Spring has sprung (here in the northern hemisphere), and many of us are hoping to take advantage of the milder weather and longer daylight hours to get a little backyard garden bed going. Maybe you have never gardened before, or maybe you have, but never had much luck with it. The good thing about backyard gardening is that every year is another chance to try again. Let’s make this year the best one yet!
The advantage of garden beds is that they are inexpensive and easy to construct, they save you from digging into rocky soils and tree roots, and they are far easier to maintain than a sprawling landscaping project. In this guide, we will go over some great starting points for the beginning gardener, or for folks just looking to change things up this season.
Why Garden Beds?
The advantages to using a raised garden bed are numerous. For one thing, if you have overly dry, or overly waterlogged soil, raising your garden bed off the ground addresses both problems. The soil you use in your bed can easily be moisture controlled using a combination of simple materials, and a good bit of observation.
Garden beds also have the upper hand when it comes to weeds. When you fill a garden bed with new soil from your local plant nursery or hardware store, you don’t have to worry about bringing any weeds with it. Ask any gardening hobbyist, and they can tell you that weeds can proliferate shockingly fast. A garden that was completely weeded on Monday might be sporting a whole new crop by Wednesday. Separating out a section for brand new soil gets rid of a lot of the native weeds which can lie dormant in your yard for months.
Garden beds are also manageable. You can make them any size you like, which means you can control the amount of work you need to do for upkeep. If you are the type of person who works long hours, has a considerable commute, and can only really devote 1/2 hour a week to gardening, then don’t put in that 20′ x 10′ bed you saw in the magazine. Go much smaller. A well maintained 4′ x 3′ raised bed can be absolutely lovely. Certainly lovelier than a larger, neglected one.
How Do I Start?
Take a few days to observe your lawn at different times. Which parts are full sun? Which parts are full shade? It is important to have a good location picked out before you begin planting. Those lovely Impatiens will wilt within days if they are placed in direct sunlight for hours on end, while vegetables need lots of light – preferably morning light.
Once you have an area (or two, or three) picked out for your raised beds, it’s time to get building. If you are not the handy type, that’s perfectly fine. There are many prefabricated garden beds available, which require nearly no setup. If you are the type who loves a good project, you’re in luck! Building a garden bed is a fun, and relatively straightforward carpentry job. After all, you’re only trying to create a square or a rectangle. Easy, right? As for materials, you have options ranging from designer stonework to gathered branches from your yard.
What Materials Will I Need?
For a garden bed with a natural look, begin by placing 24″ rebar stakes all around the perimeter of your intended garden. Leave at least 10″ of each stake above ground, and place them about 18″ apart. Take twigs and branches from your yard, and begin weaving them in an alternating pattern in front of and behind the stakes. This creates a lovely woven, rustic effect. Line the interior of the bed with burlap, or even brown paper bags. These can help the soil stay put and not fall through the tiny spaces between sticks. Ideal for frugal gardeners, and for lovers of a more natural landscape appearance.
For a different take on a natural looking bed, consider using lengths of cut logs. We all know that winter time can do a number on our trees. Instead of chipping up all those fallen logs, put them to work as walls for your garden bed. Smaller logs can be stacked, while larger ones can simply be rolled into place and used as they are. Shorter sections of leftover firewood can also be put to use for this purpose. This is an eco friendly option (natural recycling!), while also saving you some money on that annual lawn cleanup bill.
Sticking with simplicity as a theme, you don’t have to be a skilled carpenter to make use of those 2″ x 8″ wood planks. You can buy these at any lumber or hardware store, and as a bonus, many places will cut them for you to your specifications. You don’t even need a saw. Once you have the cut lengths assembled, you can use the same rebar stakes mentioned earlier. These will act as a great support on both the inside and outside of the planks. Just like that, you have a sharp-looking, raised lumber bed. Didn’t even need to lift a hammer!
One of my personal favorite methods is to recycle used wood pallets. Many places which deal with these (furniture stores, beverage distributors, warehouses) have just loads of them lying around. They are an excellent source of scrap lumber! Make a quick phone call to make sure it’s okay to take them, and then just load up the back of your car or truck with as many as you can carry. I like pallets because the squares or rectangles are already framed out for you, and they are surprisingly sturdy. Just cut out or pry off the boards in the “middle” of each pallet, and re-use them as the walls for the border. Voila! Square garden beds for free!
One last quick and easy option? Cinder blocks. These are nearly the perfect height when laid on their sides, and they are very inexpensive. Just lay them out in the shape you want, and you’re done. As an added bonus, heat-loving plants like herbs will thrive alongside the sun-baked concrete.
What Should I Grow?
Anything you want! As a general rule, most folks like to use their front lawns for floral or green displays, and their back yards for growing lots of yummy, organic veggies. Nobody said this is a law however, and I would encourage you to let the natural lighting in your yard be your best guide.
Some easy flowers to consider are perennials. These flowers come back every year, and are therefore a little more hearty (and forgiving of the inexperienced gardener) than other plants. Bulb flowers like lilies, hyacinth, tulips and daffodils can survive brutal winters, and pop up reliable each spring. Other yearly encore performances come in the form of asters, forget-me-not, lavender and sage. All are unfussy, easy plants, and all would thrive in a garden bed.
For the gardener looking for a truly small project, there is nothing quite like a kitchen herb garden. Whether you are interested in the healing properties of herbs, or are simply looking to spice up a favorite recipe, herb gardens are a great bet for the beginner. Basil, chives, dill, fennel, cilantro – these plants can often be grown together, and can thrive with even minimal attention.
Now for my favorite, a vegetable garden bed. Washed, sliced and fresh off the vine – there is nothing like a home grown tomato. Tomatoes are a backyard garden staple, and for good reason. They offer abundant yield for a nice length of time, and with just a little attention, they can grow beautifully. Other beginner-friendly favorites are carrots, radishes, peppers, green beans, lettuce, cucumbers and beets. Growing your own veggies is an excellent way to get more nutritious food into your life, while also getting you out into the sunshine and fresh air. It’s a win-win situation.
I’m Still Afraid I’ll Mess This Up…
Don’t be! Sometimes there are factors beyond the control of even the most talented gardeners. Late season frosts, blights, or some new bug that showed up out of nowhere can sneak up on the best of them. It’s true that things can go wrong, but giving garden beds a try might surprise you. Beds eliminate a lot of potential problems right off the bat, so you’re already way ahead. Buying your seeds or young plants from a reputable source is always best, and some companies even offer guarantees. So even in a worst case scenario, you could at least get some money back.
Still, don’t let past mistakes throw you off. You’ve learned from them and now you’re ready to move onto this healthy and fun new hobby. Get started today!
Check out these helpful links for more information:
Simply in Season Recipes
Aquaponic Gardening – Growing Vegetables and Fish Together