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How to build a raised garden bed – or outsource it

By March 22, 2012March 26th, 2012DIY, Gardening


No joke, I have been working on this post all week. Should I tell you how we did it, or simply show you what we did and explain why we did it that way? It’s that whole “speak with authority” thing I struggle with in blogging. You can’t just “do” you have to “own.”  But since I own at nothing, I’ll just ramble on for a bit and show you some pretty pictures.

I recently finished reading The 4-Hour Workweek. Have you heard of it? Typically I’m not one for the self-help-ish snake oil salesman section of B&, but my trainer mentioned it the other day while repeatedly pointing at me and saying he was “outsourcing” his web design to me (aside: Nate – you’re in the queue).


I guess there’s not a better way of saying that I have mixed feelings about the concept of outsourcing. I grew up in an environment that strongly encouraged self-sufficiency and independence — possibly to an extreme. As an adult, I now find achieving any real “down time” difficult because I feel like I have to learn and know as much as possible about everything so I can do it myself. You know, “in case.”

I’ve put off building this bed for weeks because “I just wasn’t ready.” I’ve been reading and gleaning as much as I can, but the idea of using tools, buying wood and knowing what to build felt debilitating. It’s not that I can’t do it, but the fear of not doing it perfectly — oh the horror!

It doesn’t help that I’m surrounded by master gardeners, both in my neighborhood and family. My aunt and uncle were in Minnesota Monthly, my mom knows the common and latin names of almost every plant in existence, an entire side of my family are farmers and my in-laws have built an entire farm from recycled and re-purposed materials. To say I’m intimidated is an understatement.

I’m also feeling a bit anxious as preparations begin for the sale of my grandparents home, a mecca of love through nature and the only consistent home I’ve ever had. My grandma’s garden beds are legend and I want so badly to have my own so maybe I can capture a piece of them.

I finally admitted I was beaten — by myself — and decided to ask for help. Neil’s dad, who I forgot to mention above is a horticulture consultant, had been wanting to make the trek up, and the timing was perfect. He took one look at the yard, we hopped in the car, and came back from the hardware store with everything in under an hour. It took us longer to build our saw horse table. for our desk. I think asking for help was the right way to go.


We laid everything out in the driveway, and Neil’s Dad went to work. I was still inside putting sunblock on my ginger skin when his mom ran in and said that I was missing all the photo opportunities. I ran outside to find two sides already built. Everything came together in seemingly just minutes. Had it not started pouring, I think  from start to finish the whole project would have taken about four hours — including digging and pouring cement and removing a small tree.

We’re starting with one 4×8 bed this year, and adding another next year. That’s another 4-Hour Workweek revelation: “start small and evaluate constantly.” Realistically we also have no shortage of other yard projects with which to disperse our income. I’ve been working on a realistic and achievable plan, and I’ll share that next week if the rain will stop long enough to take more pictures.

We loosely followed the How-To in Sunset Magazine, however we did make some changes to both simplify and account for the grade of our yard.

Materials Needed:

Qty 3 – Treated 2×12 8 foot lumber
Qty 2 – Treated 4×4 8 foot lumber
Qty 2 – 1 inch PVC pipe (this is to allow you to install PVC arches and plastic)
Qty 8 – 1 inch PVC metal pipe straps
Qty 30 – 4 inch lag bolts
Qty 30 – lag bolt washers
Qty 1 – Chicken wire, or other mesh to line bottom of the bed (mole preventative!)

Assembled! Now to dig holes for the legs.


We put some Quickcrete cement in the holes we dug for the legs to prevent any settling or movement. We also added chicken wire to the bottom to prevent moles (the unfortunate stay-over visitors from last year’s cicadas) from coming through the bottom. Since the ground was not flat we added some wood to the end to complete the box.


The pups look on in amazement and possibly boredom…


To fill the bed we used:

Qty 1 – 7 cubic ft of rice hulls (courtesy of Dad)
Qty 2 – 3 cubic ft bags of pine bark mulch
Qty 1 – 3 cubic ft bag of peat moss
Qty 2 – 1 cubic ft mushroom compost soil
Qty 10 – 1 cubic ft bags of dark garden soil (doesn’t have to be bags, any nutrient rich soil)
Qty 1 – small/medium bag of any misc garden fertilizer

Rice hulls:


Mushroom compost:


Mix it all together!



Done! Our new raised garden bed. PVC is in place to allow you to install arches and plastic for early spring cover. Pretty sweet. Total cost (with dirt) rounded out to roughly $150. Not cheap, but definitely worth it.


Speaking of rain, part of this project also included installing a new rain barrel on the southeast corner of the house. It’s the closest corner to the garden and an area prone to a lot of water. Rather than build a more complicated system of gutters and pipes to carry the water away from the foundation, we’ve opted to barrel it and use it for the garden.

Installing it gave Neil the opportunity to use the angle grinder I got him for Christmas.


Neil’s pro review: “The new Makita angle grinder makes very quick and clean work of the guttering.”


So there you have it. We spent quality time with family while learning how to build a bed from an expert. The hours I didn’t spend toiling were put to both productive and unproductive use elsewhere. And next year, we can do it on our own. I’d say asking for help was the right way to go don’t you? Sure, we’re not going to gain a lot of blog cred by not posting dozens of  photos of us making this project our bitch, but aren’t “how to {insert topic}” posts a little tired and presumptuous anyway?

Have you ever outsourced a project you knew was better left to an expert?

Note: All joking aside, if you’re interested in gardening and don’t know where to begin, contact your area Master Gardener chapter, or look into local University/college extension programs. They are a wealth of information and resources, and they are always happy to help!


  • I’m starting to think we should outsource some of our plumbing projects– they always take SO much longer than we expect! Then again, we don’t want to (and don’t have the budget to) pay someone else.

    We built some 4×4′ beds last year for the backyard, and just finished up the cold frames for the front yard. Now I’m just tending to my little seedlings until it is time to plant outside.

    • Jessica says:

      Plumbing projects in older homes are especially hard because so many people updated components over time, and in stages. The plumbing on one floor of our house is entirely different than the other!

      I saw your cold frames post today, absolutely brilliant idea and they are gorgeous!

  • Your garden looks great! Hope it gives you tons of yummy veggies & fruit! My husband and I were just talking about wanting a garden but our neighborhood covenants forbid it. We have a small backyard anyway.

    I think outsourcing is smart – I’d rather have someone else do it right then to spend more money and time and do it wrong myself 🙂

    • Jessica says:

      I can’t imagine having a covenant against gardening. My parents’ covenant says no clotheslines or sheds, which I find weird. What if you interspersed a few things as “landscaping”?

      Luckily, we didn’t have to pay, my father-in-law was happy to help us (we’re helping him develop a business plan/comm strategy for his consultancy — favor trade!), but I know there are a great many of small shops and individuals who consult these types of services reasonably, if you ever do change your mind or move into an area that allows gardening.

  • Liz says:

    I’m the exact same way with feeling like I need to know everything so that I can be the master of all things in order to only rely on myself. But it really does help to have others involved – look at how awesome that bed looks! I need to look into this 4-Hour Work Week book…

    • Jessica says:

      It’s an interesting book. He spends a lot of time selling himself and his “plan,” which I’m not really a fan of, but there are some core messages/concepts in the book that are pretty sound. Definitely worth the read.

  • Rachel says:

    I’m so excited for you to have a garden again. I did the same thing, but my “outsourcing” was having my Dad build me two raised garden beds for my birthday 🙂 I would love to get a rain barrel for the garden-I think it would save so much money but being in a rental has its limitations. This year, the goal is to buy better soil and kick ass at growing lots of yummy food to get me through winter. Tomatoes are my big goal this year. Congrats on the new bed!

    • Jessica says:

      That was our “outsourcing” as well, and maybe I didn’t communicate that as well as I could have haha. If this rain ever stops I’ll finally be able to start working in the yard!

  • Laura says:

    Looks great! My husband and I kind of winged our two garden beds. We’re adding another this year and I’ll have to take some tips from your experience. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessica says:

      I wish I could wing things. I put way too much pressure on myself. That Sunset tutorial is a good base to built beds from though!

  • camille says:

    We’re in the process of trying to buy a house, and the one we’re trying to buy needs a bunch of work. We’re outsourcing the HECK out of it. We know better than to try to fix any of it ourselves, we’re… not the handiest. It’s definitely got to be pros all the way, or the house will fall down around our ears.

    Then we’re going to outsource the ripping down of old-lady wallpaper to our friends by bribing them with food and booze.

    • Jessica says:

      There are definitely things in our house I know better than to attempt, electrical being a big one, demolition being the second. I’m a huge fan of trade also, so I see the bartering of strengths only helpful to both parties 🙂

  • I wish we would outsource some things, but Nathan is so determined to DIY anything. It’s (usually ) worth it in the end, but still. Still.

    Your bed looks awesome! We hope to finally plant in ours this weekend. It’s been really warm in NC and I think the frost has ended for good. Good luck with your gardens! Can’t wait to see what y’all grow!

  • Your bed looks great! Have you looked into the concerns about using treated lumber directly in contact with your soil?

    • Neil says:

      The wood we used contains an alkaline copper quat treatment and not an arsenic based treatment (which I do not think any treated wood uses anymore). We are considering lining the sides of the bed. However there are plenty of studies showing that even with the old arsenic based treatment, if you avoid planting right against the edges the arsenic PPM is no more than what exists in plain yard soil, and certainly less than the non-organic produce you get from the supermarket.

      For the uber worrisome I would recommend lining the sides on treated wood, or using redwood, cypress, or red cedar but we aren’t that awfully worried about it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Gardening is one of my all time favorite hobbies. I look forward to starting my vegetable garden each spring and love working it and tending it all summer. I don’t use a garden box however. I have large rectangle plot in my backyard that I cleared and each spring I till it (my neighbor has a rototiller which is WONDERFUL) and work the compost soil I have been making all year into it. And I just plant right into the ground. I don’t use fertilizer other than the compost. I always build a two-feet chicken wire fence around it every year to keep the little critters out. The garden plot is close enough to the house and to where the dogs run around that I don’t have to worry about deer (at least I have never had a problem with them). I have always wondered what the benefits of planting in a box compared to planting directly in the ground are? Would it be for soil quality issues?