Raised Beds on the Cheap

by Susan McCanless

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Raised beds can be expensive to make. By the time you add together the cost of landscaping timbers, soil, compost or manure, you can easily spend over $50 to $75 per bed. If you plan to have a large garden, the costs quickly mount up. Here is how to have raised beds in your garden for very little or no money.

It is best to start the process several weeks or months before you wish to plant the beds. Creating the beds in autumn for spring planting is perfect.

First, measure off the area where you wish to put the bed. Don't make the bed so wide that you can't easily reach across it. You can make the bed a classic rectangular shape or you can make it an irregular shape to fit into a niche in your yard.

Remove any sod or weeds where the bed is to be prepared. You can loosen the soil a bit, although this step is not strictly necessary. Loosening the soil does encourage earthworms and soil microbes to go up into the bottom layer of the bed, as well as providing better drainage.

Next, gather grass or other green compostable matter and cover the ground where the bed is to be to a depth of about 12 inches. I have a weak-stemmed native grass that grows in my yard that I used. You can also use vegetable peelings and other compostable scraps from the kitchen.

Over the layer of green matter, spread newspapers. The layer of newspapers should be 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Once the newspapers have been spread, wet them down so that they are evenly moist. The newspaper will suppress any weeds that emerge from the ground or from the compostable material.

Now over the layer of newspapers, spread an inch or two of compost or topsoil. Last spread a three to six inch layer of mulch over the top of the bed. You can use leaves, straw, pine straw, or any mixture of mulching materials. Water the bed well so that all layers are moist.

Leave the bed alone for a few weeks to a few months. This will give the green matter on the bottom of the bed chance to decompose into compost. When you are ready to plant the bed, simply move the mulch aside and place your seeds or plants in the soil underneath. The layer of newspaper will have decomposed enough that the roots of the plants can grow down into the layer of compost on the bottom of the bed.

I made two of these beds in my yard last fall. I find that they hold moisture best of all the garden areas I have, whether a conventional raised bed or an area that has been tilled and amended with organic matter. I got more lettuce out of one bed than I've ever gotten from a similar-sized garden bed before. And the lettuce kept bearing well into our warm weather, far past the time it would normally have bolted. I'm convinced that this is because of all the moisture retained in the bed.

The only possible downside to creating garden beds like this is the lack of defined boundaries. This should not be a problem if your household consists of adults and older children. Pets and very small children might need to be gently reminded that the garden beds are not to be walked on. One dog continually walked in the bed where we had planted strawberries this spring and the other dog took naps there. In retrospect, we should have put up stakes or some other type of barrier around the bed until the dogs learned to stay out of the bed.

These new raised beds cost me nothing for materials. I had all the green matter for the bottom layer in my yard. All I had to do was pull it up. I had the newspapers on hand, ready to recycle. It's true that I had to pay for the newspaper subscription, but we were taking the paper anyway. And I could have asked a neighbor to save papers for me. The compost and dirt were from our compost piles and dirt that had washed down into our yard from the neighbor's yard. The mulch was raked up from my yard. I avoided spending money on mulch, soil, and landscaping timbers, and gas to go to the garden center, and the result has been very productive garden spaces.

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