Find out how to build, layer soil, and plant a long lasting, low maintenance DIY raised garden bed with this step-by-step tutorial. In just a few hours you can go from nothing to a planted garden!
This article is sponsored by Fiskars and Gilmour, whose gardening supplies I use and love.
I am so completely excited to share the first completed raised garden bed for our new vegetable garden!
Can I just say how wonderful it felt to be planting food again? It's such a great feeling, and I realized how I had missed it since moving. I highly recommend planting some food anywhere you can - it's very life-affirming.
I'm also happy to finally have a tutorial for building a raised bed on AOC, since you know I'm a big proponent of raised beds as a part of easy care gardening.
But this tutorial is not for your run-of-the-mill raised garden bed - this bed will last far more than the 8-10 years of typical wood beds. Really.
Because if there's one downside I've learned to typical raised beds built from wood, it's rot. This is especially true for the northern half of the US or anywhere that sees a lot of rain, like here in Oregon.
We built beds from cedar in our first city garden, which were disintegrating when we sold it 10 years later. We then found thick reclaimed wood for our acre property garden and it they started falling apart at the 10 year mark as well.
Most things I've read about wood raised beds say something like, "It will last a long time and you won't have to replace it for 10 years." Um, we had gravel paths and our beds were 4' x 12' - what do I do with all that wonderful dirt I've built up while replacing the rotting boards? It's a pain to even think about, that's for sure.
During this past year and a half without a garden, I've done a lot of reading and observing gardens, looking for a solution that didn't include wood. Spoiler: there's not much.
I was about ready to just go with mounded dirt (except for all the weeding of the sides…) when we bought a home with a large deck we didn't need made out of a wood alternative composite decking (one brand name is Trex).
My uncle had actually suggested this material for raised beds and after a bit of research I found that composite lumber is safe and is allowed for certified organic garden raised beds.
So Brian and I started removing the composite boards from the deck while figuring out a way to use them to make a raised bed with no wood at all. It's turned out to be a great solution that I'm excited to share with you.
Can you do this with regular wood, too?
Yes! You can use this building method with standard cedar boards, too - and using metal stakes and corners will help it last longer than the typical wood stakes.
But wait, there's more! (I've always wanted to write that…)
Not only will you learn how to make a raised bed that will truly last, you'll also see how to fill it using a layered system, set up a watering system using Gilmour hoses and timer, and then plant with Fiskars tools (including a new planting knife that I'm finding really useful!).
Basically, with this tutorial you'll be able to set up a raised garden bed from start to finish in a day on any surface. It's one of the reasons why I love raised beds so much - instant gratification!
Raised Bed Garden Tutorial
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Materials for Each Raised Garden Bed
For one 4' x 8' bed (though you will have some supplies left over):
- Six 1-inch x 5-1/2-inch 8-foot long boards of composite lumber (or similar measurements). This will create an 11-inch high bed so that you don't have to worry about any digging. Note: You can use cedar, but it will be sturdier and warp less if they are 2-inch thick boards.
- 10-foot long 1-1/2-inch x 1-1/2-inch drip edge metal roof flashing
- Six 3/8-inch, 2-foot long rebar
- 1 pkg. 1/2-inch galvanized tube straps
- Drill or driver
- Sixteen 2-inch and forty 1/2-inch screws (we used regular screws, though you could use composite screws if you'd like)
- Layering and fill materials: cardboard, straw, grass clippings, composted manure, planting soil, etc.
- Soaker hose, Flexogen Super Duty Hose, electronic garden timer, watering nozzle
- Digging and planting tools like shovel, trowel, pruners and/or garden snips - all mine came from Fiskars, including this new Big Grip Garden Knife that's such a great addition to my garden tools!
- Vegetable transplants and/or seeds.
Building Raised Garden Beds
The first thing you'll need to do is to find the place on your property with the most sun (more than 6 hours - and 8-10 is best) that is conveniently close to your house or a garden shed. Level is ideal, but you can dig a bit to level it if needed (like we did above). Grass, a gravel area, or even cement (if the raised bed is lined) can host raised beds. Tip: I've read that gravel is a great deterrent to garden pests like gophers, moles, and voles.
Orient your beds facing north-south if at all possible to decrease the amount of shading on nearby beds and plantings once the plants have grown.
- Cut your boards, if needed, so that you have four 8-foot boards and four 4-foot boards.
- Using the 2-inch screws, attach two boards together in a butt joint to make the first corner.
- Set the first corner into your chosen area, leveling as needed.
- Screw together the other three corners and then create the top level the same way with the remaining boards.
- Cut the metal flashing to 10-1/2 inches (or the length needed for your stacked composite boards), repeat until you have pieces for all four corners.
- Use a drill with a metal bit to make holes on each side a couple inches from both the top and bottom, as pictured above.
- Tuck the metal flashing into each corner and screw into place with the 1/2-inch screws, holding both levels together.
Tip: If you think you may have any issues with voles, moles, or gophers, this is the time to attach metal hardware cloth to the bottom of the bed. Flip it over, cut the hardware cloth to size, and staple it on with a heavy-duty stapler. Then flip the bed back over and continue.
We used metal rebar to hold the bed in place and to keep the flexible composite boards from bowing.
NOTE: if you are building your beds on grass, you'll want to lay your cardboard down first (unlike how we did it in these photos) - make sure it goes under the sides and extends about 5 inches all around the outside. Then you can lay your walkway material right on top and it will help keep the grass from growing up the sides of your bed. If you've used hardware cloth, you'll have to get creative and lay cardboard under the bed sides and out some to prevent grass growing.
- Pound two rebar pieces into the ground evenly spaced along the long sides and one in the center of each shorter end.
- Add 2 tube straps to to each rebar (one for each board level), attaching them to the boards with 1/2-inch screws, bending as needed to hold firmly (our tube straps were too big, so we cut a few small pieces of the flashing to make our own tube straps).
And your long lasting bed is complete! Now it's time to fill it.
Filling Raised Beds with Layers
This is where you get to build that wonderful soil raised beds are known for. When you're building a deep bed like this, you'll want to add free or inexpensive materials at the bottom so it doesn't cost as much. The benefit is that you can add things that will help enrich your soil - or in the case of cardboard, kill any grass or weeds.
Raised Vegetable Garden Layers (or flowers, herbs, etc.):
- Layer 1: cardboard and/or newspaper laid thickly.
- Layer 2: composted horse manure (free from a friend). Other options: straw and then manure, used chicken coop bedding, other barnyard manures, grass clippings, leaves, homemade compost, etc. Basically, anything that may grow weeds can be used as the second layer (horse manure is notorious for this, since they eat grain), because the other layers will suppress weed growth by lack of oxygen and light. We didn't have straw this time, but I will make sure to add that on the cardboard for our next beds.
- Layer 3: good quality planting soil. This bed took about 1/4 yard of soil which is only about $7 at our favorite landscaping place.
And now your bed's ready to plant - in just a few hours without any back-breaking digging. Isn't that great? But first, let's set up a watering system so it can be as low-maintenance as possible.
How to Easily Watering Your Raised Beds
In addition to thinking about creating raised beds that wouldn't disintegrate, I also spent some time thinking about how to set up an easy watering system.
It seems like most places I looked at online suggested drip systems for raised bed gardens. The problem? They are expensive and time consuming to set up, and require a lot of maintenance to keep them leak-free and unclogged. Even the so-called 'easy' systems seem pretty complicated.
It's no secret around here that I love soaker hoses both for raised beds and flower beds. They are cheap, easy to set up, and work great. And at around $10 each, they are a lot less than the $40-$75 I've seen raised bed drip kits on sale for.
Here's what we did for this bed (oh, and stay tuned for more as we build our new garden - we will be sharing how we will hook all the beds together to create a truly hands-off watering system!)
UPDATE: See that cool DIY PVC pipe system here!
- Lay a soaker hose evenly over the top of the bed's soil before adding any plants. TIP: If you think about it in time, uncoil the soaker hose a few days before, leaving out in the sun to soften which will make it easier to lay. Also, using garden staples to hold some areas in place helps, too.
- Attach soaker hose to a quality garden hose like the Flexogen Super Duty Hose. These have served me so well over the years without cracking and very little kinking that I didn't want to leave them at our old house - these were hoses I made sure to bring with us!
- Attach your hose to a quality electronic timer, like this one from Gilmour. Set it to water just once every 4-5 days for about 4 hours, depending on your weather. Remember, soakers water slow and deep, so they don't need to run like sprinklers do. If you're unsure, do a test watering before setting your timer and see how long it takes the soaker to water the bed to a depth of 10-12 inches.
- Reset your timer for the seasons. Observe your beds and see if they need less watering in the spring and fall and more in the summer.
UPDATE: We built an inexpensive and simple PVC pipe watering system to water all our beds at once with the timer and it's glorious!
Click here to see the tutorial, grab the supplies list and watch the video.
Planting A Raised Vegetable Garden Bed
You can plant in rows, square-feet, or alternating rows - it's up to you. When I have a trellis like this bed for peas, I either like to set it in the middle of the bed to be able to plant on either side or on the ends if I'm only growing a small amount.
Here are some tips for planting for success:
- With a trowel dig a hole slightly bigger than the root of your transplant.
- Add a couple tablespoons of a slow-release organic fertilizer (or according to package).
- Before planting the transplant, gently pry apart the roots. This helps the plant start growing in the new soil. If the plant is root-bound, use a tool like Fiskar's garden knife to score the roots to help open them up. I promise, this won't hurt the plant - if you don't do it, you may find that the roots never grow into the surrounding soil!
- For seeds, use the trowel to create a long furrow, add fertilizer, and drop the seeds along the furrow according to the seed package directions.
- If any of your transplants have browning tops or leaves (the onion starts I found were in a clearance bin, a-hem), use small garden snips to clip them off which allows all the plant's energy to go into establishing roots and new growth, not getting rid of old growth.
- Water in your newly planted areas with a gentle-spray nozzle to help them get established and settled in the soil.
Raised Bed Maintenance
Now we've come to the easy part - you just get to monitor your plantings and harvest! Since the raised garden bed pictured here is planted with spring crops, I will be able to replant with summer and fall crops once these are all harvested.
For longer term maintenance, at the end of the season cover the bed with a thick layer of leaves, straw, or black plastic to prevent erosion and weed seeds blowing in. The next spring, add a 2 to 3-inch layer of compost to the bed a few weeks before planting and then plant as usual.
Have I convinced you that building a raised garden bed is doable? Done from start to finish in a day and very little care after that - all you have to do is the fun stuff, planting and harvesting. I love this type of easy care gardening!
Disclosure: I received product and/or compensation for this post. As always, the opinions, thoughts, and projects are all mine and I will NEVER promote something I don't love and think you will find helpful - promise! This post also uses affiliate links that earn commission based on sales, but doesn't change your price. Click here to read my full disclaimer and advertising disclosure.
Make This Year's Garden A Success!
You said that your bed in this post only required about 1/4 yard of planting soil on top of what you had already layered. Do you know about how many inches of soil that was? I plan on doing some raised beds for the first time and I'm trying to figure out how much layered mulch and compost I should have before I put in the soil. (Many sites I've seen say to do mostly soil with some compost mixed in which can get pretty pricy - like almost a cubic yard for one bed!) So, I'm trying to estimate how many inches of just soil I need on top of the layers of the cardboard and composted materials. (I hope my question makes sense! 🤦♀️)
Yes, total sense, Della! That's what I was trying to do, too, was keep the costs down using more of a "lasagne layered" or 'back to eden' kind of approach.
I aimed for 3-4 inches of soil on top the first year.
I will say that the in the next year, the filling in the bed had composted down to about half (which wasn't a surprise), so I topped it with a bit more soil before adding the yearly compost topping I give to all my beds. But it spread out the cost, so that was good. 🙂
Your answer helps so much! Thank you!
Hi Jami, I like the idea of using the hardware cloth to keep the moles out. Would you have any suggestions to keeping very invasive tree roots out? I have to give up my ground level beds because the intruding roots take water and fertilizer away of all my vegetables resulting in stunted growth and reduced harvests.
Oh, gosh, that's a tough one Elis - and one I don't have experience with.
I did a search and found this where someone created a bed to basically sit above the ground (on cinder blocks): https://www.houzz.com/discussions/1476833/constructing-raised-bed-with-bottom-to-avoid-root-invasion
Maybe it will help or spark an idea?
This was horrible to make. I will never use composite again. I would rather build a wooden bed every 5 years of needed. Terrible!!!
Really? What about it was terrible? We had no issues at all - everything is like we pictured. And we've been using the first bed we created for a couple years and love how it's holding together.
When you say the beds should be north facing, what do you mean? The longer sides of the rectangle run north to south or the short sides?
The short sides should face north and south, leaving the long sides east-west so that as the sun goes over, it doesn't cause shading of smaller plants. It's not the worst thing ever to not have the long beds run this way, just a good tip.:)
Catherine Lacey Dodd says
Thank you for the info. I was a bit concerned about using any plastic in the veg garden and I notice mention of plastic sheeting along with links to watering systems with Prop 65 warnings and lead. I wondered if this is something that convened you. Thanks for your advice.
You mean in my other articles on easy gardening? We only use plastic sheeting to kill weeds in the vegetable garden and then it is removed, so no concerns (lots of organic farmers around here use it for this too).
I'm not sure what you mean about watering systems - the soakers? The PVC? I don't think pvc pipe has that warning and if you're concerned about it, I think you can find soaker hoses or drip systems that don't have the warning. From my understanding, the warning is for drinking from the hose, which we don't do with soakers, so no, it doesn't concern me. 🙂
Thank you for taking all the time and effort to share your experiences with gardening! I've read a lot of your older posts and they've given me some good ideas and best of all, confidence to try some major new things! I decided to completely convert our backyard lawn into food-producing garden. I've gardened in smaller scale before, but nothing like this. Our yard is infested badly with Bermuda grass, so my gardening area was dwindling. I've covered the whole lawn with black plastic and carpet, and plan to keep it there for at least a year, maybe two or whatever it takes to really eradicate that Bermuda grass. I've made two raised beds and will have them sitting on top of the black plastic; then cardboard, logs/rough compost, then good soil and compost. I have some concern about the drainage...especially in the bed with raspberries; I know they need good drainage. I'm not willing to risk puncturing that plastic and having the Bermuda come up through it. I also have four tiny apple trees (will keep shorter than me), strawberries in containers, and established blackberries in the ground at the perimeter (tame ones that don't spread wildly). I plan on a couple more beds at least, but don't want to overwhelm myself. Thanks for helping me take this huge step!
I'm so happy to know I helped you in some way, MaryLynn and am excited for your project - it sounds great!
I totally understand your concern with the grass and keeping the plastic in place, but you will not be happy to have that at the bottom of your beds forever (eventually, you will puncture through with stakes and pieces may come up). I don't believe your plants will, either. I would open a section in the center at least for drainage and hand-dig any grass that's revealed. Put a couple layers of cardboard on the opening if it will make you feel better, but in my experience the layers you'll be adding will not allow grass to grow up into the bed. It's really the edges that allow pernicious grasses to grow and those will be all covered with the plastic.
Juls Owings says
metal should have been on the outside of the box,not inside where it will now rust and leak those chemicals in your dirt. Drip hose is the best to use in sq ft gardens,keeps the water off the boards more on in the root of the plants
YES rabbits eat one or two plants and when they have babies you won't have anything left.Get some rabbit repellent ASAP. I had one last year that LOVED the ghost pepper plant.
Enjoy your garden
Hey Juls - I wanted to keep the beds as clean-looking as possible. I did do a bit of research and found that rust (Ferrous Oxide) is not going to do any harm and eventually might be good providing some iron (Fe) needed when used in raised beds. The other metals are galvanized, which isn't a problem, either. These could easily be used on the outside, though, for anyone who wanted to.
We are planning to fence our garden area - we know there are deer around - and now we will be adding rabbit protection as well. 🙂
I'm totally rennovating my backyad from lawn to food-producing, and your gardening posts have givn me several good ideas and best of all, confidence to do it! We've lived in this SE Washington home for almost 25 years and I wish I had done this sooner. Lawn is heavily bermuda-infested, so I have black plastic anchored down with old carpet etc and have built two raised beds on top of the plastic (I plan on at least two more). I think I need to keep plastic down at least a full year, if not 2 years to ERADICATE that bermuda. I will put raspberries in one bed and vegetables in other. I also have 4 tiny apple trees (will keep under 5 feet high) and blackberries already established. Question...do you think the 12 inch raspberry raised bed on top of black plastic, with cardboard under soil, will not keep their "feet" too wet? Its very dry climate here. Thanks for all the time and ffort you give to share your insights!
Love raised bed information but I tried something that this lazy person was pretty happy with. Unfortunately I did not have access to the wonderful choice of non-wood that you had, but did want mine RAISED vs just off the ground. I used concrete blocks for the first two levels then a 12'x12'x 2 inch thick board for the top level. This put the bed about 29 inches off the ground, much easier to avoid the endless bending plus hopefully better draining for the wood to slow the rot. I put 3/4 minus gravel on ground cloth (for drainage) on the bottom then ground cloth again following with burn pile ashes, etc. then finished with good soil (didn't have the great items you were able to use). I wanted to avoid having to fill the beds with soil very often because the bottom filler was breaking down or good soil washing away and I had a lot more space to fill. Made the top level about 15 or so inches of good soil.
That sounds like a great solution for creating higher beds, Nora. How did you attach the wood to the cement blocks? I'm assuming it's on it's side to get the added height, but I don't know how you attach wood to cement blocks - is there something that connects the two?
D. Bourgeois says
Oh, You've convinced me of raised bed gardening a long time ago, girl! My beds have deteriorated since I first used raised beds, but then, I had to use what I had, which was wood from a torn down structure. I've had to replace one. But now I know to consider composite wood before building any more. Thanks for sharing! Love you tips and tricks!
Yay! I completely agree that using what you have is a good thing. 🙂
What a great idea! I have a question though. Wouldn't the rebar need to be on the outside of the bed to keep it from bowing out from all the dirt on the inside? Or does it really hold it all in just from those few pieces on the inside? I hope the answer is yes because it is so nice that the rebar is hidden!
Well, you guessed why I wanted it on the inside. 🙂 I sure hope so - we did use two on each long side. If not, it's easy to add one to the outside. We'll see how it works!
So it’s been 3 years, how is it holding up? Did you end up needing rebar one the outside too?
No, we haven't! They look the same and haven't added any more supports. I have a year 3 video tour of the garden here where you can see them.
I will say that in a few areas the top board has bowed a bit out from the bottom board and dirt sometimes comes through, but it's about a teaspoon or so - really minor. And this wouldn't be an issue if you used just one board. We had to use 2 boards high because of the condition of our rocky soil beneath.