While planting a garden directly in the ground is always an option, raised bed gardens have many advantages.
Raised beds reduce soil compaction, create good drainage, and provide a clearly defined area in which to improve soil. They can also reduce water consumption and often produce a higher yield in the same amount of space. Further, they can be built in a way that makes your garden accessible for persons with limited mobility.
There are many creative ways of constructing raised garden beds that improve the landscape of your congregational property.
Planning Your Garden
The Vision of your Garden
Form a small group of 3-8 people to begin planning your garden. If you start planning in the winter months, you’ll be ready to start planting by the last frost date. Begin by discussing the long-term vision and goals of your congregational garden. Do you see this as a space where community members will be welcome to come and use plots? Do you hope to contribute produce to local food banks? How will you incorporate the garden into your congregation’s worship life? Next, consider what kind of energy and volunteer support you might have within the broader congregation. Start developing strategies to encourage folks to be involved in the work of the garden. You’ll need a base of support that extends beyond the planning committee if your project is going to be sustainable.
After these broader discussions, consider where you will put your garden. Is there one primary open space, or should you scatter several raised beds throughout the property? Take a walk around the property, and consider the following factors:
- Sunlight: Your spot needs at least 6 hours of full sun. You may also plant some vegetables in areas with 4 hours of morning sun and dappled shade in the afternoon, but that is the minimum amount of sun needed for growing. The sun rises in the east, and an easterly exposure will usually give you the most sunlight. Notice how surrounding trees cast their shade, and consider what your plot will look like when foliage is full.
- Water Access: You need an easy water source for your garden (besides the sky!). Make sure you have what you need to water your garden. You can use hoses, drip irrigation, or water your plants by hand.
- Ground Slope: Though the ground doesn’t have to be completely level, planting on a flat area will simplify the building process.
Planning the Garden Beds
After these considerations, start thinking about how many beds you want to put in and what size they will be. In the first year, err on the side of small. Even if you have a lot of excited volunteers ready to work, it’s best to take things slow at first, and then expand once the garden is established.
A four-foot wide bed is ideal for most vegetable crops. This width enables you to reach the entire bed from the side without ever stepping on and compacting the soil.
The length of the bed is more flexible, and you can use whatever length makes the most sense for your space. Your garden’s soil depth should fall within the 8-12” range. A 10” minimum allows you to plant root vegetables.
If you want to make your beds accessible, keep the following measurements in mind:
- Raised beds for a wheelchair user should be about 2 to 3 feet high.
- Forward reach from a wheelchair without bending, is about 30 inches.
- Beds with access on just one side should be no wider than 2 to 3 feet.
- Beds with pathways all around can be 4 to 5 feet wide depending on the gardener’s reach and upper arm strength.
Other possible materials include brick, concrete blocks, stacked broken concrete, purchased stacked stone, wine bottles on end, or logs. These options will not deteriorate as quickly as wood. Consider reusing materials, and be creative!
Constructing a raised wooden bed is simple. Start with 10×2 (whatever length you want) boards. Remember, do not use treated wood in your food beds.
Other types of wood can be used, but yellow pine boards work well. They are thick, will last for years, and are well worth the small investment. Home improvement stores will cut your wood to the length you need for your raised beds.
- Materials for raised bed (untreated wood, bricks, stone, etc.)
- 1 box of 4” galvanized screws
- 1 smaller box of 2 ¾” galvanized screws
- Drill and drill bits that correspond to your screws of choice (no nails, screws make boards easy to replace).
- 1 box of tall wooden yard stakes (found in the contractors department)
- Hammer, mallet, or brick
- Measuring tape
- Hoe or rake
- Top soil, compost, and aged manure to fill your bedsInstalling the Beds
Constructing the Beds
Before you begin, make sure the soil is relatively level. Then stake out your raised beds using the string, measuring tape, and hammer. This will frame the box, and the stakes will also bolster the interior corners of your beds. For raised beds over 4’x4’, add stakes in the mid-points of the boxes as well.
Use your materials, whether it’s wood, bricks, concrete blocks, or something else, to construct your raised bed around the stakes. If you are using wood, screw the corners directly into the stakes to secure the boards.
Double-check to see how level your frame is. If one side is significantly higher, dig out some of the sod from beneath it until it lays more level. This will help prevent water runoff.
Filling the Beds
Lay cardboard or newspaper down on the bottom (to suppress weeds), and then fill your raised beds with soil. If the soil below your beds is particularly compacted, or if your raised beds are not tall enough for plant roots to develop, you should loosen the soil with a fork or shovel before laying down the newspaper. Fill the bed with a good mixture of topsoil, compost, and aged manure. Many congregations enlist the help of local master gardeners to help them locate soil. Find some help by partnering with a local organic farm or University Extension Service. The best way to find local help is by using Google.com, and searching for “master organic gardener” along with the name of your town or city. This will provide you with ample places to find people that can point you in the direction of locating good free or inexpensive starter soil to ensure a healthy start for you garden. You can also find initial soil and compost from most garden centers. Or ask members of your congregation if they have compost you can use. Some county municipal centers also offer free compost and mulch. After filling the beds, rake the soil until it’s level, and you’re ready to plant!
This Garden Installation unit was generously contributed to the “Sow a Cool Harvest” program by Georgia Interfaith Power & Light’s Dirt Wise program. To obtain their complete “Dirt Wise” gardening curriculum for congregations, which includes ten study sessions on the relationship between gardening, food, and faith, visit www.gipl.org.