The Saga With Our Frugal Raised Bed. It Had To Be Easy!
But it wasn't that much...
(TL;DR; If you are not interested in our story, but want to learn from it, jump straight to the Conclusions section.)
This must have been the fifth time we changed the landscaping plan about our garden - in less than an year. First it was going to be like a jungle with wild plants etc. Then we wanted to build lot of cool things like alcoves, pergolas, sheds, etc and it wouldn't let much space for veggies. Then we decided we want to grow a lot of veggies. The whole garden was going to be mulched with pine needles (I have to write another post about this very idea). It didn't happen. Our latest idea was, and still is, to build mostly a raised bed garden and let some grass and wild plants between the beds.
A Raised Bed From a Couple Of Boards? (So Here's How We Started)
Early spring we went downtown to buy some wood material along with chimney blocks, paving slabs and concrete bricks. In another post I'll write more about why we needed all this.
So we bought a bunch of 4 m long boards and battens with the plan to use them for building 2 or 3 raised beds just for a start. The weather wasn't exactly good and we didn't have too much space to store the boards so we left them outside:
Don't do this. Few days later, around May 2nd or 3rd it started raining. Rain stopped on May 31st. (It never rained since and now is October. OK, I may be exaggerating, but the May rains were heavy and the drought that came after that was severe. Yet another post topic!). So in nearly a month of constant rain and not very well stored the boards twisted and curved quite a bit. And as you can see it started acquiring nice amount of mold. I hoped I'll easily fix all this when building the raised bed...
Is Low Quality Wood Material Any Good?
What I missed to tell you so far is that these boards are made of pine wood and of rather low quality. Basically they are shuttering boards. But we live in a small town and have no car, so we have to deal with what the few stores here offer us. So we bought this wood. Don't do this.
And then the saga with impregnating this material started. Pine wood is nothing like the red cedar wood they use for raised beds in the USA. Low quality pine boards won't survive more than an year or two if you just drop them on the ground without oiling. They'll quickly decay. But you can't use poisonous impregnant for raised beds because you are going to grow food there. So I was hoping we'll use lineseed oil until I found out it's a fire hazard and most probably contains added chemicals. So it was not good. On top of that we can't find real lineseed oil here in our town - the hardware stores sell only a petrol based alternative. So we decided to only paint the board with orange soluble paint:
It was far from good protection but was at least something.
Leveling the Ground
Most guides about building raised beds mention that you should level the ground under the bed. Like if they say "have a break and make a coffee". Come here and try to level our ground please! Because it's not at all as easy as it sounds. Our terrain is slopped, the soil is full of small and really large rocks. (And that's not just us - lots of gardeners have to deal with such terrain. So if you are writing a guide about building raised bed don't say leveling the ground is easy).
At least the soil was soft because of the full month rain so I could dig a little with the mattock and spade. But 10 degrees slope is still 10 degrees. Maybe I just didn't choose the best location for the bed - there was not single square meter flat. My plan to make both sides of the raised bed in different height and move a lot of earth around was quickly forgotten and I decided to leave the bed sloped. Here's what I could do with the ground:
Not that impressive! It's good at least that you can't see how sloped it is on the picture.
Assembling the Raised Bed
So my plan for the raised bed was pretty simple - each of the two 4 m (12 ft) long boards would be cut in two parts: one 2.8m / 9ft and one 1.2m / 4ft piece. So the short pieces would go on the short side and the others on the long side of course. The bed would be just about 25 cm / 8" high. We would connect the boards with a 2" thick battens in each corner. The batten would simply be embedded into the ground to keep the bed in place.
The total cost of the materials was $30, doubled from $15 because of the paint. That's more than I was hoping for, but still can be called a frugal project.
Easier said than done! The boards were so twisted that you could never connect the four ends together. Connect the boards at the one side with nails and screws and the other side immediately detaches. We ended up with something that wouldn't be stable enough to hold the soil inside, and it had large holes at the lower sloped end.
Fail! You can't call this a raised bed. But you know what we did? We just turned it into a compost bin for grass and weeds:
So instead of a raised bed we got a second compost bin (we have a plastic one too). It was fun at the end, and we still have something useful. Most useful are the lessons we learned:
Conclusions - Don't Do It This Way!
There are so many guides telling you how to build a raised bed. Here I'll tell you how NOT to do it. These are our don't-s:
- The DIY raised bed guides online make it sound way too easy. Maybe it is easy if you have a flat ground and good wood material. But in most real life situations you may have to deal with rough terrain and material of poor quality. So have a lot of patience.
- Do not use low quality pine material if possible. It will not last long even if oiled.
- Don't underestimate the terrain. Leveling the ground and moving large quantities of earth around is not easy if all you have on hand is a spade.
- Don't buy cheap wood material when you have no place to store it. It will quickly twist especially if exposed to rain.
- Don't use any poisonous impregnants. You will poison the soil and the food you grow in the raised bed.
- Don't insist on using wood if you have other options. Raised beds can be made of concrete blocks, vinyl pipes, twigs and many more materials.
- Don't let this post scare you :) You'll probably complete a lot more complicated DIY projects than a raised bed in your backyard. And a raised bed remains a simple project if you avoid making dumb mistakes.