Having recently moved from 13 year old established gardens in upstate to NY to an empty grassy lawn in GA we were given a chance to reflect on the pros and cons of our old garden beds. We needed higher beds (our last ones were 4 inches and too low). We needed mulch around and between beds (weed whacker threw grass seeds into the old gardens causing big problems annually). We wanted a small water feature (we left a pond in NY so wanted something even if it was tiny). We wanted composite materials (our wooden beds rotted out and fell apart in NY and required annual fixes). We wanted carefree planting a but a more formal structure of the beds ( I'll admit that our gardening skills are not top notch so a nicely laid out area can help detract from our poor choice of plants. In NY the beds were in rows). In NY we had better soil so we wanted to mix our own in GA as the local red clay is not very good. We needed to keep the cost and installation time down so needed kits - and ones that were inexpensive so we would have money left to begin replacing the plants we left in NY. We needed our plan to be compact (small footprint), look formal as it would be the focal point of the lawn, and be functional for many kinds of plantings.
Step 1: Measure and Stake the Corners Apply Weed Fabric.
Note: if you do not have a level area you will need to prepare one. The beds we use allow for slight variations by a couple of inches but the area must be flat and level. Measure off a rectangle 26.5 feet long by 14 feet wide. If you have grass or weeds you should scalp it down with a weed whacker or mower. If you want to spray it with grass killer you can however we did not as our grass was dormant. Lay weed fabric to cover the measured area and allow for a four inch overlap between rows. Staple down with heavy duty landscape staples as you go. Our photo shows this completed step with one box assembled and put down.
Step 2: Assemble Raised Beds
The raised beds in this instructable are 3.5 by 7 feet long rectangles (42" by 84") divided in the middle to create two 3.5 by 3.5 boxes. These are each assembled in about 3 minutes using a tongue and groove system and are 8" tall. No tools required. They allow some flexibility if your area is not quite level as the connection pieces can rise and fall a bit however we used brick pieces to shim them to level where needed. The kits are made by Greenland Gardener. If you change the size of the beds and use different kits that is fine but note that you will need to adjust the weed fabric plot size as this this garden is measured exactly to fit these boxes. This garden contains 7 boxes (under $280 total). Arrange the boxes as shown in the photo leaving 1 foot on the outside of the fabric all the way around. The front corners consist of two boxes arranged to form a 90 degree corner. Our land was not level enough to mimic this is the back so the rear corners have only one box. The spaces that do not contain boxes are 3.5 feet wide. One raised bed was still on order in our photo. It is the back middle bed and can be seen in step 4. We had modular iron garden fencing that we pushed down in the perimeter spaces to keep our dogs out. It's a nice touch but is not necessary.
Step 3: Assemble and Place Arbor Entry
In the front center space, add an arbor. Ours is 36" wide so leaves a few inches of clearance on both sides between the boxes. Ours is a New England Eden Athens Arbor. We placed ours flush to the front of the boxes. You will need to do the permanent assembly instructions (they include stakes that pound into the ground) as wind will take this if it is not fastened to the ground.
Step 4: Add a Water Feature
We finally received the last box and placed it rear center as shown. We purchased a 24 inch round, 8 inch deep tub at the local home improvement store for about $11 and placed it in the front center box. We added water and a solar fountain pump with an attached filter pad and battery backup. We attached tubing to the fountain and added a turtle spitter as the fine spray of the fountain drained the feature if there was any wind. We added several water plants, 10 bullfrog tadpoles and 3 ruby red minnows to keep mosquitos at bay. The frogs and fish have been thriving for a month with just the solar filter. The raised bed was filled with garden soil around the edges of the water feature. Plantings were added for color. We used wooly thyme and pansies and planted Shasta daisy seed in the back of the water feature bed to eventually hide the tubing. We have a problem with crows and wanted to keep our fish and tadpoles safe so lay one of our many collected garden items over the pond. We had a painted piece of iron from an old estate gate that fit perfectly. Netting would be fine too.
Step 5: Add 4 Ft Entry Buffer
In front of the entire garden we put down a 4 foot wide weed barrier the full length of the front of the garden (26.5 feet). We added 2 sky pencil holly on each side of the front of the arbor to define the entry.
Step 6: Add Stones and Pine Straw
2 yards of Indiana pea stone were added to the interior of the plot covering all of the weed fabric to several inches deep. A pathway was added through the arbor and to the edge of the 4 ft buffer added in step 5. Concrete stepping stones were added from the buffer, through the arbor, to the water feature. 6 bales of pine straw were added around the entire garden buffer zone.
Step 7: Add/mix Soil
We could have saved a little money buying topsoil in bulk but chose bags so we could measure each box exactly. Each box received 4 bags of fine grade topsoil, one cu ft peat moss, 1 cu ft Miracle Grow garden soil, 2 pounds of vermiculite, and 1cu ft mushroom compost. In addition dehydrated cow manure was added where seed rows or plants were put in at later date. Each box was hand mixed - I find hands are better than hoes to thoroughly sift through all ingredients. You only get it this easy on year one!
Step 8: Add Functional Extras
We built teepees from bamboo for climbing annuals, used an old bird bath for hens and chicks, added tub trugs of herbs to our gardening wagon and placed a chair. Inside the bamboo teepees we hung repurposed solar landscape lighting that our mischievous dog had broken off of their stakes. We simply put them in dollar store metal baskets and hung them on "s" hooks. This compact garden will be home to climbing roses, vegetables, herbs, succulents, perennials, annual cutting garden, grandiflora roses and more. There will be plantings in the 4 ft buffer of day lilies which are currently seen in the photo in plastic pots. We have corrected our prior problems and now have a compact and functional garden that serves a variety of uses in on a small footprint.