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Picture of Durable Raised Garden Beds
compressed earth block.jpg

Most gardeners are familiar with Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening system. It’s one of the most popular gardening systems in the world. He’s sold over 1 million books (more than any other gardening book). With this method you can grow fives times more plants in a given space with less maintenance. You’ll use less water, fewer seeds, and have healthier plants and fewer insect problems. He says it takes half the labor of typical gardening. You don’t even have to dig down in the soil, because the beds are raised above ground. This means you can grow plants almost anywhere, including areas where the soil is really bad. Instead of trying to fertilize and amend lousy soil over a period of years, you use perfect soil right from the start. Be sure to check out his Square Foot Gardening website for full details. In short, it’s a fantastic system and works great.

But there is one drawback that could be improved. Mr. Bartholomew recommends wood for building the raised beds. He probably does this to keep things as simple as possible. Anyone can go to a building supply center, buy some boards and nail or screw them together. But most wood doesn’t hold up well outside, especially when it’s in direct contact with moist soil. In many cases the wood will rot in a few years and you’ll have to rebuild the beds.

That’s the basis of this Instructable – choose more durable materials for building the raised beds so you don’t have to keep rebuilding your garden. Use what is affordable and locally available. For some, it may be easiest to build with interlocking concrete landscape blocks. These come in many different colors and decorative designs. In our area we have very inexpensive compressed earth blocks (CEBs for short), so that’s what we use. CEBs are made with a mixture of soil and about 10% cement that’s compressed in a machine. We use CEBs that are about 5”x10”x4”high. The directions shown here for CEBS are the same for concrete blocks. Just be sure to buy blocks that interlock like Legos.

Materials: sand, crushed gravel, 6 mil black plastic sheeting, CEBs or interlocking concrete blocks, fine mesh fishing net or filter fabric used for French drains

Tools: shovel, rake, level, tape measure, square (2’ framing square is best, but a small one will work), straight 2x4, knife or scissors

The following instructions assume you have cleared and leveled the site, removed the topsoil and positioned your blocks nearby. Choose a sunny site suitable for gardening and a safe distance away from trees. You don’t want trees roots seeking out your garden beds.

 
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Step 1: Weed Barrier

Picture of Weed Barrier

One of the key advantages of this gardening system is the virtual elimination of weeding. This was the main reason we built our CEB garden beds. We have invasive wild grass that makes gardening nearly impossible. Pulling the pesty grass is a non-stop chore. You can’t stop it because the roots are deep in the ground; it just keeps coming back. And when you pull the grass out it often damages the garden plants.

The solution is surprisingly simple and effective. Level a 1” layer of sand where you want the garden bed. The sand reduces the risk of weed stems puncturing the plastic, which is laid in the next step. Lay a piece of 6 mil black polyethylene (‘black poly’ plastic sheeting) on the ground. Cut the plastic sheeting slightly larger than the garden bed to help make sure nasty roots don’t find a way in. Spread some sand or gravel around the edges to hold in place. Then cover the plastic with another layer of sand and about 2” of crushed gravel. The sand and gravel allow excess water to drain away. Without it, water could build up in the garden bed like a bathtub.

Step 2: Level the Gravel and Set the First Course of Blocks

Picture of Level the Gravel and Set the First Course of Blocks

The next step is to level the gravel as accurately as possible so the blocks line up evenly. This will be much easier to do if you use crushed gravel in Step 1 to cover the black plastic. Level the gravel in both directions -- width and length. It helps to have a long, straight 2x4 to use in conjunction with the level. Don’t rush this step or the blocks will not fit neatly together.

Also note, you can make raised beds any size you want as long as they are even increments of your blocks. But a 3’ interior width is a good size that keeps plants within easy reach.

Now you can start setting the first course of blocks. Start in a corner and use the square to make a 90 degree corner between blocks. Set the blocks tight against each other. Use the 2x4 to keep the blocks in a straight line. Work your way around keeping the blocks straight and level and hopefully the last block will fit perfectly. If it doesn’t, then the sides aren’t square and you’ll have to adjust the blocks slightly until they line up.

Step 3: Stack the Second Course of Blocks and Add Mesh

Picture of Stack the Second Course of Blocks and Add Mesh
Once the first course is straight, square and level then the rest is easy. You can stack the second course in only two minutes or so. Stagger the blocks so the second course overlaps the first course in a running bond. This locks the courses together.

The next step is to add fine mesh fishing net or filter fabric. This allows water to drain away, but keeps unwanted roots out. Push it tight into all the corners, allowing the excess to protrude out from the blocks in each direction. It helps to use extra blocks set inside the bed temporarily to make sure the mesh or fabric is pushed tight into the corners.

Step 4: Stack the Third Course of Blocks and Trim the Mesh

Picture of Stack the Third Course of Blocks and Trim the Mesh

Trim the fishing net or fabric with scissors as you stack the third course of blocks. Trim the mesh about ½” from the outer edge so it doesn’t show, but yet leave enough so the blocks on top will hold it securely. Again, check and recheck that the mesh is tight in all corners. Otherwise, the weight of the soil will tug on the mesh and destabilize the wall.

Step 5: Add Special Soil Mix and Plant the Garden

Picture of Add Special Soil Mix and Plant the Garden

Now you can add your special Mel Bartholomew soil mix (or something comparable) at this point. The recipe is free on his website. Don’t use regular soil or you’ll end up with the same problems you started with. Invest in top quality soil and you’ll have the best garden ever.

You can also add stakes through the blocks for vertical gardening and for fencing the sides to keep pets and other animals out. We use ½” steel rebar stakes painted with exterior enamel paint and 1” mesh fishing net on the sides. Use fine mesh on the sides if you have insect problems. You can even add mesh over the top if you want partial shading in hot climates and keep birds out.

So the bottom line is this: invest some time (about two hours for this bed), labor and money in good materials and you’ll reap bumper harvests for years to come.
Pic Final garden 1 and 2

Photo credit: Changamol Kamchuang

abqnative3 years ago
I kinda feel like this is a dumb question but... where do you find "fine mesh fishing net"?
Owen Geiger (author)  abqnative3 years ago
That's a good question, actually. I live next to a huge lake and never gave it much thought. I can walk down the street and buy fishing net at any time, so I was a little surprised at all the sizes and types of fishing net on the Internet. First of all, you need to know basically what it looks like. The closest I could find is this link: http://houwenxiufay91479.en.nobodybuy.com/pid1216967/supply-fishing-net.htm

You might be better off buying standard 'soil filter fabric' if it's more common in your area. It's used to keep dirt out of French drains.
http://allstakesupply.com.au/growies-garden-and-outdoor/terraform-filter-fabric-roll-1m-x-25m-retail-197.html/
lol, thanks! I appreciate the quick response.
katiedid493 years ago
where can i purchase the interlocking blocks shown in the photo on this article?

thank you!
Owen Geiger (author)  katiedid493 years ago
They're typically made by small shops. You'll have to search your area to see if anyone is making them. Or you can buy your own CEB press and make the blocks yourself. There are many brands. See here: http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/star-top-ceb-presses/
thank you.
appaloosard3 years ago
?? I have been told not to use concrete blocks due to the leaching of cement into the soil, rendering the vegetables produced non-organic. Is this true?
John
Owen Geiger (author)  appaloosard3 years ago
I've never made the connection between efflorescence and gardening: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efflorescence But yeah, chemicals do leach out.
cyoung133 years ago
I have used untreated lumber for my beds. After two to three years they rot out. As I live in southern US the lumber attracts termites to the garden. They attack the roots of some of the plants. I am converting to concrete blocks.
Darth_Reese4 years ago
I wish I added the plastic *sigh*
This year I built A 4x8 square foot garden, and planted two F2 (White Icicle, and Cherry Belle) varieties of radishes in a square, but when I went to harvest them only one is ready to harvest but none of the other 15. Each square was planted in one day, week later plant another, week later etc. Its not just one block but all of them, what am I doing wrong?
Owen Geiger (author)  Darth_Reese4 years ago
I can't answer that. There are lots of reasons why plants don't grow.
Thanks though; got any ideas I could try to kill the weeds that grow under the wood. We have berunda grass here.
Owen Geiger (author)  Darth_Reese4 years ago
Use the same method I describe on raised beds made of wood. The same black plastic/gravel/fishnet should work.
This is fantastic! I've been doing this where I live in Haiti with leftover CEB's from a project, and it beats the heck out of using lumber. Today I am building a vertical garden using CEB's. I'll post pictures.
Owen Geiger (author)  drinkmorecoffee4 years ago
That's great to hear. I haven't heard of anyone else doing this yet. I look forward to see your pics.
Owen Geiger (author) 4 years ago
Sorry, I forgot to say how much it cost.

There are 33 blocks per course on this garden bed. Each block costs 25 cents ($.25 US). There are three courses, so that's 99 blocks. You might want to get one or two extra in case one breaks. Let's say 100 blocks X 25 cents = $25. Fishing net is very cheap, say $5. Gravel and plastic sheeting is very cheap, say $5. So the total is close to $35.

There's 31 square feet of growing space. So that's about $1.13/square foot, not counting soil and optional stakes, fencing, etc. That sounds like a good price to me, because it will last for many years and be more productive than typical gardens.
Ghost Wolf4 years ago
I like that look reminds me of my grandmother's house she had a few of those made from the chimney that fell over in a storm.
Owen Geiger (author)  Ghost Wolf4 years ago
Recycled bricks could work, but they may slide apart over time unless mortared. Did she mortar them together?
No she didn't but, the moss and packed dirt kept it sturdy. The garden doesn't get taken care of that much so it's over grown with weeds and plant life.
Creativeman4 years ago
Great project and excellent instructable. I am curious as to the length of the bed, and total cost(s). You may have seen my instructable on raised beds, where I used lumber and have had several problems with rot. However, they have lasted 10 or 12 years and should last several more. It does require maintenance, however. I read Mother Earth News for years, and saved most issues from 2 through 60! Seems as appropriate now, as they did then. Thanks for sharing. Cman
Owen Geiger (author)  Creativeman4 years ago
It's about 3'x9-1/2' inside dimensions. (Actual block measurements are metric.) So the area is about 29 square feet. The concept works great, that's why I posted here.

Mother Earth News was my favorite magazine when I was young. It's a real thrill to be working for them now.