Sunday, April 2, 2017

DIY garden bed frames

Last week, we started the process of tearing out our old, rotted garden bed frames and installing new ones. As you can see from these pics, the old ones really were in pretty bad shape. When Brian mentioned to his folks on the phone that he was planning to tear out the old beds that weekend, his dad asked "Got a sledgehammer?" and Brian confidently predicted, "I won't need one."

And sure enough, all he had to do was give that old, rotted trellis a good kick and pretty much the whole thing came tumbling over. He pulled out the rest of the boards with his bare hands—some of them literally crumbling in his fingers—and was left with a clean, bare patch of dirt to be re-framed.

But while pulling out the old beds wasn't too hard, building the new ones and getting them into place posed more of a challenge. Fortunately, we were able to do the replacements one at a time, as the beds are staying the same size, 8 feet by 3 feet. That's slightly smaller than the 8-by-4 size recommended in most gardening books, but it has a couple of advantages for us. First of all, the narrower bed allows my short arms to reach all the way into the middle from either side, while still being wide enough to accommodate a big zucchini plant. And second, the smaller size allows us to squeeze four beds into the fenced-in garden area we had in the back yard when we moved in. We could have just expanded the fenced area to accommodate larger beds, but it was easier at the time to work with what we had—and it meant we didn't need as much material to replace the old fence with a proper groundhog fence around the area. (We're still making use of the extra space in front of the fenced area with beds for rhubarb and asparagus, which the groundhogs don't eat, so it isn't going to waste.)

We're using the same basic design for the frames that Brian used for our old ones, with a couple of modifications. They're built entirely out of 2-by-4s, which have several perks as a building material. They're thicker, and therefore sturdier, than a standard wooden boards, and much lighter than a heftier wooden plank, which makes them easier to carry from store to car to house. Also, they're quite a bit cheaper. This raised-bed design from Sunset magazine, which is built out of 2-by-12s, has a cost estimate of $120 for a single 4-by-8-foot bed—and that's for a basic box with no trellis, made from untreated lumber. By contrast, the materials we bought for all four of our beds—a total of 96 square feet of garden space—cost just $250, trellises and all. Plus, ours are made of pressure-treated lumber, which means—we hope—that they'll last considerably longer than the first set. That means we'll also save money by not having to replace them in another nine years.

So Brian's 2-by-4 design had clear advantages to start with, and he's improved on it for this go-round. When he constructed the first set of garden bed frames nine years back, he built the boxes by themselves, and later, when we started getting into vertical growing, he grafted the trellises on—a rather awkward, kludgey process. This time, he decided to incorporate the trellises right into the design of the boxes, which gives them extra structural stability—though it also makes the whole unit very bulky and awkward to handle. So building them this way, or at least moving them into place, is definitely a two-person job.

Each bed uses ten 2-by-4s, each 8 feet long. Four of these are used for the sides and four for the trellises, so they don't need to be cut. The remaining two get cut up into four 3-foot lengths for the ends of the beds and four 1-foot lengths to make three feet on the front of the bed. If you're counting, you'll notice that this leaves an extra 1-foot piece left over from each frame, but I'm sure we'll find a use for them.

Once he had all the pieces cut, Brian began to assemble the box. He started by building one corner: one 8-foot piece on the x-axis, a 3-foot piece on the y-axis, and a 1-foot piece on the z-axis. (The other pieces of wood you see in the picture are shims to keep everything level, since our patio isn't perfectly flat.) He attached these with 2.5-inch stainless-steel screws, since they needed to go all the way through one 2-by-4 and most of the way into a second one without poking out the other side. Two screws connect the end piece to the long side, and a third attaches the end to the 1-foot leg piece.

With this corner as an anchor, he continued around building the whole first layer of the box: 8-foot pieces on the sides and 3-foot pieces on the ends.

Then, he added a second layer of 2-by-4s, long and short, on top of the first, attaching the pieces the same way. He also installed a second 1-foot piece at the opposite end of the box and a third one in the center between them (not attached yet in this picture). These "feet" would serve to anchor that side of the box in the dirt. He didn't add any short pieces to the other side of the box, because the feet on that side would be formed by the ends of the trellis pieces.

Once the box was complete, he turned it up on its side to start attaching the trellis to the back. In this picture, you can see the first of the long trellis sides running down through the box and coming out the bottom to form a foot on that side. 

At this point, he got wrapped up in the construction process and forgot to take any more pictures for a while, so you can't really see the trellis coming together. But once the whole thing was done, he let me come in for a close-up to show how he had attached the trellis pieces to the boards of the box with screws in the same spots as the ones that hold the short feet.

And here's the entire bed with the trellis attached. As you can see, there's one long vertical piece running up each side and one in the middle, with one long horizontal piece connecting them across the top.

Then came the really hard part: getting it into the garden. Brian's initial idea was that once he had the whole thing built, the two of us could just heft it as a unit right over the garden fence. I had my doubts about this plan, and as the entire thing took shape under his hands, Brian came to agree with me that it wasn't going to work. So he removed several screws and took the whole thing apart into two pieces: the front of the box with the feet and sides, and the back side with the trellis attached.

But before we could even move these two smaller pieces, Brian had to do a little work in the garden bed itself to prepare the ground. He scooped all the dirt from around the edges of the bed and piled it high in the middle (first throwing a tarp down on the opposite side from where he was digging to catch any that spilled over). Then he dug extra deep in the corners to make room for the support posts.

At this point the two of us hauled the box down to the garden, maneuvered it into the back corner, and dropped it into place. That part wasn't too difficult, but with the trellis side removed, the 2-by-4s that made up the ends of the bed were sort of free-floating and didn't stay quite aligned. So the new box was slightly uneven and had to be realigned before it could be reattached to the trellis.

Then we went back and, with great effort, fetched the trellis piece and carried it into the garden...confirming my suspicious that we'd never have been able to do it with the box attached. I then held the trellis in place while Brian carefully lined it up with the ends of the box so he could reinsert the screws. He ended up having to lie flat on the ground to get the drill in place to insert the bottom-most set of screws, but eventually we managed to get the entire unit assembled in its new home.

We noticed that the level of the dirt in the new bed seemed to be a lot higher than it had been in the old one. Maybe the dirt had just become compacted, and we'd fluffed it up some in the process of digging, or maybe all that extra dirt Brian had dug out from around the edges contributed to the whole. Whatever the reason, we ended up having to scoop out a shovelful or two of dirt and transfer it to a neighboring bed before adding a couple of buckets of our homemade compost to the bed to prepare it for planting.

Then we just raked that all down nice and flat, and we were finally able to get our peas into the ground—about a week late, but with the chilly weather we've been having, it probably didn't make that much difference.

So that's one bed in, and we still have three more to do. Brian's out there now working on the second one, and we figure we'll be putting up one more every weekend until we're done. Fortunately the deadline's not quite as tight at this point, since the next batch of crops to go in the ground—parsley, scallions, leeks, and our first plantings of lettuce and arugula—are all scheduled to go in just two beds, and one of those is the one we've already got. After that, there's nothing new to add until the second week in May, so that's our hard deadline for having all four beds done.

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