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Raising a garden bed: build or buy?

TSA garden

The local Transition group's brand new community garden needed raised beds. So we tried a couple different ways to get them.

As part of our local Transition group’s efforts to make local food more widely available in our town, my wife Lindsay has been helping organize a new community garden. The site is a lot that has been vacant as long as anyone can remember.

You can imagine that there was a lot to do before planting: finding the property owner and convincing him to host the garden on his lot; clearing years of weeds; working with city hall on zoning and any necessary approvals; and of course, recruiting volunteer gardeners.

But one of the biggest challenges has been how to grow vegetables in soil that is less than ideal. It’s been years since the site was used as an informal parking lot, but Lindsay knew she needed to test the soil before anyone started growing anything to eat. So, she called in a friendly former agent with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He advised raised beds.

Since the site is located in an official historic district, the group wondered if the beds would pass muster with the local preservation authorities? Fortunately, the answer was yes.

So the project was on, just in time for the Transition US May Home and Garden Challenge, which Transition Staunton Augusta was taking part in.

Eagerness wasn’t a problem. But the group had never built raised garden beds before and didn’t have the faintest idea how to get started. Fortunately, a local builder offered to help build beds from some plans downloaded from the Internet and low-cost pine boards from Lowe’s. The beds came out nicely — 8′ x 4 ‘ x 1′ — though it couldn’t have been done without his help. Cost: about $50 each for materials but carpentry skill and planning required.

A head start

Much easier for to do for novices was building beds from a kit. The good folks at Naturalyards in Ashland, Oregon had sent a Planter Box kit for review by Transition Voice with test use to happen in the Transition Staunton garden. It’s quite a deluxe box, coming with a bottom and also optional trim to create a nice finished look at the corners and on top. The size we reviewed is 3′ by 4′ by 16.5″ but Naturalyards sells planter boxes ranging in price from around $100 to more than $400. And they seem to be having a 40% off sale now, bringing those prices down.

Since these boxes all have bottoms, they’re as suitable for your front porch as your garden, especially if you need to suppress weeds as was needed in the Staunton garden. Or, if you need beds specifically for a garden where you want to give the roots room to grow deeper, Naturalyards sells raised bed kits too, with an even wider price range and selection of sizes and shapes.

And both their raised beds and garden planters are made from durable cedar (which will last many seasons more than the pine that was used to build the other Transition Staunton beds) and nontoxic waterproof sealant suitable for organic gardening.

The one challenge was that the shipment included only generic instructions which were of little help putting together the review model. But once the proper instructions were in hand the planter box was built in about fifteen minutes.

Hardware is included, so it’s really just a matter of fitting the wood boards in place, sliding in aluminum rods to hold together the corners and then screwing some wood screws into pre-drilled holes. An easy and elegant design! Watch the planter box assembly video to see just how simple it is to put a Naturalyards box together.

Once it’s built, it wins the beauty contest hands down. But how will it hold up?

We’ll be reviewing the box after a summer in the hot Virginia sun to see how well it weathers, how easy it is to use, and how well the veggies planted in it — tomatoes and peppers — grew. Stay tuned for that review around October.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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