Building a Garden

Tuesday we covered the planning stage of a garden.  You’ve got your design figured out, an idea of what your going to plant, and where you going to put your garden (you do have that already done right from the last post? Good).  With that all done, you can start setting up your garden. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. Preparing the ground, setting up your boxes, and laying down the soil.  

First thing to do is buy 4 posts and some twine.  Mark out the four corners and place the twine so you have a visual representation of your garden.  This is your “last” chance to see if the garden design will fit in with your lawn before having to undo a lot of work.  I’d recommend letting it sit for a day, to allow you see how much sun the area receives in the morning and evening.  Ideally you’ll want to try this either in the spring or summer, where the sun is at more of an angle throughout the day.  During the summer you’ll get more sun typically, so spring/fall will get you a better year round idea.  Too much shade and your garden won’t thrive.  Once you’re happy with its location its time to get to work.

Take the map you’ve made yourself and plan out what materials you’ll need.

  • Ground Covering – Get enough ground cover to cover everything (trust me on this… you don’t just want to line the boxes), and then add about a foot all around that space. Choose a long lasting mesh, to help keep out the weeds.  5 yr covering is probably fine, although longer will most likely get you better results (although pricer).
  • Planter Box Lumber – The boxes themselves are fairly simple too. 2x8s or 2x10s are you best bet depending on how tall you want your boxes to be.  Try to stay away from treated woods if you can avoid it (the treatment can soak into your garden) and go for Myself I go with 1 row of 2x10s as eventually I plan on adding a second row of boxes onto to get the height up to about 1.5-2 feet.
  • Soil – You can go all out up front, but that’s a lot of soil depending on the size of your garden.  I prefer to build it up over time to spread out the cost( which works out with just the one row of boards first).  Some plants need deeper roots than others so you may want to build those boxes up first.
  • Connectors – For the screws you’ll want outdoor type about 4 inches long.  Normal inside screws will rust, so spend the extra cash and get the good rust free stuff.  You can also buy some supporting bars, which will hold boxes together, and help out if you use this structure as the base of your greenhouse.  If you are going to start off with a  double decker box (2 boards onto of each other) you’ll want to get some 1×1 or 2×2 posts to put into the corners to help anchor everything together.

The Ground
Depending on your soil this can go easily or be a pain in the neck.  Another reason I prefer boxes over planting directly in the ground as you don’t have to dig down so far.  First remove as much of the grass and foliage as you can.  If possible you might want to rototill (turn over) the ground to proved a nice even surface for you to build on.  If you want to not go through that work, you can spray weed killer and wait for everything to die.  But bewared – you’re going to be planting your garden on top of this, and the weed killer can soak up into your garden.  Use with discretion, or not at all if you can avoid it.  Once you have a nice barren, flat surface, place down your ground covering, overlapping at least 3″ (preferable 6″) onto of each other.  Most coverings come with pins to hold it in palace, but you can buy extra if you want to be extra secure.

The reason for suggesting to add a foot extra of ground covering is to allow for stapling or some landscaping (stone, mulch etc) to help prevent weeds for attacking your garden sides.  Much of the advice I gave before about paths inside the garden, also apply to the sides as well.

The Boxes
The boxes are also pretty simple provided you keep doing the same thing to each box.  Measure out all your lengths and arrange the boxes in a  similar fashion to the left keep your measurements on point.  Pre drill your holes through the first box first, then screw everything in place.  Use 2 screws, one midway on the top half, and the other midway on the bottom to secure the boards together.

If you are adding additional support bars, screw them in once each box is in its place.  If you are double stacking, place 1 post inside each corner, and then attach via screws (remember to pre drill) in the middle of each box (example at right).  Then place the second box onto of that, and attach in the same fashion.

For my set-up, I only added metal bars along the two long stretches on the sides to add security and to reinforce it for the greenhouse which is my goal.  Normally you won’t need them for a freestanding box.

I’m going to take a time out here and suggest something.   Some of your perennial plants (I’m specifically looking at you mint!) can try to escape their boxes and take over it’s neighbors.  Even with pruning and pulling and all sorts of activity trying to stop it on your part.  These are called “runners”.  Some do this via it’s root system (that’d be the mint) and some do it by low horizontal stems (like strawberries).  The later is easier to keep in check, but much harder to do with root based runners.  So how to keep mint from taking over your garden?  Roofing shingles.

Yes you heard that right. I added a cross section to one of my boxes to create a 2 x 2 foot space.  Then I lined the inside with roofing shingles (overlapped) to help create a barrier form the mint roots rom escaping (yes I know I have weed blocked but this stuff is very good at escaping).  By using roof shingles you can allow for the water to still come out, while keeping the mint in.  There are tons of tricks online to help contain mint, and a different method might work for you (terra cotta pots are nice).  Just be aware that ever so often you’ll need to clean out the root system if you want to keep your mint healthy.

The Soil
Make sure that all the boxes are in the proper locations before filling with soil.  Once you start adding in the dirt, it makes it much harder to move things around.  Trust me.  I’ve moved my fair share after the fact.  It isn’t pretty.  Learn from my mistakes.

For the actual soil mix that will depend on 3 things:

  1. What you are planting
  2. How much you’re willing to spend
  3. How deep you need it to be

The first depends on the plants you want to grow.  Some plants prefer sandier soil, others something more dense.  For most people a general garden mix is preferable.  For myself, I combine no more than a 2 to 1 ratio of Miracle Grow soil and regular top soil.  I find that I get the advantage of the Miracle Grow throughout the growing season, while not paying an arm and a leg.

The second is fairly obvious.  The more you can spend the more quantity and better quality soil you can buy.   Myself, I’m fairly cautious and instead of spending all my cash at once and instead building it up over time. This gives me two advantages.  The first is that it spread the cost out over years of adding up the soil.  The second is that I can keep adding more of the nutrient rich soil mix to my beds without having to buy any fertilizer or other products (as it’s already in the mix I’m using).

The third is a bit more… odd.  I’m on a long-term plan.  I eventually hope to get my boxes to about 2 feet high, but that’s a lot of dirt.  I started out filling my boxes with about 5″ of soil (about half).  And each year I add more and more soil to the mix. The down side to this is the first few years you may not have a deep enough bed to do things that need heavy root systems.  This can be side-stepped by cutting into your weed blocker, but it does compromise the barrier you put in place to keep everything weed free.  For me the risk is outweighed by the benefit (and I managed still to have a great crop).  But it’s your call.  Keep in mind what your planting and perhaps add more soil to some of the beds that might need deeper roots.

A Garden
Viola!  A garden.  Obviously you have more to do but your planing and preparation will help you out.  Your weed blocker, new soil, and raised beds will help reduce the amount of weeding you’ll need to do. You’ll still need to water and prune and take care of your plants.  But you now have a solid foundation for any future gardening plans.

Oh and what plans I have…

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