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This is the first year that I have space for a garden and I’m very excited to see what I can grow. However, I’m also overwhelmed because I don’t know exactly how to start a garden and I don’t want to spend my money recklessly. I did some research and discovered a lot of information that I’d like to share with you including how to start a vegetable garden from scratch without spending a fortune. Starting a garden is a fun process, but it can also be stressful and hard on the body. Remember to think through what you want to grow and make sure to get help if you need it because some of the materials can be heavy.
Benefits of a Raised Garden Bed
- Fewer weeds
- Good drainage
- Helps keep some animals and pests out
- Prevents soil from washing away
- Soil gets warmer sooner (but also gets colder quicker)
- Less back strain because you don’t have to bend over as far
Features of a Wooden Raised Garden Bed
Features of a Cinder Block Raised Garden Bed
Are Cinder Blocks and Pressure Treated Lumber Earth Friendly?
The main concern when using cinder blocks is that historically they were made out of fly ash, which is residue from burning coal. Fly ash was used in older cinder blocks, but it’s not commonly used today. However, you will want to consider where your cinder blocks are coming from when you are choosing which material to use in your garden. If you are buying or getting them as used materials, there’s a chance that fly ash was used to make the blocks. They also may have been resting in soil that was contaminated with chemicals. So, we suggest that you pressure wash all cinder blocks before using them in your garden. Using newer materials can reduce the risk associated with contaminated cinder blocks.
If you’re considering wood for your raised beds you’ll want to avoid pressure treated lumber. In the past, arsenic was used to treat lumber. Using new treated lumber reduces the risk of arsenic contamination to your soil, but we recommend using natural wood (such as cedar) to be safe.
How to Choose Garden Size & Location
Since this is my first summer with a raised vegetable garden I wanted to start out small. Most resources I read suggested that two 4×8 raised garden beds would be manageable for a beginner. Since we live in town, we don’t have the largest yard space, plus our back yard slants down hill, so it’s not the best for gardening. Not to worry, though, this didn’t deter me and I was still able to have a backyard garden.
We took into consideration the types of food we wanted to grow. For our raised garden, we want to grow tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini, squash, spaghetti squash and sweet potatoes (space permitting).
How Much Sunlight Do Vegetables Need?
We also needed to take into consideration the amount of sunlight each of these plants needed a day.
- Tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, zucchini, squash and eggplant require 6-8 hours of sunlight per day
- Carrots and potatoes require 4-6 hours of sunlight per day
- Herbs require 4 hours of sunlight per day
- Leafy vegetables require 3-4 hours of sunlight per day
Since most of the vegetables we want to grow require six or more hours of sunlight, we chose to place our garden on the south side of our house so it gets plenty of sun prior to the big shade trees on the west side of our house blocking the sunlight. This area is also more level than the rest of our yard, so we thought it would be a good location.
Call Before You Dig
The only question we had, was whether it would be ok to dig due to utility lines. We contacted the proper professionals to spray paint the location of utility lines in that area of our yard to make sure we wouldn’t be hitting any underground utility lines. They had the lines drawn within two days. It was seriously no hassle whatsoever, don’t skimp on this step or you could run into some trouble! To our luck (sarcasm!), there were tons of utility lines in the area where we hoped to put our raised garden beds. However, we were still adamant about finding a solution for our perfect garden location.
As you can see in the photo above, our garden bed is a bit odd shaped to avoid the utility lines, but we think it’ll still grow us some produce, which is the end goal of course.
How to Build a Garden Box
We chose to make our raised garden bed out of cinder blocks because it will last longer than wood and it can be reshaped if we want. Our raised garden bed is made out of 24 cinder blocks, which cost us $22.08 at Menards. Each block measures 6x8x16 and weighs 30 pounds. Our garden is approximately 22 square feet. Follow our instructions below for how to make a raised garden bed cheaply.
1. Outline With Cinder Blocks
We first outlined the area and tried avoiding any spray paint marks so we could till up the ground some. (Keep in mind that the spray paint marks may not be exact, so be cautious getting too close to the lines.) We left areas around the edge for us to walk around to access hard to reach areas, plus there was spray paint so we couldn’t have the garden there anyways. Like I said, the spray paint was super inconvenient which is why our raised garden bed is so awkwardly shaped.
2. Remove the Grass
Since we had the cinder blocks on the ground for a week we had a good outline of faded areas for us to see where we wanted to remove the grass. Some of the cinder blocks were close to the spray paint marks so we didn’t remove the grass from under the cinder blocks. However, if we had the option we would have done this to give the blocks more stability and also level the garden more.
We used a combination of a pitchfork, round point shovel and square point shovel to remove the grass. This was the hardest part. Try not to remove too much dirt because that means you have to fill the garden bed even more with soil later. We put the grass in our compost bin.
Tip: When removing the grass, angle the pitch fork/shovel at an angle just below grass level to get the most grass to come up.
If you need a pitch fork or shovel, here are some suggestions:
- Pitchfork – we used a short style pitchfork like this one ($39.59) and it was perfect.
- Round point shovel – we had a full length shovel, but looking back I wish I had a shorter one like this ($22.82) because I would’ve been able to move the shovel easier. (Since our garden is close to the house and fence we didn’t have tons of space to move.)
- Square point shovel – we used a shovel like this ($30.81) to outline where the cinder blocks were to help us see where to dig and remove the grass.
3. Till the Ground
Again, since this was so awkward shaped, tilling was a little tricky but we managed. Fortunately, my in-laws had a tiller they let us borrow so we didn’t have to purchase one. However, if you need to purchase one, this tiller is reasonably priced at $104.66 and has good reviews.
4. Put the Cinder Blocks Back
Finally, put the cinder blocks back in the correct spots. If you removed any grass and dug down, the blocks will be more sturdy and they will line up easier.
5. Add Dirt
We bought some bags of Peat Moss ($20.95) to fill in our raised garden bed. It’s up to you to decide how full you want to fill the bed. In the future, we plan on using our compost for the garden bed but it isn’t quite ready to be used this year.
This is a loose plan of what I based my raised garden beds off of. As you can see, the guy in the video went a few steps further than I did.
What Would I Do Differently?
Overall I’m pleased with how my raised garden bed turned out and the fact that it cost me less than $25 to construct. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve selected some prettier blocks. It’s a bit of an eyesore, but my goal was to construct it inexpensively to see if I was any good at gardening. Perhaps I will upgrade my materials in the future. I’d say for spending $25 my first year isn’t bad though.
What tips do you have for constructing a cheap raised garden bed?