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The Ultimate Guide to Planning, Building and Planting Raised Garden Beds

by Chris Lambton

The most common gardening complaint I hear when traveling involves soil quality. It can be too sandy, too rocky or full of clay, and even sometimes a frustrating combination of all three. Good soil is essential to give your plants a solid foundation for growth.

The Ultimate Guide to Planning, Building and Planting Raised Garden Beds

The question is: how do I transform my rough ground into rich topsoil as quickly as possible and with minimum backbreaking labor? The best solution is to build a DIY raised garden bed. This simple technique allows you to add good soil, compost and fertilizers to your planting beds for a fresh start and a bountiful harvest.

In this article, you'll learn:

Setting Up DIY Raised Garden Beds

You may think building a raised garden bed is a difficult task, but this DIY raised garden bed only requires a few hours and some basic tools.

Choose a Location for Your Raised Garden Bed

The first step in knowing how to build a raised garden bed involves finding a location with two important garden features: sunlight and water. The amount of sunlight needed depends on the type of garden. Vegetables, herbs and many flowers require full sun. However, you can still build a raised garden bed in sheltered locations for shade-loving plants. Planning is key, as you want to build your bed in an area that receives the perfect amount of sunlight for whatever you are planting.

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The second consideration – easy access to water – is often overlooked until it's too late. No one wants to carry buckets of water to their garden. Choosing a location for your raised bed garden with easy access to a water spigot will make your life much easier.

How to Build a Raised Garden Bed

You can find a variety of raised bed garden plans, with most following the same basic steps. For this project, I'm making a raised planter 20-inches high. With a planned space of 8-feet by 4-feet, this bed is big enough to load with your favorite flowers and veggies, but not so wide that you can't reach the plants and weeds in the middle.

Supply List

  • Six 8-foot 2'x10' boards
  • Scrap 1'x2' boards
  • Two square yards topsoil
  • 3-inch nails
  • Plants of your choosing

Tools Used

1. Cut boards – Begin by cutting two of your boards in half to create four 4' boards. You now have a total of four 8' boards and four 4' boards. Cut your scrap 1'x2' boards into 15-inch lengths. You need at least eight scrap pieces.

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At this point, you'll want to begin leveling out your ground using the Fiskars® IsoCore™ 5 lb Pick.

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2. Position boards for quick construction – Lay out two 8' boards parallel with a 4' board at each end. Position your boards as close to your finished garden bed location as possible. This eliminates having to move the DIY garden box frame. Once the frame has been laid, edged the ground to help the wood level out and sink into its final location using the Fiskars® Steel D-Handle Square Garden Spade.

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3. Attach boards together – Hold up two boards on their sides so that the end board overlaps the edge of the side board. Use the Fiskars® IsoCore™ 22 oz. Milled-Face Framing Hammer (16") and 3" nails to secure the boards together. Repeat on all four corners to create a rectangular box.

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4. Add supports – Position a 1'x2' section vertically at an inside corner of the box. Secure with nails. Repeat at each corner.

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5. Build second level – The easiest way to add the second layer is by working your way around and using the supports as an extra set of hands. Place a 4' board on top of the bottom end board. Attach it to the support pieces. Repeat on the other side. You can now slide your 8' side boards into place and use nails to secure.

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6. Reinforce the sides – Soil can be quite heavy. Secure the extra four scrap pieces of wood vertically to the inside of the garden box to help strengthen the box. Place two on each 8-foot side. If your box begins to bow out over time, you can add wooden stakes to the outside for even more support.

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Add Soil and Plants

With the raised garden box frame built, you finally get to play in the dirt.

1. Add soil – Using the Fiskars® Ergo D-Handle Steel Transfer Shovel, fill the raised garden box planter with topsoil. This shovel is great because the long, ergonomic handle allows you to reach all the way across the planter while saving your back and knees from having to bend over. The steel handle is more durable than wood and won't break like fiberglass. This is the best shovel I have ever owned!

Now is the perfect time to mix compost and an all-natural fertilizer, like peat moss, into your soil. Mixing these elements in as you fill the bed gives you a good blend throughout the entire space. Different plants have different needs, so tailor your soil mix to the types of plants you plan to grow.

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2. Smooth the surface – You need an even planting surface for the best gardening results. Use the Fiskars® Aluminum Garden Rake to spread your raised garden dirt around and smooth it out.

The 14 hardened steel tips will help power through any large chunks of compost and will loosen and aerate the soil. Your plant roots will thank you for taking this extra step.

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3. Prepare your transplants – Now that the soil is ready to plant, I use my Fiskars®Multipurpose Snip to easily snip open the plastic packaging so that I don't tear apart the root structure of the young plants. These garden snips are a must-have multi-use tool for any garden bag. The serrated edges are perfect for cutting open those pesky plastic containers or any soil bags you may need to add to your raised bed.

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4. Plant your garden – Plant your young plants at the recommended spacing. The Fiskars® Big Grip Transplanter has graduation marks on the blade, making it perfect for getting the exact depth that each plant needs. The Big Grip Transplanter features a comfortable handle to reduce fatigue. I can easily plant a garden full of plants in one afternoon with this handy tool.

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5. Finish your bed – Once the plants are in your new garden bed, use the Fiskars® Big Grip Cultivator to make sure the soil around your new plants is smooth and aerated. Now all you need to do is sit back and watch your plants grow in your handmade raised garden planter.

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Best Plants to Grow in Raised Garden Beds

There are an endless varieties of plants that grow well in raised garden beds. The main consideration is room. Proper spacing between plants provides the necessary air flow to prevent disease, the conservation of moisture and the reduction of plant competition for nutrients. I also keep in mind the root needs of each plant. Some plants require deeper soil than others to grow strong and produce well. Certain plants, such as corn, melons and squash, require deeper and larger beds than other less-space hungry options. They can still be grown in a raised bed, but the bed must fit the growing requirements.

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Flowers to Grow in Raised Garden Beds

You can grow almost any annual or perennial in a raised flower bed as long as you have enough room, proper sunlight and at least eight inches of soil. Some of my favorite raised flower bed plans contain colorful blooms for cutting. Plus, growing flowers in a raised bed will attract pollinators like bees and butterflies which are beneficial to your veggies! Consider planting these showy options to create your own raised cutting flower bed:

  • Zinnias are a staple of any cutting garden. Available in many different colors and sizes, their blooms are plentiful and easy to grow.
  • Clary sage is a delicate looking bloom from the Salvia family. The blooms are frost hardy and last for weeks after cutting.
  • Sunflowers add a rustic charm to your garden and flower arrangements. If you don't have room for a full row, consider planting a few varieties with small blooms, such as Italian White or Teddy Bear.
  • Feverfew features clusters of small button-shaped flowers. These white with yellow center blooms grow up to 18 inches and have a long vase life.
  • Mums are available in all shapes, sizes and colors. These easy-to-grow plants require little care and perform well from frequent cuttings.

Vegetables to Grow in Raised Garden Beds

You can easily grow almost any vegetable in a raised vegetable garden bed. I find that plants perform best in raised beds when they're in aerated, nutrient-rich soil. Raised beds warm up quickly in the spring and maintain an even moisture level. Some of my favorite vegetables for raised beds include:

  • Potatoes adore the loose soil of a raised bed. The addition of plenty of organic matter allows for easy draining.
  • Onions can take up to 100 days to mature. Get an even earlier start on the growing season with the addition of row covers or a cold box in the spring.
  • Tomatoes grow best in nutrient-dense soil. You can add store-bought or homemade trellises, bamboo stakes or traditional tomato cages for support. Add bell peppers, garlic and Italian herbs for your own pizza box garden bed.
  • Carrots, radishes and beets grow large and beautiful when the soil is loose and free from stones. Simply double check your soil depth to ensure plenty of room for large variety root veggies.

Best Types of Wood to Use for Raised Garden Beds

Not all wood is created equal. I prefer to use untreated, unpainted hardwood planks to build safe and durable garden boxes DIY beds. Don't use chemically pressure-treated wood. Although it is made for outdoor use, harmful chemicals can leach into your garden soil. If you are worried about longevity, untreated hardwoods should last up to ten years. Some of my favorite woods include:

  • Oak
  • Locust
  • Cedar
  • Douglas Fir
  • Redwood
  • Juniper
  • Pine

Alternative Materials for Raised Garden Bed Frames

You aren't limited to using new lumber to create beautiful raised garden beds. Although it can be tempting to use railroad ties, they're often soaked in creosote and are not considered a safe gardening option. Salvaged wood pallets are also another popular and inexpensive option. Pallets featuring the 'HT" stamp, indicating heat treatment, are safe for use as long as they are not painted and don't show obvious staining from chemicals. Some popular alternative raised garden bed materials include:

  • Bricks
  • Concrete pavers
  • Composite lumber made from wood shavings
  • Rocks
  • Concrete
  • Metal stock tanks
  • Felled logs
  • Bamboo
  • Straw bales
  • Tires

Building Raised Garden Beds on a Hill or Slope

If you're looking for tips on how to build raised garden beds on a hill or slope, you make be encouraged to hear that it's possible to do, and probably easier than you may have once thought. If you don't have a nice, flat garden spot, a raised garden box can help you create the ideal growing space for your favorite plants and veggies. Start by building your box and placing it on your slope. Use blocks to lift the box up to a level position. Position 2'x4' corner stakes in each corner and down into the ground. Screw the garden box to these corner posts. Remove the supporting blocks from under the bed frame.

You can now work your way down to fill in the space between your box and the ground. Use a saw to cut tapered pieces of wood to fill in the front and side gaps of your box. Screw the boards to your ground stakes. Once your box is built, all you need to do is fill it with dirt and start planting.

Benefits of a Raised Garden Bed

Beyond quickly building a garden space featuring aerated, nutrient-rich soil perfect for growing a bumper crop of veggies or flowers, raised garden beds offer many additional benefits:

  • Elevated garden bed plans can be built to fit any height. You can reduce back strain and even build wheelchair-accessible gardens to fit the needs of any gardener.
  • The height of raised garden beds inherently keep out rabbits and other pesky animals who might otherwise be tempted to eat your flowers or veggies.
  • Building a raised garden bed provides a clean division between lawn and garden areas. This separation creates easier weed control.
  • Gardening in raised garden beds eliminates the need to walk in the garden area, which can improve yields by reducing soil compaction.
  • Raised garden boxes allow you to garden in nontraditional locations, such as along slopes and on paved surfaces.
  • Garden soil in raised garden beds often warms faster in the spring, especially if the bed is formed from heat-absorbing materials such as stones or concrete. You can get a head start on the growing season with warmer soil temps.