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Location: Bismarck, North Dakota

First garden: planning, brainstorming, and questions

Hello everyone!

I hope I'm posting this in the right place. We've been in our home outside of Bismarck, ND for 3 years now and have decided to do a small garden for tomatoes, peppers, and maybe a few other small veggies. Our soil is clay and sand, we've spent a lot of time just getting our grass to grow.

I just love the idea of a small raised bed garden. Our lot borders wide open prairie, so we've got a lot of wind and plenty of varmints to try to keep out. The fat cat does the best he can.

Anyways, I've been doing some reading on raised/tiered gardens and I think I may be more confused now than when I started. You all seem like a very knowledgeable group, so I'm hoping you can help me.
  1. If I were to build a raised garden out of wood, is there a safe wood that won't leach chemicals into the soil?
  2. Can I add a lining to the inside of the wood to prevent leaching and extend the life of the wood?
  3. Is there a safe stain or dye that can be used on the wood if necessary?
  4. Should there be material between the ground and the garden; gravel, weed cloth, etc?

Just for point of reference, these were some of the plans for raised beds I have been looking at for inspiration: Any help and advice is greatly appreciated! Cheers!

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Super Green Thumb
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Personally, I don't worry about the wood. In the old days, there used to be arsenic in the preservative. But that hasn't been true for a long time. It depends on how purist you want to be.

You can tack some plastic to the inside sides of your garden box. But nothing across the bottom. You want good drainage and your plant roots to be able to extend down in to the native soil. If your soil is clay-like, just be sure to fracture/ puncture the clay with a pitchfork first, to make drainage channels.

Other advice: start small! Three 8x4' beds (you want them narrow enough that you can reach in to the middle from outside) is plenty to start with the first time. You don't want to overwhelm yourself and get frustrated. If all goes well, you can always add more in future years. You will be surprised how much produce you can get from those three beds, gardened intensively.

Welcome to the Forum and Best Wishes with your first garden!

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I am unfortunatley not able to give you any tips ( I am a novice myself). But I would like to follow the thread to see what you come up with and hopefully share what you learn.

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Super Green Thumb
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Those frames go quite a ways beyond anything I have done in the past, Randi. They are also very attractive.

I had cedar 1" boards around raised beds for about 12 years. They were used fence boards. They didn't really rot away during that time, instead the fir 2" by 4" corners did! I had also driven 2by4 stakes along the sides of the frames. Those went first. This was for nearly 1,000 square feet of my garden and I became kind of "anti-frame" dealing with them the last couple of years and took them out.

These days I just go with permanent beds and permanent paths between them, without the framing. The soil is cultivated to the full depth of the tines of a spading fork and dug out every few years to add amendments.

This was not a problem for the easily-drained soil where I garden and may not be a problem for you either but here is a quote from Washington State Extension on an issue with raised beds: "Often the mix is simply thrown down on top of the ground and no attempt is made to incorporate some or all of it with the native soil. When this is done, a perched watertable is created, since water will not move freely across interfaces created by two radically different soils butting up against one another. This area will tend to remain soggy to the point that plant roots are suffocated.

"When any mix is added to a garden it should be incorporated into the native soil, or at the very least a shallow transition zone of the two soils mixed together should be created. Accomplishing this will eliminate the problem of water being hampered in moving through them." (link)

Your mention of clay in your native soil made me think of it. Here is Wishing You the Best of Luck with your garden!


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Location: Hawaii, zone 12a 587 ft elev.

Raised boxes are easy to build. The square foot garden plan is a very good way for a beginner to start.

Get Mel Bartholomew's book, the New Square Foot Gardening. It is cheaper on Amazon. It tells you everything you need to know, from how to build boxes and alignment, trellis systems, plant spacing, Mel's mix for raised bed gardens, cold or hot boxes, critter protection, when to plant and harvest,watering, pest and disease control.

Boxes can be screened from below for digging pest, fenced to keep out critters. Hoops attached to the boxes can be covered with row covers or snow protection. You will probably need some type of windbreak.

Boxes can be made from rot resistant wood, cedar, redwood, trex, stones, tiles, plastic and other material.

Most of the square foot gardening information is online if you look it up. You can get ideas for raised beds, trellising, vertical gardens,and garden plans.


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Most of my raised beds are interchangeable as cold frames in early spring! I have most made with just old lumber 2 by 10's. I have some made with brick about 4 by 6 and some made with 2 inch wide concrete block that are 2 by 8 by 16 but are the thin block you can buy at lowes for about $1 erach and they last a ong time! Brick can be layed in mny ways even straight up! I reaqlly like the land scape timbers when you can buy them for $1.99 at lowes or home depot soon! Cut oe n half and by using three you can make a 4 by 8 bed for $6! You can even double them and make a higher wall!
I always let the soil be 6 inches below the top of the wall so I can use them for cold tframes for early lettuce or early cole crop seedlings! look around for old alum. window frames since they make nice covers for the beds! I never worry about leeching. I even like the old tractor tires which I have grown many things inside! The warmth of the rubber tire aids the growth during early spring! There is nothing like a raised bed for for a more detailed form of gardening and control of crops!

As far as the inside soil I usually dig out the top 6 inches and put it into a compost to kill the weeds. The layer under that I did out another 4 inches and strain it mixed with some peat moss or any growing media even composted manure and strain them together. I place a few alayers of news paper or leaves at the bottom of the new raised which is at this stage 10 inches below ground level I started at.
+++The paper or leaves stop some of the grass roots from growing in the bed. The straining takes alot of the grass roots out and I have a great mixture for the bottom 6 inch layer. I even add some sand to the strained mix! I add a two inch layer of bought soil them plant my seeds and cover with a inch of boight sol. I get very little weeds! Once this bed is made I simply just add a little top soils the following year depending on what I planted! Straining makes a big difference and will also give you a great carrot bed! Just keep adding everyones ideas and come up with your own and you will be hooked on raised beds and gardening!
+++I even put some of my greenhouse flats inside my cold frames early in the season! Take your time and do it right the fist time and don't try to hurry and plant too much to fast!

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Super Green Thumb
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I just now looked at the pictures. Those are very pretty, but so expensive. I cannot imagine spending $600 for two 8x4' beds (that happen to be connected, not sure what the point of that is, or what you would do with the middle space that would be quite shaded).

I built my raised bed boxes out of 4x4" pine fence posts (available cheap) stacked and held together with steel rebar pounded down through the stack. Cheap, easy, and very durable.

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This depends entirely on what your purposes are in gardening, but mine are mostly to save money by growing my own food - ergo, expensive raised bed would not be an option for me. You can do some amazing stuff with old lumber, and barn-boards can look incredibly charming in a rustic way. My advice leans in that direction, in addition to building them so as to easily be converted to cold frames. And even if you decide to buy something fancy, still make it convertible to a cold frame ;)

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Hey Randi - I'm fairly new as well but I just wanted to chime in about your raised beds. Definitely do NOT close off the bottom...I followed the newer SFG book and did that these past two years and the results have been atrocious. Other than that, though, the book is pretty helpful, particularly for beginners, and I still reference it all the time.

This past Christmas I got Minifarming and Maximizing Your Minifarm by Brett Markham, and I highly recommend them both to anyone. He tells you a lot of the "why" rather than just the "what" (thus referencing the SFG book for quick facts/guidelines and reading these for true understanding). The title might sound daunting but everything he tells you is valuable info for even a small garden plot, while giving you all the info you need to do everything right now so that you don't have to redo it later as you expand.

Anyway good luck! Keep us informed on your progress!

P. S. In those books Mr. Markham says to use a water-based latex paint on your frames to make them last longer. Hope that helps!

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Jardin du Fort
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Hieron wrote:P. S. In those books Mr. Markham says to use a water-based latex paint on your frames to make them last longer. Hope that helps!
If you do use the latex paint idea, only paint the INSIDE of the wood, where it will contact the earth. Otherwise you will be trapping moisture inside the wood, and it will rot out quicker than unpainted wood!!!


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Thanks so much for the great advice!

You covered a lot of things I hadn't even thought of, like the perched water table.

I'll have to take everything to the drawing board and see what I can come up with. I definitely don't plan on spending $500-$600 on one of these build kits. But now I think I know of a lot of ways to keep it looking nice.

Thanks again, I'll be sure to post a follow up, hopefully with pictures.


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Unless you live at the uttermost ends of the earth (Antarctica), there is a Freecycle.org list somewhere in your area.

When I returned to gardening in 2008 after a car-accident-related hiatus, I had just lost the last of three part-time jobs, so DH was holding the house together with his salary. Period. There was no money for "extras." Even the fact that, in California, seeds and starts for edible plants aren't charged sales tax was a factor.

So I read my local Freecycle lists very carefully. One day I hit pay dirt! A local business was re-arranging how he did his work, and was giving away a couple of dozen cinder blocks. I went and picked them up. I got them home and arranged them in a hollow rectangle, holes up, for Bed #1. Yep: just sitting *on* the ground, vs. in it. It was 4'x8'x7", the height of a cinder block.

Silly me: I believed Mel B about the depth. Bullfeathers... The plants that first season in Bed #1 did poorly, even though I gave them what Mel said they needed, albeit against what *I* thought they needed--MORE ROOT ZONE. So I started haunting Freecycle again for cinder blocks to run a second course of blocks for better depth. Even though my plants had access to native soil and I had created drainage channels with the pitchfork (I don't have a broadfork), they definitely needed more of the good soil that was in the bed.

Beds #2, #3, and #4 were made from Freecycled shelving of various lengths and widths. One of the beds was from 2x10s; the other two were from 2x12s. I didn't get all the wood at once, but accumulated it in two or three "hits." DH had some of the necessary hardware available here at the house, but eventually needed to purchase some angle brackets. (We didn't do the corner posts bit.) These are all 4'x4', and the first year we stacked them up into a potato "tower." Now I'm spoiled by the extra square footage and will need to make more frames if I want to use that potato-growing method again. :lol:

Finally, by September, I was ready for Bed #5. I wedged it in among my roses. It's 2.5'x12' long, 12" tall. This one was made from new wood b/c by then we were able to purchase the long lengths, but the short ends came from Freecycled wood. :) DH *wanted* to buy new wood. I was perfectly willing to wait for Freecycle, but he had a Makita burning a hole in his pocket :wink: and who was I to deny him that opportunity?

You're probably wondering about the cost. Well, it was very small. Beds #1 through #5: hardware, lumber (two boards for Bed #5), 1 bag of compressed peat (I was uneducated about peat at the time; won't buy it again), 1 bag of vermiculite (until the day I got some on Freecycle!) = approx. $54 total.

Just do a zip-code search on Freecycle.org and hang out for a while before putting your "WANTED" announcement up. Who knows? Someone may be putting up an "OFFER" announcement for exactly what you need! :D

Cynthia H.
Sunset Zone 17, USDA Zone 9

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