Low-cost raised beds
By Lucas Crouch
Issue #140 • March/April, 2013
Inexpensive and durable, silt fencing makes nice raised beds.
Fencing can be attached to the taller fence stakes in the corners.
I don’t have a perfect garden, but since I started gardening seven years ago, I have worked toward that goal. Experimentation and luck have helped me develop a raised bed that is pretty close to ideal for my circumstances. It might be what you’re looking for, too.
In my garden, I have tried to make sure things are inexpensive, durable, and as organic as possible. And since I live in coastal Florida at an elevation of a few feet, it must also be termite-proof and resistant to flooding.
The materials you’ll need are silt fencing, schedule 40 PVC pipe, and metal fence stakes (T-posts). You could just use PVC in the corners, but the fence posts do have some advantages. If you have critter or pet problems, you can use these taller corners to hold up fencing. It also helps to keep a garden hose from getting into the beds and damaging the plants. A fence post on the end of the bed can also be used to hold a wire trellis. You could also use wooden stakes, but I prefer products that last several years and do not invite termites near my home.
Silt fencing is available at your local big hardware store. It is environmentally safe, does not degrade in the sun, and will keep dirt from washing out the sides of the bed. It comes in a 3 x 50-foot roll and costs about $20.
PVC pipe is about $2 for a ten-foot piece. I recommend schedule 40 pipe because it will hold up better to a hammer when you drive it into the ground. Granted, PVC is not a food-grade plastic, but since it is used on the exterior of the bed, any chemicals that leach into the bed should be minimal.
Cut the roll of silt fence into three 1-foot sections. The edges might fray, but this will not cause any issues. Cut the PVC pipe into 2-foot long sections, angling one end so that it will drive into the ground easier. Leave the other end flat.
Now you are ready to lay out your garden. Start with the corners. Drive the PVC pipe about halfway into the ground. Once you have the four corners in, roll out the silt fence. To help hold it in place, I used some twine to wrap the silt fence to the corners. But overlapping a foot or so of material will also work. Once the silt fence is in place, add additional pipes on the outside of the silt fence. The bottom three inches of the silt fence should lay on the ground toward the inside of the raised bed. That will leave about nine inches for your side of the bed. This will keep dirt from running out underneath the silt fence.
If you wish, you can add a weed liner at this point. I find it useless against dollar weed, which makes up half of my yard, but you may have better luck. You can add newspaper, shredded paper, or whatever you prefer.
Now add the dirt. The dirt will push the lining out, but the pipes will hold the lining in place. (The more pipes you use, the fewer bulges you will have.) I put down a layer of grass clippings on the bottom followed by a layer of dirt, and then topped it off with compost.
Additional PVC can be used as a trellis.
I use different-sized beds in my garden. For my pole beans and tomatoes, I prefer a 24-inch bed. For peppers, squash, beets, broccoli, and others, I use a narrower bed.
This type of raised bed has some advantages. Since I can reach my plants from either side, I never have to walk on my garden. The soil stays loose without ever using a hoe or tiller. Pulling the occasional weed also helps to aerate the soil.
Because the beds are raised with space between them, you won’t be adding dirt where you don’t need it. Walkways are for walking, not growing. This inexpensive style of raised bed will save you money. By giving the water plenty of places to go, flooding will also be minimized.
There are some things I wish I had done when laying out my garden. Leaving space for a lawnmower between the rows would have been helpful. If you use a weed eater between the rows, be careful that you don’t cut the silt fencing. Patches are easy enough to make, but who wants the extra work?
There is no such thing as a perfect garden. But over the last seven years, I have become quite proud of mine. It puts food on my table, food in my pantry, and gives me plenty of pictures for social media. It does exactly what a garden is supposed to do.