Landscaping + Garden
We’re finally finished building our custom raised garden bed, and today we’re sharing our design and construction process.
Let’s get right to the specifics! We built the base of the raised bed from 2 x 10 untreated cedar boards. Cedar is a great choice for raised garden bed construction. It’s both food-safe (since we’ll be eating things from this garden) and very weather/rot-resistant.
Our local Menards had a great selection of cedar lumber, and we were able to get a lot of the boards cut down to the lengths we needed (and to fit in our car for the ride home).
We designed the box base to be 4 feet wide by 6 feet long by 10 inches deep. It’s just wide enough to let us reach the plants in the center from the long sides, and the 10-inch depth will allow us to grow root crops like carrots, radishes and turnips.
John built the box outside on the site we’d chosen, and made sure it was level before attaching the sides together.
We also attached a layer of galvanized wire mesh and landscape fabric to the underside of the box. This will help keep out weeds, any existing plants or bulbs we might have missed, and even potential tunneling rodents. We poked small holes in the fabric for drainage, and John drove stakes into the ground at the corners and screwed them into the base once it was in place for stability.
So far, so good! But ultimately we needed our raised bed to be more protected from the neighborhood wildlife (which includes squirrels, rabbits, birds, and even the occasional raccoon). We love having visitors in our backyard, but not when they eat our homegrown produce.
So we designed a custom “roof” to sit permanently on top of the box base to keep out critters. The roof is basically a frame of thin cedar boards, with galvanized wire mesh covering the open spaces.
The idea is to maximize sunlight, rainfall, air circulation, and beneficial insect access (like pollinating bees), while minimizing intrusion from anything larger (like pesky rabbits). John built the roof to be 3 feet high at the “peak” to accommodate plants that can grow that tall, like bush peas, beans and broccoli.
To give us easy access to the inside of the garden bed for planting, watering and harvesting, John created doors for the long sides of the roof that hinge open from the top. These are also made from thin cedar boards, to minimize shadows from incoming sunlight.
Once the raised bed and roof were constructed (and before we permanently attached the doors), I created a custom soil mixture to fill the box base, following the formula for Mel’s Mix. As outlined in Square Foot Gardening, Mel’s Mix is a combination of equal parts blended compost, perlite or vermiculite, and peat moss.
First, I got several bags of compost from different sources (such as mushroom compost, humus, manure, leaf, etc.) and mixed those together. Then I raked together equal amounts of the compost, perlite, and peat moss on a large tarp in our backyard until it was well combined.
As I mixed the soil and added it in batches to the raised bed, John stapled the wire mesh to the frame and doors.
To minimize the metallic glare of the wire mesh, we spray-painted it matte black (except for the north side against the fence, which we left as bare metal to function as a trellis for pea vines). The black color helps the mesh visually disappear and absorb sunlight. After attaching the mesh, John attached the doors to the frame with galvanized hinges.
I also picked up a couple of basic 5-gallon buckets from the home improvement store to use as deep planting containers, for growing additional edibles that are too tall for the raised bed (like tomatoes). I painted them deep green to cover up their utilitarian appearance and help them blend into the garden, put some styrofoam pieces in the bottoms for drainage, and filled them with my soil mix.
I also refreshed some old metal tomato cages from our garage with a quick coat of spray paint. Since we’re trying to keep costs low with this project, this was an easy (and inexpensive) way to give a new look to existing containers and materials.
To get the most from our available space in the raised garden bed, I marked out specific planting areas with jute twine and garden staples. Since I’m not following a strict square-foot gardening layout, these are mostly temporary guidelines just to help me organize and plant seeds and starts.
And with that, our custom covered raised garden bed is finished!
Now that spring is officially upon us, it’s time to actually start planting. In our next post, we’ll share what we’re doing with our indoor seedlings and how we’re direct-sowing outside as well.
Last week we introduced our new raised garden bed project, but what are we actually going to grow in it? Since we’re in Plant Hardiness Zone 6A, and our last spring frost date is around April 20, we did some indoor seed starting a couple of weeks ago to get a head start on the growing season. E and I filled a few plantable peat pots with seed starting mix on our dining nook table, and made DIY plant markers from wooden ice cream sticks.
I showed E how to sprinkle the seeds and cover them with a bit of the seed starting mix.
We sprayed carefully them with water (at this stage, it’s best not to disturb the seeds too much), set them out on our windowsill, and waited for the seeds to germinate. Within a few days, we had seedlings! Here’s what we planted:
Kale – Tuscan and Red Russian
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
I bought two kinds of kale because we eat a lot of greens in our house. I’m planting it in our spring garden, and I’ll plant more in the fall and see if I can get it to overwinter. I’ve grown kale in containers before and it’s done pretty well.
Swiss chard – Neon
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
John and I grew chard in our first container garden, and it was one of our great successes. It produced like gangbusters in both cool and hot weather, and we just kept cutting and eating it for months. Rainbow chard (also known as Bright Lights) is the most eye-catching, but this year I’m trying a variety called Neon which looks pretty much like the same thing.
Mizuna – Kyoto
Source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds
I’ve actually never eaten or grown mizuna before, but it was on sale for $1 at Johnny’s when I was ordering a few other things, so I decided to try it. It’s a member of the mustard greens family and used a lot in Asian cooking.
Lettuce – Midnight Ruffles (loose leaf)
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
John loves lettuce and requested we grow it this year. The loose leaf varieties are nice because you can harvest the outer leaves and the inner ones keep growing (unlike head lettuces that you harvest all at once). We’ve done a few loose leaf lettuces in containers before, and this time I bought seeds for a dark burgundy variety called Midnight Ruffles. Can’t wait to see it grow!
Source: Seeds saved from last year’s plants
Arugula is another favorite green around our house. It’s slightly peppery and spicy, and it’s really good raw or cooked. I planted it in our window boxes last year and saved the seeds after it flowered, so those are what I planted this year. Arugula does well in cool temperatures and is great for a spring garden.
Broccoli – De Cicco
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
After E grew her own broccoli plant last year (she brought a seedling home from school in a Styrofoam cup), we knew we’d have to grow more in our “official” garden this year. We’re starting it from seed indoors to give it time to grow large enough before the hot summer weather arrives (and it flowers). In addition to the broccoli crown, I like to use the plant leaves as edible greens.
As you can see, we ended up planting a whole lot of seeds in each pot (thanks to E’s enthusiasm and little fingers). I’ll thin them out later by snipping off the tops to keep the remaining seedlings healthy. When it comes time to direct seed into the raised garden bed, I’ll follow the Square Foot Gardening approach of only dropping 2-3 seeds in each location.
If I was doing this completely properly, we’d be using grow lights for more consistent growth. But that’s not something I want to invest in at this point, especially with all we’re spending on the materials for the actual raised garden bed. So for now, I’m using the very amateur DIY approach of natural early spring sunlight. And crossing my fingers.
We’ll plant the rest of our spring and early-summer edibles directly into the raised garden bed:
Sugar snap peas – Sugar Sprint (bush)
Source: Seed Needs via Amazon
I’ve never grown peas before, but I love sugar snap peas, so I’m giving it a try. And I got these seeds on Amazon! Peas shouldn’t be started indoors because it’s hard to transplant them (they don’t like being disturbed), but you can direct seed them just before the last spring frost date, so that’s what I’ll do. And even though I bought a bush variety instead of the vining type, I’m situating the plants along the north side of our raised bed where there’s a 2-3 foot tall chicken wire trellis for the short vines to climb if they so wish.
Radishes – Easter Egg
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
Radishes are another vegetable I haven’t grown before, but they are supposed to be super easy. I’ll direct seed these in the raised garden bed before the last frost date and they should be ready to harvest in only a few weeks. I got the Easter Egg variety that produces a wide range of colors, thinking maybe E will try eating them because they look fun and pretty. And if she doesn’t, I will – I love radishes.
Carrots – Rainbow blend
Source: Nichols Garden Nursery
I’m excited about these. Although we haven’t grown carrots before, it’s a vegetable that E (usually) likes to eat, so I got a rainbow blend (orange, red, purple, yellow and white) to make it interesting. The seeds can’t be started indoors, so they’ll go directly into the raised garden bed along with the radishes. But carrots are more heat-tolerant than radishes, so hopefully we’ll be able to keep growing them into the summer.
We’ll be buying strawberry starter plants sometime later this spring, when they become available at our local nurseries. John and I grew strawberries in our first container garden, but the yield wasn’t that great (a few berries from each plant). Both kids love strawberries, so I hope we get a better harvest in the raised garden bed.
But before we can plant any of these things, we need to finish building the raised bed and filling it with a good growing mix. That should be done in the next week or so, depending on this crazy unpredictable March weather. Come on, spring!
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Today we’re introducing a new project that we’re really excited about: creating a raised garden bed in our backyard to grow vegetables and other edibles this summer!
We haven’t posted in a while because not much has been happening around here in terms of home improvement or DIY projects. But life’s still been busy! We’ve been working on getting our finances in a stronger place as well as chasing E (four years) and T (eighteen months) around. Typical family-with-young-children routine stuff, with the requisite amount of curveballs and laughter.
But with this long winter coming to an end, we’re definitely ready for a new fun project! We’ve been dreaming of creating a proper vegetable garden since we bought our house almost three years ago. If you remember, the previous owner had cultivated an extensive ornamental garden on the property, and we’ve been mostly maintaining the landscaping while making a few changes here and there. For this new raised garden bed project, we’ll be keeping most of the existing backyard foliage and flowers intact, but we’ve started to clear a 4-foot by 6-foot space in a sun-happy spot to grow our plot of edibles.
If you follow us on Instagram or Facebook, you may have noticed our recent backyard excavations. John has spent the last couple of weekends digging hostas, ferns, and bulbs out of the ground in this space on the north side of our yard between a tree stump and a dwarf Alberta spruce.
We’re definitely feeling ambitious this year with this plan to set up a dedicated raised garden bed. E has been getting more and more curious about EVERYTHING, so I thought it would be great to give her (and T) the experience of growing our own food year after year. Planting seeds and watching things grow will hopefully get the kids excited to consume more vegetables, and try things like purple carrots and cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas and Tuscan kale.
In addition to being a fun family project, growing a small plot of our own food will help our aforementioned financial goals by reducing overall food costs. I look forward to bypassing sad-looking produce at the grocery store, and even being able to replace a lot of my usual summer farmers market purchases with food from our own garden. And although we’ll have to spend more this year in start-up costs to build the raised garden bed, we’ll benefit from it for years to come.
I’ve done a fair bit of edible gardening in the past, and several years ago when John and I were dating, we undertook an ambitious container garden on his condo’s porch balcony (with varying degrees of success).
We built cedar boxes and used 5-gallon containers and large pots to grow everything from broccoli to tomatoes to chard to strawberries. Most of it grew pretty well and we had a lot of fun learning along the way. But we had failures too – like killing much of our indoor seedlings by overwatering the peat pots (whoops!), and losing a lot of tomatoes to blossom-end rot. Overall though, it was a really rewarding experience. And we’ve container-gardened in each place we’ve lived since.
Since we bought our house, I’ve been growing herbs and greens in our window boxes, and last summer we transplanted a broccoli seedling that E brought home from school into a 5-gallon container. She loved watching it grow (and eating it)!
I highly recommend container gardening, especially if you’re new to growing or have limited space. Even something as simple as a windowsill herb garden can bring flavor into your life (pun intended!). I bought Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers when John and I were growing our balcony garden, and it’s a great guide that I still reference and read today.
As long as we’re talking gardening books, I also just got All New Square Foot Gardening and am so excited to read it. I’ve been playing around with diagrams of how I’d like to arrange each plant in the raised bed. We probably won’t follow a strict square-foot approach, but I definitely want to organize and maximize our 4-foot by 6-foot space.
So we’re just about finished clearing the space of existing plants, relocating them elsewhere in our yard, and leveling the soil surface. We’ve also got all our wood and supplies to build the raised bed, and I’ve ordered seeds and bought some soil amendments to fill the frame. It’s been a nice break from the last days of cold winter reality to research what kind of vegetables to plant for a summer harvest.
We’ll have lots more details and updates as this project gets underway!
(linked on Remodelaholic)
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We’re back in the garden, and this time we’re pruning our smoke tree… again! You may remember that we originally tried this last year, with disastrous results. Well, now we’re changing up our landscaping techniques and hoping that this second time will be a charm.
What is a smoke tree? It’s a colorful ornamental plant (genus name: Cotinus) that gets its common name from unique billowy flower clusters that appear in spring and resemble puffs of smoke. There are several smoke tree varieties (Royal Purple, Velvet Cloak, Grace, Golden Spirit and more), with deciduous leaves that vary from green to deep red to dark purple, depending on the season and species. Often used as a prominent accent in the garden because of its brilliant colors and unusual flowers, this plant can range in size from 8 to 30 feet in height, and it’s drought- and cold-tolerant. In other words, it’s very hardy and it grows fast! We’re not sure what variety ours is – John is thinking Royal Purple, but I’m leaning more toward Grace.
Last year, we planned to trim down our smoke tree to make it smaller and more contained than before. We talked about our subsequent pruning attempt (and failure) in this post, but basically we pruned it at the wrong time of year (mid-winter) and in the wrong spots (we cut the branches at their ends, instead of at the branch collars). This caused the tree’s branches to skyrocket once the weather turned warm, rather than grow into the tidy compact shrub we were hoping for.
Our goal – a cute little smoke tree underneath our dining nook window – was figuratively buried under the smoky monster that grew over and completely obliterated our backyard garden view. I mean, who needs curtains when you’ve got giant overgrown leafy branches?
And by autumn, the tree branches had grown all the way to the roof line. While the bright reddish-orange color was really beautiful, the tree totally obscured our ornamental cherry tree and little Japanese maple. (Can’t see them in the photos below? That’s my point! They’re hiding next to the stairs on the left.)
So, obviously not the results we were hoping for when we first pruned the smoke tree. And once the summer growing season was in full swing, any further pruning would just spur more growth, so we had no choice but to sit on our hands and wait. In the meantime, we did some more smoke tree pruning research (see our sources at the end of this post), and that’s when we started to consider rejuvenating the smoke tree by cutting it almost all the way to the ground. In theory this pruning method will encourage a smaller bushy plant instead of the taller splayed tree we’ve had for the past couple of years. Ideally, we’d like to end up with something about this size:
(image via Gardenista)
Fast-forward (through a long snowy Midwest winter) to a few weeks ago. With the plant still dormant in the chilly late-winter weather, John gave our new smoke-tree-to-bush pruning method a try. He started by trimming off the numerous small upper branches with long-handled loppers.
As he worked his way down the tree, he switched to a bow saw to cut through the thicker branches. (While he’s used this versatile tool on a variety of projects over the last 20 years, a more common saw for pruning is a folding saw like this one – it’s better for maneuvering around dense branch growth and conveniently folds up in your pocket when not in use.)
The previous owner had tied the smoke tree to a wooden trellis staked into the ground, to support it as it grew. But when John started removing the ties to take out the trellis, we realized that it had already been pulled out of the soil by the tree’s overgrown strength. It was literally hanging on by a thread!
After detaching the trellis, John revved up his trusty chainsaw to cut the main trunks of the smoke tree (the same way he sawed through our giant yew bushes last summer).
This is what we were left with when it was all over.
And our view to the backyard is much improved!
Now we just have to wait and see how things grow back this summer. According to our research, smoke trees usually experience a rapid growth rate after pruning (and we found that out firsthand last year) – up to 6 feet or more in height! But while the leaves will be bigger and more colorful than before, the signature “smoke” flowers may not appear until the following year.
It’s hard to imagine that this plant could go from 2-inch stumps to 6-foot-tall branches in one growing season, but we amateur gardeners are definitely intrigued – and hope we pruned it right this time. We’ll keep you posted on the progress!
Some of our sources for smoke tree information include:
The Arbor Day Foundation
Houzz article on using smoke trees in landscape design
Gardening Know How
What do you think – did we prune the smoke tree too much? Will it grow back, or will we be left with a big empty space in the garden this summer?
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A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the weather was perfect to do some gardening. So I put on my snow boots and winter coat, grabbed a shovel and some pruning shears, and went outside to prune our Annabelle hydrangeas.
Yes, I probably should have pruned these hydrangea bushes last fall (like I did the first time with great success). But in the first few months of adjusting to life with Baby T, garden maintenance wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, so the hydrangeas were left on their own as fall turned into winter.
I’ve read that Annabelle hydrangeas can be pruned anytime between autumn and early spring (check out this site and these guidelines and this blog post) because they bloom on new wood. So I decided to put it to the ultimate test and try pruning them in the dead of winter this year. You know, in the snow and ice and freezing cold. That’s not crazy, right?
Before starting to prune, I had to dig the bushes out a bit since they were buried in a huge snowdrift. I wanted to cut down the branches to about 18 inches from the ground, so I used a small shovel to clear snow from the areas I wanted to prune. I tried not to damage the branches, but I did end up scraping a few of them and exposed the green insides.
When I had shoveled enough to be able to see what I had to work with, I started trimming. Some of the branches were still bent down and buried under the snow, so I pulled these out to prune them. And I completely trimmed off the few sections where I had scraped the stems with the shovel.
Once I pruned everything down to about 18 inches, I collected all the trimmed branches and put them in a yard bag for pickup later on in spring.
We’ve had a cold and snowy February here in the Midwest, so when things warm up and melt a little, I’ll check if any stray stems were hiding under the snow.
Hopefully this won’t be another pruning fail like the smoke tree (which we still haven’t fixed yet, by the way!). Is there such a thing as having a white thumb (instead of a green or black one) for gardening in winter? If this risky landscaping move works, I’m going to declare winter gardening (and #whitethumb) a new trend.
Cross your fingers (again) that I haven’t killed our gorgeous Annabelle hydrangea. What do you think – will Annabelle survive?