With the cover story of this issue focused on sustainability, the staff at AFM saw this as a perfect opportunity to start a gardening section in the magazine. It’s our way of showing you how to get directly involved in growing your own food and, in return, improve your health and the health of those around you. We realize that gardening is a long-term process—so we’re giving the topic its own monthly column. My hope: to pique your interest enough to give your green thumb a try.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a gardening expert. I grew up occasionally helping my grandma in her garden, but didn’t try it myself until this past fall. My house already had garden beds in the backyard when I moved in so, with the help of family and friends, I planted a vegetable garden. Some plants thrived and some died as soon as the temperature dropped below 50 degrees (R.I.P. tomato plants). This initial gardening experience brought me so much joy—from watering and weeding to watching it grow. I imagine it’s a lot like parenting, except plants don’t give you any backtalk. I may be a beginner, but I hope you can trust me enough to start your own garden and reap the rewards right along with me.
Through Austin Fit, I have partnered with Sustainable Food Center to learn everything I can about building a successful garden. Their teaching garden coordinator, Ellen Orabone, has agreed to work closely with me—and tolerate my never-ending questions. Essentially, she’ll be providing the knowledge, and I’ll be writing about it. Assuming we’re all novices, we’ll all be learning together.
Why Build a Raised Garden Bed?
Even if you live in an area that has optimal soil for planting seeds, a raised garden bed is still an option to take into consideration. If you live in West Austin, an area plagued with minimal topsoil and excessive limestone, save yourself the headache of trying to dig into the ground and build a raised garden bed.
With a raised bed, you can control the depth of soil you’re working with. Growing root vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes will be no problem because they’ll have ample room to root down. There will also be fewer weeds and critters meddling in your garden. Poor soil will be a thing of the past as you’ll have the ability to mix in your own compost and grow your garden without worrying about soil compaction. Bonus: if you have back problems, raised beds are accommodating and don’t require nearly as much hunching or stooping around.
Building your own garden bed is the first step forward in our adventure. Do it correctly the first time, and you won’t have to do it ever again—or at least for a very long time. Raised beds are incredibly durable and surprisingly easy to make.
Before breaking out the power tools, figure out where you want to place your bed. You’ll want a spot that receives a minimum of 6–8 hours of sunlight a day. If it receives most of the sunlight in the morning, that’s even better.
Search for a flat surface. If you must work on a slope, plan to put your drought resistant plants near the top of the garden bed, since water will gravitate toward the bottom.
Consider your water source. Whether rainwater or city water, the Central Texas semi-arid climate means your garden will need substantial watering.
Once you’ve decided what size bed you’re going to build (4’ x 4’, 4’ x 8’, etc.), mark where the corners of the bed will rest by digging 2- to 6-inch holes in the ground. You’ll see why we do this a little later.
I recently learned how to make a raised garden bed at SFC’s Bed Construction Class.
Construction required very few materials, so the intimidation factor quickly vanished. When we built raised garden beds at SFC, we made them 4’ x 8’ in size. If you choose to build one that large, be sure to enlist the help of a friend. For a regular sized backyard, I suggest building a 4’ x 4’ bed. Here’s what you need:
Cordless power drill with Phillips head
1 inch drill bit
8 boards @ 2” x 8” x 4’ (or buy 4 @ 2” x 8” x 8’ and ask the nice folks at Home Depot to cut them for you)*
1 board @ 4” x 4” x 8’, cut into lengths of 16”
Screws – Wood screws, Phillips head, 3.5”, at least 32 of them
*Tip: choose a rot-resistant wood that's not pressure treated (ie: cedar or spruce mix).
1. Find a flat surface to work on
2. Lay wood so that crowns of wood face in. Place on top, perpendicular to two 4” x 4” blocks.
3. Pre-drill holes with 2” screws. Puncture only the first plank; do not pre-drill into the 4” x 4”. Drill two holes on each side, both off-center on opposite sides.
4. Hold the screw in the pre-drilled hole and slowly, steadily—using your body weight to apply pressure—drill the screw through both pieces of wood until it is flush with surface. Stop pushing the power drill on the screw if you start to hear a jumping/skipping sound. You don’t want to drill to come off the divots on top of the screw—if it does, it will be very difficult to move the screw into the board.
5. Once all four 4” x 4” boards are attached to two 2” x 8” x 4’ boards, you’ll need to lay this assembly on its side. Align the third 2” x 8” x 4’ board to the exposed side of the 4” x 4”, creating a perfect right angle with the boards. Make sure the crown of the board is facing inward. Pre-drill two holes, and then drill in two more screws like before.
6. Turn the unfinished bed on its opposite side to attach the fourth and final 2” x 8” x 4’ board. Repeat step 5.
7. Place the “feet” of the bed into the ground where you dug the holes. To keep out weeds, cover the floor of your bed with cardboard or wet newspaper prior to putting in soil and compost. For every 6” of soil, use 2” to 3” inches of compost, and then mix thoroughly with a turning fork (or your hands).
Next month, we’ll put this bed to use by planning out and planting our spring garden! We’ll address the best kind of soil to use, the purpose of compost, what kinds of plants grow best in the springtime, and more.