Build an in-ground gardening bed

By James and Morris Carey The Associated Press
Saturday June 02, 2001

Gardening is a favorite pastime for both of us. While neither claims to have a green thumb, we can hold our own. 

When we were kids, we and our two sisters helped our dad tidy up the garden every Saturday. Weeding, raking, trimming, sweeping and planting were a weekend ritual. 

James acquired experience at an early age. From the time he was 9 until he graduated from high school, he cared for an elaborate and large garden of an aunt and uncle. 

The garden consisted of four large turf areas, a formal rose garden, a baronial hedge that bordered the property, a fruit orchard, decorative planting borders and potted plants galore. James soon discovered that there was more to gardening than pulling weeds and raking leaves — although there was plenty of that, as well. The art of pruning roses, trimming hedges and tilling soil soon became a part of James’ routine. 

If you have less than desirable soil, take several samples gathered from various locations throughout your yard to your local nursery or garden professional. The pro will be able test the pH of the soil and make specific recommendations concerning the types of organic material that should be used to “amend” the soil. Soil amendments should be mixed in with the existing soil using a rototiller.  

If the idea of major excavation and soil replacement or amendment isn’t your cup of tea, and all you want are a few top-quality planting areas for vegetables or flower beds, think “garden beds.” There are two types of garden beds – one is dug directly into the ground – an “in-ground bed” and the other is raised, and is appropriately named a “raised bed.” 

In both cases, a wood frame is built as a border to the bed. In the case of the in-ground bed, the wood framing at the perimeter is partially embedded into the soil with about 6 inches exposed above ground. The boards for a raised bed are higher (about 1 inch to 18 inches above ground) and essentially act as retaining walls. 

What’s the difference between the two? Is one better than the other? Actually both styles accomplish the goal of better quality soil and improved drainage. The raised bed, however, has a couple of advantages that the in-ground bed doesn’t. The soil in a raised bed warms earlier in the spring and has better drainage. What’s more, since raised beds aren’t subject to foot traffic, the soil remains loose and easy for roots and water to penetrate. 

Making a planting bed is easy. You’ll need a circular saw (a hand saw will work if you need the exercise), a driver-drill, a small sledgehammer, a pick, a shovel and a steel rake, some lumber, wood stakes, construction screws and soil. 

First, decide how large you want your planting bed to be and whether you want it in-ground or raised. When considering size, remember that the center of the bed should be reachable from the edges. Say your bed will measure roughly 4 feet by 8 feet and be in-ground. Your material list should consist of two 4-foot pressure-treated 1-by-8’s and two 8-foot pressure-treated 1-by-8’s. Don’t forget six 1-foot redwood or cedar stakes and construction screws to attach the boards to the stakes. 

Note: pressure-treated material is suggested because it is more rot- resistant. If you will be using the garden bed for vegetables, use redwood or cedar due to potential soil contamination from the toxic chemicals contained in pressure-treated material. Before building the frame, lay out the location on the ground and rototill and amend the soil. This will prevent damage to the frame by the rototiller after installation. 

Start the box construction by attaching the two 4-foot lengths of wood to the 8-foot lengths, using the construction screws. Next, place the box in the desired location and use a pick and shovel to create a shallow trench that the box will recess into – a few inches will be adequate. Drive stakes at all four corners and one at the center of each of the two long sides for added stability. The top of the stake should be driven slightly below the top of the boards. Drive construction screws through the outside face of the boards into the stakes. 

If you have your heart set on a raised bed, substitute the 1-by-8’s with 2-by-12’s and use 2-by-2 stakes that are 18 to 24 inches long. Finish the job by filling the box with premium soil, seeds or plants and water. You’ll be the envy of your neighborhood. 

For more home improvement tips and information www.onthehouse.com. 

James and Morris Carey are feature writers for The Associated Press