Backyard Garden Boxes - on the Cheap!




Introduction: Backyard Garden Boxes - on the Cheap!

About: I'm a Nerd and a garage inventor. My dad used to say, "There he to 'The Lair' to invent something. Try not to burn the house down, OK?" I am a Graphic Designer & Illustrator from the South. I lo...
My family decided to create some backyard, above-ground, garden boxes since the soil where we live is rock-hard and not easily manageable. We wanted to keep expenses on this project low so we chose materials and methods accordingly.

There are many ways to go about this project--some more effective and some more expensive than others. I am sharing our build experience to illustrate how we handled this project based on our needs and resources.
 I'm not trying to preach on how to professionally prep soil or grow plants. Keep in mind that these boxes are NOT fancy like the other beautiful designs that you have seen in other articles on this site.  Our 'ible is not intended to improve upon the other ideas either. Please keep the spirit of innovation alive by modifying anything necessary on your build to meet your own needs. 

How long will this project take to complete? The construction part of this project took just over 2 hours for my small family of 3.  We enjoyed spending time together, working on a good yard project and digging in the dirt & poo.  My son later told his friends that his dad and mom forced him into shoveling chicken poo for a whole evening.


¬ OUR MASTER GOAL is to make some type of sturdy four-sided box (square or rectangle) in which to place a liner and nutritious dirt for our little gardening needs.  The boxes that we will make do not need to be too tall or you will have difficulty managing them. Ours ended up being taller than they really needed to be, but we wanted to keep the neighborhood animals from digging around the edges of the plants. It worked nicely.  

¬ This project requires that plastic sheeting be placed in the boxes as a liner and container for our dirt mixture.  This keeps weeds from growing up out of the ground into the boxes and it also helps retain sufficient moisture in the soil bed.  The plastic liner can also help prevent environmental chemicals, toxins and nasty critters from finding their way up into the bed as well. Plastic also helps to make cleanup a breeze after the growing season is over. Later on in the article you will see that we introduce some strategic holes into the plastic to allow proper drainage. Some beds may require more holes than others--it all varies with your geographical location, elevation, weather, soil mixture and the types of plants you will use.

¬ Obviously, some kind of dirt is needed.You will need to choose your own dirt.  Do your homework after you decide what plants you want to grow and get only the necessary dirt and nutrient mixture to grow those plants.  If you don't do your homework or if you go overboard, then you're going to be guilty of killing plants, wasting time and bleeding money. So, first go scout and buy some plants at the store or nursery; research soil types and finally you can have some fun shoveling dirt and/or poo.

That's all there really is to this build.  Let's go on with it....

Step 1: How Many Boxes Do We Need? Many Other Q's...

  • What do I want to grow and how much of those plants do I need to make room for?
  • Based on the space & sun requirements, how many boxes do I need to make?
  • How much room is in my yard, porch or sidewalk area?
  • Do I want these garden boxes to stay in one place or will I move them after a few months? Is this going to be permanent?
  • What kind of financial resources do I wish to put into this?
  • Who will be helping me? Who can help me? Who's done this type of thing before that can give me great advice on growing the plants I want to grow?
  • Should I buy materials in bulk from a nursery or landscaping business or should I shop from a home improvement store? If I buy from my local nursery, is there a minimum order or delivery charge?

These are all good questions and are worth taking the time to review. 

My family wanted to grow 6 to 8 tomato plants, a half dozen melons and squash along with a few cucumbers and a select few other plants.

⇒ After doing all our math and speaking with specialists, we saw that we only needed three boxes, although we went ahead and built five.  We sold the two unused garden boxes to offset the costs of the project and to fund our plants!!

.. How did we know?

Here's how to get started in figuring out what you need:
  1. We bought the plants we wanted.
  2. We then consulted the internet, garden supply shop specialists, and also checked the plastic insert that comes with the plants to determine the type of shade, spacing and soil requirements for each group of plants.
  3. We just did the math as best we could to determine space and volume of materials. Nursery personnel can help you figure this out in a jiffy if you just can't get it straight or need to confirm your efforts. 
Once you've done the mental work above, it's time for a trip to the hardware store. Get the following:
  • Inexpensive 6' or 8' planks used in fencing (non treated wood). For the size I made, expect to buy 6 planks per boxWe used two boards stacked horizontally (parallel) for each long side. Then, we cut the two remaining unused planks in half yielding four smaller, half-length pieces that we then used on the ends.
  • Inexpensive 2" x 2"s or 2" x 4"s -- for corner supports and mid-length supports. 5 should do it.
  • Brass 1.5" or 2" wood screws -- for fastening the boxes together. This makes it easier to assemble and disassemble-- all with a power drill.
  • Plastic sheeting -- We used cheap 2-mil plastic drop cloths meant for painting.  These aren't something that will last more than 1 season so keep this in mind. If you want this to be a more permanent installation, spend more money and get something heavy duty like a tarp.

Let's put it together...

Step 2: Build the Boxes...

Let's build these boxes!
It's really easy and you don't need a diagram. Let me tell you how to build one. Afterward, just repeat this process to build the others. Just be sure to secure the boards well since wet soil places a good bit of pressure on the walls of the box once it has been filled and is in use.

For the long sides:  Take two planks and lay them down on the sidewalk on top of and perpendicular to three or four short lengths of 2x2 or 2x4.  Make sure everything is square and aligned. The planks should be slid down to one end of the support beams. Screw it all together.  Repeat until you have two long side pieces.

For the short sides:  Have someone hold the two long sides up as they would be in the final position for installation. Take two short lengths of planking and fasten them with screws to each end.  When you are done you should have something that resembles my photo.

I chose to have the support beams extend upward to allow the use of string and fabric to protect and support my plants as they mature through various phases of their growing cycle.

Step 3: Line With Plastic...

This is the easiest part of the project!

¬  Position the boxes where you want them to be.  Be mindful of the plants' requirements and position the boxes so that there will be sufficient shade, sun, and also check that each location is protected from wind and overhanging branches & roof lines. Rain from those overhanging features can devastate plants. Also leave room around each box for you to maintain the garden boxes and plants.

¬  Unfold the plastic sheeting and drape it across each box.

¬  Secure the ends of the plastic with staples, roofing nails, spare screws or weigh it down with dirt, stakes or bricks.

¬  Poke a fewholes in the bottom or corner of each liner to enable water to runoff if sufficient build up occurs in each box. Some people drill holes at a predetermined "flood line" in their wooden boxes. We only poked holes in the bottom of the plastic with the garden hand shovels. We didn't do it quite so randomly though. As I mentioned in the comments section, we did take time to verify that we had proper drainage at this point and that it drained away from the raised beds in the yard. Certain plant types need more moisture in the soil than others, so you'll have to sort this step out for yourself according to your own needs. We've used plastic for a couple years now to retain more water due to the climate where we live.

We are now ready to fill this with soil...

Step 4: Fill With Proper Dirt & Fertilizer Layers/Mixture...

For this step, we do these three things:
  1. Create a foundation layer of material on the bottom to allow drainage for excess moisture (usually sand or light weight material)
  2. We then layer our dirt and nutrient layers alternately (potting soil, garden soil, sand, nutrient mixes..etc.)
  3. We finally mix the soil layers (not foundation layer) by hand for proper consistency - DO NOT PACK the dirt until you plant your plants in the soil

Your dirt choices will vary based on what you are growing. Consult your research to see what type of soil and nutrients you need to use. Do your research and ask around. I am showing you a sample photo of some of the soil types we used for a few of our plants.  We went with some store bought soils that were on sale to meet the requirements of a few of our particular plants.  I also bought and used playground sand (not shown) to give plenty of volume where needed and to allow proper drainage to occur out of the bottom of the boxes.

We also had some chicken poo to use in areas where rich fertilization was needed.  A little of this stuff goes a very, very, very long way... and I'm not just talking about the strength of the nutrients either--the smell is horrendous.  Consider yourselves warned! This stuff is great if you don't get along with your neighbors.

NOTE 1: For the first layer (bottom of the container) we used playground sand in most of our boxes, but not all. This allows proper drainage and retention of moisture. For some of our plants, frequent watering was required, but not standing water or overly saturated soil.  So for those plants and for their side of the box, we used plenty of sand on the bottom and also mixed some into the soil we chose for those plants.  Your choices may differ from ours greatly. I've seen others use river rock, pebbles or the Styrofoam pellets to give proper growing environment the drainage foundation required for success.  That slimy, white particulate that swells with water and slowly releases it into the soil over time is great stuff too. 

NOTE 2:  Most of local community colleges and universities will have agricultural specialists that can offer advice on soils, layering, planting locations, planting schedules and so. 

Next...Plant the plants....

Step 5: Plant the Plants... (& Try to Keep Them Alive!)

At this point, follow the guidelines on the plants' info markers. Consult your research and get the spacing correct. Double check that you are placing them in the correct boxes. To remedy any trouble at this point, my wife and I labelled the boxes ahead of time as to which plants would go in each garden box.  We also monitored the yard space with the boxes in position for over a week before we began filling with dirt. This helped to eliminate any miscalculation on our part. That's fine because once the boxes are full, they're a bit tough to move!

► Anyhow, once you've completed this step, you should have something similar to the photos shown.

The tall end-posts allow you to brace and string up various supports for your plants when it rains and to hang fabric to protect them should the sun or weather be too variable or harsh.  We left plenty of room around the plants as well so that support rods and sticks can be inserted as needed into the soil without damaging the roots and limbs.  

¬ For 3 garden boxes, we spent $80 on materials --- the wooden planks, 2x4's, box of screws, plastic sheeting, gloves, soils, sand and fertilizer.  We had plenty of supplies and dirt left over for other projects.

¬ Like I said earlier, we originally built 5 boxes and sold two of them to offset our costs for this project.

¬ I don't remember how much we spent on plants. Schools often have gardening clubs that sell plants to raise money for various causes. We got some plants that way.  Try to support those if you can. You will get great plants at a great bargain and you will be benefiting the community's educational programs.

⇒ We also had a visitor and a snapshot of him is included (last photo).

Thanks for viewing and thanks to all of the other raised-bed gardeners who have inspired us to do this project.  Ours doesn't even compare with the others when it comes to style, but we had so much fun.



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    21 Discussions

    as someone with a bad back I had to go with raised bed gardens some time ago. Now with serious arthritis in hips knees and back I had to modify further and actually putting 30" 4"x4" legs up through the corners and a good sturdy 2"x4" cross members underneath to support the weight. I've used a design like yours with stilts! Mine are 3'x6' with a trellis on the southern facing side for beans and berries. My next project is a couple of basic concrete forms to have narrow paths for my gardening trolley. This way I sit high with a straight back able to do what I love.

    You have renewed my excitement for Spring! I spent all Winter laid up with a shattered knee from my other motorcycle..

    1 reply

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article and post a comment! I like your idea a lot better -- now I have got to try building one on stilts.

    Great job! Raised garden beds are great for the backyard gardener.

    1 reply

    Oh Please! Please! Please! Take out your plants and dirt and remove the plastic! Your plants will die if the water can't drain! Instead, lay down 4-5 layers of newsprint in newspapers or corrugated cardboard and then put you dirt in. The critters won't come up and earthworms love newspaper and the plants can drain!

    7 replies

    Thanks to the originator who posted their instructable!! But I do have a question...Doesn't the plastic leach toxins into the soil you are trying to grow your veggies in? I'm asking because I LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!! the idea of using it, but i am leary of using plastic because I do not want the nasty chemicals released into my soil as it breaks down. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated! :)

    I don't leave the plastic in long enough to break down. I use this seasonally -- 5 months. My yard is way too small to have this space occupied all year. I use plastic sheeting because it's cheap, strong and retains moisture well for my purposes. It also makes cleaning the area up later nice since the dirt can be hauled back to a storage bin or compost heap.

    You can use anything you want instead of the plastic. I've worked in landscaping for many years and there are tons of high quality plastics and other materials available--they just cost a good bit more. I have even known other guys to use various types of natural cloth and canvas, paper..etc. One even used a mixture of playground sand enriched with small chunks of homemade charcoal as his drainage layer (the lowest foundation layer). He grew some of the best watermelons I've seen.

    If you are concerned about this and your beds will be more permanent than mine are intended to be, then you will want to ask some pros in your areas for what works best in your location. You may be able to achieve similar results simply by layering various soil types and moisture retaining materials and eliminating the plastic altogether.

    Good luck!

    in dry climates with sandy soil such as my home area the perforated plastic is essential! Water is our most wasted resource in America. We take it for granted. I use an inexpensive bagged compost soil, lay the perforated bags in flat and cut out the upper side. Stir in perlite to retain moisture for two to three days at a stable moisture release rate then plant. The same soil has served well in my above the ground boxes for three years running without water build up, plant rot or water waste.

    Thanks for that good note 7nflgirl. I agree that newspaper is an excellent option and it's environmentally friendly. Most people already own some! I've used it plenty of times before in other places that I've lived and it's preferred. I didn't want to use it on this project this time around though. I used plastic last year too. I'm from the S.C. Low Country (@ sea level or below) and I can clearly see the point about having better drainage in many environments so that we don't kill the plants. Here in Northern California, I live at the top of a desert area nearly in the mountains. I switched to the plastic because it not only aids in cleanup when we move the bed after the growing season, but it is necessary to retain enough moisture in the bed to keep things living. It's just way too dry here, especially when there's drought conditions and water gets rationed. Without it, my beds dry out way too fast and I find that I end up wasting water and time trying to regulate it without further expense. My photos only show us putting a couple of holes in the bottom, but there's more than that. We carefully planned the drainage for each bed and my wife tested two of the beds. We took the third on faith. I guess I should have said something about that, my apologies. BUT it does drain well. Thanks for pointing out that everyone should verify that they have adequate water drainage and that there are choices for barrier material.

    Oh thank you for easing my mind and I am so sorry for not noticing in your article that you had punched holes in the plastic....WHEW!!!!

    Well then... carry on with my blessings as an avid gardener myself! I was brought in this world gardening and guess I'll leave it gardening!

    Sorry but, does moisture get trapped under the plastic? Wont that rot the wood? I don't think you needed the plastic so-much, just some leftover "Non-Toxic" paint or stain you may have in the basement or shed. Also, I would be afraid of not receiving good drainage and aeration even with holes in the sheeting.

    Just some friendly sudjestions from one gardener to another. Beautifel raised bed, BTW.

    4 replies

    I'm glad you enjoyed the project and thanks for taking the time to read it and comment!

    Your comment about painting them sounds like a good idea to me. We should have done that. Coating the planks could extend the life of the boxes.

    I constantly checked the drainage and moisture levels of the soil the very first year we tried this in California. We have done this for a couple of years now in this location and it works really well for us. The wood has shown no signs of mildew or rot. I don't recall the type of wood we used... perhaps that has something to do with it?

    I saw a great project that helped me determine the size of my beds. I first used my paint sprayer to spray every surface of wood including cracks with some oil based paint that was left over from the house. But paint has chemicals so I didn't want them in the soil above or below! Your instinct with the plastic is great! But I just bought bagged soil (still works great after three seasons), laid them flat in my boxes and cut the side panels of the bag out which were now the tops leaving me 8 inches of rich soil! The bags of this inexpensive brand of composted soil cost about $10.00 each so with wood and everything, about $25.00 per box on an annualized basis. But it appears they will last many more years with nothing more than a little in soil composting with shredded paper and used coffee grounds (so as not to attract flies and flying bugs). Stick with what works! bags came perforated so the drainage problem never was an issue.

    I saw a great project that helped me determine the size of my beds. I first used my paint sprayer to spray every surface of wood including cracks with some oil based paint that was left over from the house. But paint has chemicals so I didn't want them in the soil above or below! Your instinct with the plastic is great! But I just bought bagged soil (still works great after three seasons), laid them flat in my boxes and cut the side panels of the bag out which were now the tops leaving me 8 inches of rich soil! The bags of this inexpensive brand of composted soil cost about $10.00 each so with wood and everything, about $25.00 per box on an annualized basis. But it appears they will last many more years with nothing more than a little in soil composting with shredded paper and used coffee grounds (so as not to attract flies and flying bugs). Stick with what works!

    I love the last picture - at least he didn't choose your new planter for digging :-)

    Great but don't use miracle grow or other manufacture soils ... Awful stuff in them... You can find recipes for organic soil making your own the best way to go... Find in your Area someone who makes worm casting ..! :)