) More aesthetically pleasing than cinder blocks Expensive, and mortar may be required depending on height
Wood — Cedar
(.75” X 8”)
$1.60 Drill (screws) Looks good, natural appearance Wood is organic so eventually will decompose.  Some assembly required

Third step is actual construction of your raised garden bed.  I agree with Mel Bartholomew’s recommendation (from Square Foot Gardening fame)where he suggests limiting the width of the garden bed to no greater that 4 feet.  This allows for easy watering, weeding, and harvesting of your vegetables without any serious reaching.  This also works out good since lumber normally comes in 8 or 12 foot increments so very limited waste.

For all methods I recommend digging about 2 inches around your perimeter of your planned raised garden bed.  This first will give you a visual idea of your new space but also give the blocks/bricks/wood a good foundation to prevent slipping.  Speaking of foundation the weight of block/bricks is enough to keep the dirt in place, though with wood I would recommend creating a 4 foot 1X1 as a cross support every 4 feet to help spread out some of the load as you add soil.

Finally it is time to fill your your garden bed with some great soil.  If you happen to be luck enough to have this in your backyard go ahead and fill it up.  For the rest of us this is a great time to start your garden off to a good start.  I recommend a recipe of three main parts (compost, filler, and “fluff”) of equal quantities.  Compost should be self explanatory, great organic material thriving with life.  For filler I recommend materials like coconut coir, peat moss, or even some good topsoil.  For “fluff” add a material such as perlite or vermiculite to add some moisture retention and some great aeration for your plants roots.

Now all my recommendations above all mention a height of less than 12 inches.  There are some good reasons for this given there are not too many vegetables you can’t grow in less than six inches of good quality soil.  Assuming you are lucky like me and have an abundance of clay in your backyard this means significantly less soil to purchase when filling.  Now this is harder on the back bending over so for someone with limited mobility you can bring up the garden bed to a more comfortable height though there really is no reason to fill the garden bed with 2-3 feet of soil.  This is an area to be creative, maybe some free fill dirt for the first couple feet, aluminum cans, anything that can take up space and not use your precious garden soil.

Now if your selection of tools are limited or you just want to get some beds up quickly to start growing some vegetables, there are a many commercial raised garden kits out there.

30 Responses to “How to build a raised vegetable garden”

  1. Ragnar Says:

    We have a pile of leftover biomass in our alotment garden and I convinced my wife to just build a raised garden of it, by surrounding it with wood. It should be perfect for plants that doesn't like wet feet.

  2. Red Icculus Says:

    I just set up some railroad ties on a southern exposure in my alley. We have had 5, yes 5 inches of rain this year, so I haven't had to worry about watering. Regardless, this is a great guide on raised beds.

  3. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    Great additions for raised beds.Red, we have had a little more rain than that here in the Pacific Northwest though we are coming up on breaking a record for number of days without rain. Getting tired of doing this task called watering. Normally don't have to think about that until August.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I love this blog! I finally have my own home and while the backyard is not idea for growing, nothing is perfect and I very much want to add in several raised beds… I have been reading many books,sites, etc… all point to wooden beds and the issues with rot and chems… yet, they (and I) missed a great, cheap resource… cider blocks! Thanks for the idea!

  5. Robj98168 Says:

    LOL I love your cons- MOst expensive, etc etc- For me to keep cheap I plan on using the chiseled wall bolcks in thre parts of my garden in the front yard for the aesthetic option, cinder blocks and raised beds from wood in the back, where looks are not that important

  6. Veganomaly Says:

    The hubby and I were set on making a RVG with cedar but I LOVE the idea of growing strawberries in the cinder block holes. Great pointers and guide!

  7. Raised Vegetable Garden Says:

    One of the best places to get cheap planks of wood is a scaffolding company. When the planks become cracked they can't be used, but they are still great for raised beds.Pick them up for free or next to nothing in large quantities.

  8. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    RVG, great point on getting wood from salvage. Price is right and good environmental option.

  9. ideas Says:

    Great! The articles so far have been full of great material. Glad to hear the serious will continue. Keep ’em coming!

  10. Jamie Hottel Says:

    I have several 2x12x12 pieces of form boards used by contractors, but they have cememnt on them. are they safe to use for making garden boxes?

  11. Emmy Says:

    BE CAREFUL! We were very close to using railroad ties for a raised garden beds, but they are SOAKED in creosote (which is why they last forever)as a wood preservative. Creosote is extremely carcinogenic and will leech into a veggie garden, even if carefully lined with plastic. The only recommended use for RR ties is for a non edible bed. Just a heads up.

  12. Sandy Says:

    My husband and I have read about using plastic wading pools for garden beds. Sounds easy and cheap! Just what we need right now. However we have concerns about whether the chemicals in the plastic pool could get into the soil and thus into the roots of the vegetables … chemicals such as BPA.

    I also wonder about using plastic liter soda bottles for growing upside down tomatoes for the same reason. Can someone give me any answers here?
    Sandy, Portland, Oregon

  13. francis Says:

    Better look to your soil. raised beds in sandy soil is a worthless venture. Only do beds in high rainfall areas and/or wet soils. I’m in dry Mt Shasta CA, and I must use sunken beds due to hydrophobic silty sandy soils. Master Gardener.

  14. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    Sandy, there is no BPA in soda bottles only #7 bottles (unless they say BPA free)

    francis, great advice what I mention above is to fill it with great soil. One of the great advantages of the raised garden is you can start with awesome soil and not have to slowly condition it to become great after 6-7 years in the ground

  15. Jen Says:

    Someone mentioned using old railroad ties to build beds and I have heard that many times and seen the suggestion in many gardening books but with no warnings as to their chemical treatment, just praise that they won’t rot. Well, they won’t rot for a reason. They are toxic. From what I understand chemically treated wood such as railroad ties are hazardous and generally should not be used in residential situations. A schoolmate of mine made art pieces with them and had to follow strict handling guides. see link for more info.

  16. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    Jen, that is a good point though the important word in there is “old” railroad ties “new” railroad ties are safe to use, though given the creosote added to prevent them from rotting might be difficult to tell them apart. Another good reason to use cinder blocks 🙂

  17. Dawn Says:

    We tore down an old metal shed, cut the sides into 6′ section and the roof into 4′ sections. We asked our neighbors for their newspapers on recycling day and lined the bottoms and sides of the beds. We have a homemade rain barrels (from garbage cans) that sits under a mini “lean-to” with a gutter on the back/down side. The gutter is 3′ with it’s down spout going into the barrels. This is great for out soaker system!!!! It’s a learning process so any information to help improve our system would deeply appreciated! 🙂

  18. BusyWorkingMama Says:

    I did a google search and your article popped up. I never would have thought to use cinder blocks! Hubby and I are planning to build a raised bed for next year in our side yard. We did some container gardening this year but I want to expand the project. Thanks for the great tips!

  19. Lila Says:

    I have a very weedy lawn & want to make some RVGs w/ my kids. Is it best to scoop out a few inches of the weeded area first before building the beds?

  20. Raised Vegetable Garden Beds Says:

    I am also starting a new vegetable garden having recently moved house. This website looks like it will be a great resourse for budget solutions in the garden.

    I see that you use the square foot method, which I have known about for a few years but have yet to research. It is something that I am planning to investigate fully this year. I will be looking through your site for more information on your success.

  21. Serena Says:

    I was looking at ferrocement for another reason but in my search found it used for making raised beds. That would be pretty cheap, lasting, but more labor intensive. Mine are made from pine and when they start going bad, I’ll consider doing something like the ferrocement.

  22. Stephanie Relfe Says:

    Forget railroad ties. They have creosote in them. You don’t want to eat that.

  23. Mark Scharff Says:

    I went to my Craigs list and found a nearby farm that was selling 1″x1″x6″ rough ceder salvaged from an old shed/barn. More than enough for 5 raised beds 18″ high (wife & I both have extremally limiting back problems). Hope to line with tight hole chicken wire (rodents), garden cloth (weed prevention), 2″minus gravel for drainage and 12″ Moo-Doo and Garden Compost from local Bio-Mass plant. Total cost is less than $300.

  24. Martha Says:

    I was wondering if there was any type of “safe” paint one could paint the cinder blocks to make the raised bed more “eye friendly” ? Thanks in advance

  25. nickpitchnh Says:

    enjoyed reading this blog. i am thinking and reading about using pt and lining the inside with painters plastic. I’m hoping to get possibly 5-7 years out of the extra money and time to build my rvg beds. any thoughts…?

  26. Tim Says:

    I have a very weedy lawn & want to make some RVGs w/ my kids. Is it best to scoop out a few inches of the weeded area first before building the beds?
    You could do that or line the area with weedblock and build your bed on top of it (SquareFoot Gardening book talks about stuff like this). You could layout cardboard and or newspaper and go on top of that too. Yes the cardboard/paper will breakdown over time and worms will love to feed on it so it will serve two purposes. There is a great video called “Back to Eden” that may interest you as well, it’s long and he does quote passages from the bible but nothing like the Door to Door Preachers.
    I like this site as well since I followed google links.

  27. Tula Says:

    My brother built me 9 raised beds out of 4×4 posts and 2×8’s. They’re 3′ x 8′ and are 16 inches tall. I needed them tall because I have arthritis and can’t bend or kneel. This was I can sit on my garden bench and reach all the areas inside the bed.

    We got free loam from a friend of his who runs a landscaping biz, so they were cheap and effective. We’ll eventually have to replace the wood when it gets older, since the wood is not preserved or the beds lined with anything, but I expect to get quite a few years out of them.

    Oh, and he also put 1/2″ mesh fencing/screening along the bottom of them to keep moles out (we’ve had issues with them in the past).

  28. Jane Says:

    I have used “old” railroad ties lined with plastic on sides for years for veg garden. I can most of my veg and we are healthy as horses!

  29. Top gardening posts of 2010 - The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    […] after some personal trial and error the #5 post of this year goes into detail on how to create a new garden bed.  This covers the basics of […]

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    […] bed gardens even require less water and generally contain fewer weeds. You can purchase or build raised beds, or even create them by shaping rectangular mounds of soil a few inches above the ground level so […]

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