There are few things as satisfying as seeing your hard-work come to fruition. So putting the shovel in the ground and beginning the placement and construction of my vegetable boxes is something I have been looking forward to for months. As satisfying as it is, this has been the most gruelling, labour-intensive task so far. I have literally spent hours with a mattock (pulaski), getting dirty and sunburnt.
I’m going to show you how I built the boxes, and explain what mixture I put in them, where I put them, and why I am doing all this crazy stuff.
If you have been following me, you will already are aware of the box design from “My Garden Plan”. My yard is 82’ across. So I planned for four 15’ boxes across the yard. This allows for 3’ paths (4’ down the centre isle) and 3’ gardens against each fence. There are a few reasons for making them 15’ and not 30’ or 16’. I didn’t do 16’ because even though it would have required fewer cuts, I would have ended up with paths too small for a wheelbarrow or lawn mower, or sacrificing some other space. The reason for not going to a bigger dimension is because as it stretches out, the likelihood for bowing increases (or the cost of material to prevent it increases) and because it would require joints throughout the length, creating a weakness. Furthermore, for the variety of plants I hope to grow, having a physical barrier can help control soil depletion, and give my plan more spacial organization (as opposed to sectioning off beds…which I will do otherwise, but with plants within a family.
The width of each bed is 5 feet. The reason for this is simple. Stretch your arms out wide; your “wingspan” is likely very close to your height; Therefore, half your height is likely pretty close to your single arm reach. So I designed the boxes so that a smaller person than myself could reach to the center, and therefore access the entire bed without ever stepping into it. As I am six feet tall, I can reach at least 3’ (likely more, leaning into it), meaning I will tend to the gardens with ease.
The depth…..well here is where I have had to make some changes. I originally held up a measuring tape and measured 3’ off the ground. That was high. So I dropped it to two. That seemed better. So my plan was to build boxes three feet deep, and sink them into the ground one foot. There were reasons for this. First, compacted soil is the enemy. Walking on soil near your plants guarantees a more stunted growth. (according to Jeavons). Second, the three foot depth would provide an enormous amount of loose soil for plant roots to explore. So, my thinking was: dig down, get the native soil up, and loosened and mixed with compost and other soil and put it back in. The raised box would benefit from being above ground – protected from weeds – warmed earlier in the spring – and protected from compacting. The one foot of loosened soil below grade would benefit from being mixed with regular soil for continuity and moisture retention.
Anywho… the best laid plans…etc So, one Friday I was violently ill with the flu. My in-laws (father and uncle) decided to help me out and build one of my boxes. I was so ill, that while I could hear them discussing how to build them I couldn’t even get up to put my two cents in. So, instead of my plan to use 8’ 2×8’s, one cut to 7’ for the 15’ side, they drove back to the lumber yard and bought 16’. While I was, at first, annoyed (because I was paying for it), I new better than to doubt two men who have spent a life time building things and are also skilled gardeners. They also built up to the two foot mark and called it good. When I saw the two foot high box, I thought “Holy crap! Three feet would have been a monstrosity.” So there you have it. New box design is 15’ x 5’ x 2’. I have 4×4 posts 2’ high in each corner, except some boxes have an 8’ post in one corner. (more on that later…but consider it utilitarian for the moment). Also, my father-in-law did say (after my uncle left), that it was silly not to use some of my 8’ pieces, so he suggested taking one 15’ length out to replace with an 8’ and a 7’. Those were jointed with a 2×4, 2’ long. And a few more 2’ 2×4’s were used to prevent bowing. So, by using my 8’ boards, and having found a deal (50% off) 33 Douglas fir 16’ 2×8’s. I have enough lumber to make 10 boxes! That’s half the yard! Woot woot! (Don’t tell my wife, but I spent a lot of money….it’s an investment however.) Here is what I used, per box:
4 x 16’ 2×8’s, with 15” cut off, so they are 14’9” long.
2. x 8’. 2×8’s uncut
2 x 8’. 2×8’s with 15” cut off, so they are 6’9” long.
3 x. 10’. 2×8’s cut in half so there are 6 x 5’ pieces
1 x 8’. 4×4 post cut into quarters for 4 x. 2’ pieces. (or make them 10.5”)
- x. 8’. 2×4 cut into quarters. (or make them 10.5”)
Lots of screws 3” long and some 2 1/2” screws (for the 2×4’s).
Place one 5’ side vertically and place a 15’ (14’9”) inside the 5’ edge. Square it. Drill two 3” screws through the side of the 5’ into the length or end of the 15’. Square and plumb a 2’ post into that corner. Drill each 2×8 to the post using two screws each. Connect all for corners this way.
Prepare the bedding area and carry this base piece to location if you do not have the help to move the heavier complete box.
Attach the second 5’ end to each post on it’s side. Then prepare the long side by using the 8’ and 7’ pieces. Alternate. On one side start with the 8’, and the other start with the 7’. Screw these to the post and then the other piece to the other post. The 7’ and 8’ will be snug near the middle. Cleat them with a 2’ 2×4 upright like a post. Drill two 2 1/2 screws through the cleat into each short 2×8. Then screw the long 15’ board to the cleat as well. Repeat this on the other side. Use the other two 2×4’s as similar cleats but between the first cleat and one end to help stabilize. Do that on both sides.
Again, move the box now, if it will be too heavy to move later.
Do the final layer of 2×8 boards exactly as you did the first layer (with 15’ boards).
The outside dimensions will be 15’ x 5’ and about 1’ 10 1/2” tall. The posts and cleats will stick up an inch or so, or you can flip the box, or cut the excess off.
For the 8’ post, simply replace one 2’ 4×4 with the 8’ one and ensure it is plumb when screwing it in place.
Place box in location, and level it. (I dug it level, but still needed the odd stone to level it.)
The first box went into my taped off area, but dug only a few inches into the ground (just the sod removed.) I can’t blame the in-laws here, it was hot and they aren’t young bucks. Also, that particular spot required the 8’ post, so when I recovered, I decided to move the box.
So the next plot was dug, and it was dug deep. Because it was on a slope, one corner was not dug at all, so the high corner was close to 18” deep. I dug nearly all of the soil out to that depth and piled it next to the box. My friend Chris and I dragged the box into place and levelled it.
The next day I had a work party to build a wood shed (love the in-laws!) However, other helpful family members decided to start wheel borrowing my pile of peat-based compost into my garden box. When we finished the shed I quickly started to add back the soil and mix it with the compost.
My intention had been to use the original soil, but mix the compost throughout it for better soil structure. I was also given bags of aged horse manure, which I had planned to mix in. So my entire two pick-up loads of compost was put into one single box, mixed with some soil (from that area and I started to dig down the first plot, moving the soil into the new plot) and with a bit of horse poop mixed into the top layer. Maybe not ideal, but free labour is fantastic!
The second box was placed in the original space. Now I could do it as I wanted. I started to dig the third plot, and used the soil to fill the unfilled box. First, all the sod went in. I flipped it upside down and put it in first in hopes that it would not grow back through the 2’ of soil that was going to end up on top. Next, I used all the soil dug out of the third spot, and the fourth (but just the trenches for the frame of the box) and a bit of compost to completely fill the empty box. A few bags of horse manure were raked into the top inches and the box was done.
Lastly, I placed the next two boxes, empty for now.
The first box (being mostly peat-based-compost) will be acidic. So, I transplanted my two potted blueberries (which had been on my deck in Vancouver) and bought four more. I popped a couple of over-wintered cabbages in the spaces in between, lined the box with crocus bulbs and sprinkled poppy seeds before watering it in.
The second box had the full 15’ length, but only 2’ in seeded with giant sunflowers and black beans. Of the remaining 3’ x 15’ I cut in half; one side amaranth, and the other bush-type kidney beans. This bed next year will be a perennial bed (like the first box) and will be planted with raspberries.
Lastly, as no planted area is complete without it, I sprinkled stratiolaelaps scimitus across the soil at dusk to ensure a healthy balance of pest and predator in the soil for the life of the garden.
A little less exciting but equally enjoyable was the planting along the fence-line. A bit a mattock work, a mixing of manure, soil and peat-compost, a “three sisters” mix of corn, and sunflowers, black beans and chick peas, squash and a few flowers, and my little helper, dressed to impress!
This yard is coming together! A few more boxes, a ton (maybe literally) of soil to move, lots of seeds, lots of fun!