Constructing raised beds from recycled timber

The financially cheapest option for building raised garden beds is to use recycled materials.  Of course its much more time consuming than other methods.

Step 1: Collect your materials

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Sleepers, wooden beams, stakes and a star picke

Accumulating sufficient timber could be quite time consuming, some places to look for resources would include people doing renovations, leftover timber from other projects, the tip, items put on the kerb for council clean up or freecycle.

Sort your timber and stack it near the site of your vegetable garden.

Step 2: Prepare the site for the raised bed

Decide the size and position of your garden bed.  Factors that affect size include the timber that you have on hand and the site itself.  I have some frames from a previous project that I am going to use on my bed to protect the seedlings from domestic and wild birds, so the width of the beds are determined by that factor.   And since I have some recycled sleepers for the sides they will determine the length.  Cutting the sleepers is not a task that I want to consider at this stage.

Once I placed the sleepers in position the uneven nature of the ground in that area, and the slope were highlighted.  I used a spade to dig a flat channel where the sleepers and planks will be placed, the width of the spade.  I cheated a bit by putting some stones under one corner so that I didn’t have to dig quite so much.  The idea was to get the bed approximately level because water will run down hill and not soak in evenly, it will also wash soil and seeds down hill with it.

Some people will measure up when making a raised garden bed to ensure the result is perfectly square, but this is for aesthetics rather than function. Using recycled timbers means that they are not straight, and they are not flat, and when I dug the channels to get the sleeper more level I moved away from the original position.  I saw no advantage in doing twice the digging, the veggies certainly don’t mind!

 Step 3: Secure the sides of the frame

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

Wooden stakes securing the sides of the garden bed

Using sleepers they are able to stand on their side unsupported, but they would become unstable and likely to get knocked over as the sides rise.  When the garden is filled the weight of the soil will prevent the sides from falling inwards, so the sleepers just need to be stabilised from the outside.

The simplest method didn’t require me to drill holes for screws and nail, nor use any building skill at all.  I simply used stakes and star pickets that are about 60mm long, and banged them into the ground on the outside of the sleepers; 2 per side.

The side walls of the beds that I made were made of recycled timber not wide enough to stand on the side unaided, but resting against the sleepers on the inside and with stakes holding them up on the outside they are quite secure.  It was at this point that I measured and cut the wood for the sides that way the length matched for the positioned sleepers rather than a predetermined size.

Step 4: Finally, Raise the rest of the sides.

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

The sides of the garden bed are raised once the securing stakes are in place

Once the stakes or start pickets were in place the remaining sleepers and beams were put in place.  I have built beds that are currently 2 sleepers deep, the sides had more pieces of wood to reach the same height, as they were not the same width as the beams.

For the second bed I didn’t have as many sleepers, and not quite enough wooden beams to achieve the same height all around.  This is the nature of a bed using recycled materials, and I may have to leave this end of the bed not as full until I find another beam.

 Filling the beds.

raised vegetable garden beds raised garden bed plans

A raised garden bed built from recycled materials can work well.

Once the raised garden bed frames have been constructed, filling them with soil and compost is the next stage.  I will cover this in the next article.

It is important to be aware that treated and recycled timber may contain poisons to preserve the timber.  This poison can leach into the soil and be absorbed by the vegetables. Line the frame with plastic so that the chemicals stay out of your food.

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Why Use Raised Vegetable Garden Beds?

raised vegetable garden beds

Raised Vegetable Garden Beds

Raised vegetable garden beds are raised above ground level with some sort of frame. Common materials for the frame are wood, bricks, corrugated iron, stone and concrete. This sort of garden bed is ideal for back-yards and other gardens that are tended by hand, but probably inappropriate for 1000 acre farms that are tended by large farm machinery.

There are many reasons for using raised garden beds here are the main ones for me.

No-dig Gardening

The very first veggie garden I remember starting was when I was 8 years old. There was a semicircular mound at one edge of the garden, and I begged my father to be allowed to use it as a veggie garden. Eventually he gave in.

The first step of course was to dig up the grass, which I started with enthusiasm. But I found that the job was long and hard. I ran out of enthusiasm long before the job was completed, unfortunately the disinterest continued long past the digging process. In the end someone else finished the digging for me; the final result was a semi-circular garden that was no longer a mound. I kept my disappointment about this aspect to myself, but I am sure it added to my disenchantment with the whole process of gardening.

More recently I had an elderly neighbour who was an expert gardener. Despite being disabled he managed to till his vegetable plots to a fine, even texture, like sifted flour. I don’t even know how to do that, let alone have that kind of stamina. So when I heard about no-dig gardening I realised this was the method for me.

Raised vegetable garden beds are the ideal situation for no-dig gardening. You simply build or place a frame on the ground and fill it with a suitable growing medium, and your garden is ready to grow.

Scientific reasons for Raised Vegetable Garden Beds.

Digging damages soil structure. Soil structure is the arrangement of the soil particles and the spaces between them. Naturally soil form layers with more organic material at the top, and firmer rock based elements, like sand and clay, in the subsoil. The spaces between the soil particles are created by worms and other creatures that live in the soil and they allow for water and oxygen to be available to the plants, as well as room for root growth. Digging and tilling destroy the layers and the worm tunnels.

Raised garden beds can be warmer than vegetable plots in the ground. If the frame is constructed from material that absorbs heat, such as metal or bricks, they will absorb extra warm from the sun warming the soil more quickly. If the frame is made of insulating materials such as wood, it will help the soil retain heat over-night instead of losing it to the neighbouring ground.

Australian soil quality is very low, and here in the Blue Mountains top soil very thin, previous gardens I’ve had here had no more than 3mm (1/8 inch) of top soil. Not enough for veggies! Raised beds are filled with a rich growing medium, ideal for the high demands of food production. The bed walls also ensure that precious compost and soil is retained within the garden bed itself and not spread across paths and other areas.

Raised beds allow for a clear distinction of paths from bed areas. Walking on gardens can compact the soil and so inhibit the growth of plants. By surrounding small raised beds with designated paths there is no temptation to walk of the growing areas.

Raised Garden Beds provide easy access

Finally raised garden beds make it easier to reach the plants. Less bending down for access means less damage to the gardener’s back and knees. Garden beds can be raised high enough for access to people in a wheel chair, although I don’t need this provision.

My Raised Vegetable Garden Beds

My intention is to try beds of different heights to compare the outcome and find the optimal depth for this location. I will also try different structural components and different growing mediums. It won’t be a fully controlled comparison, but I hope to have some results that give enough information to improve the production of my raised vegetable garden beds next year.


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