How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay)

Woops! It’s spring… this week got busy! I went to a great SCUMS meeting, the Organic Growers School, and created a huge new garden with the help of three friends. We’re still planning to amend the beds with compost but technically we could just plant in it as is. I did process photos to show you how to make raised beds without purchasing any materials (though you will need a tiller — unless you hand dig with a shovel).

I usually prefer lasagna gardening but we needed a large garden, fast, and this did the trick. Lasagna beds are fantastic if you have a supply of organic matter to pile up into layers. It’s also the optimal method to use if you’re trying to garden over a rocky or rooty area where digging is difficult.

The downside can be that some lasagna beds are hard to keep watered over hot summers if the layers haven’t broken down into compost yet. Because of that I like to start lasagna beds in the fall.

It was a lot more labor to till and dig paths but we feel proud of the results.

For larger versions click on the pictures. I’m the one without odd facial hair. Thank goodness.

Photo Caption: This was the initial plan but we ended up changing it a bit. It's 40' x 40' and each square foot is represented by a square. If you don't have large enough graph paper you can tape it together. The beds are oriented north to south for best sun coverage.

Photo Caption: We used twine to outline the beds and then tilled the outer edges. After that we just had to fill it in. Note that it is important to till on a dry day when soil crumbles instead of squishing into a ball.

Photo Caption: This is the way my teachers WISHED I had colored in grade school. Unfortunately, we found a buried stump in the center of our bed that needed to be hacked out.

Photo Caption: The previous house owners had removed the stump to the ground and covered it over with lawn.

Photo Caption: Every time we thought we had pulled out all the tree roots we would find another one.

Photo Caption: We are sharing our garden among 3 households so we are fortunate to have multiple people to split the labor. If you don't want to share your garden you could bribe your friends with a free meal.

Photo Caption: Be careful when you are prying things out of the ground to use the right tool. Otherwise you can hurt yourself or break your tool. Our hydra tree claimed a shovel AND a pitchfork.

Photo Caption: This heavy metal pipe used to be a pitchfork handle (until we broke it) but the handle continued to serve as a good prybar.

Photo Caption: If you have a light source available you can continue working at night. (We were running back and forth in front of the motion sensor on the back of the house every time it turned off). If you hate heat and sunburns this is one way to avoid both!

Photo Caption: This is what stage we were at the following morning.

Photo Caption: I used twine tied to logs to mark off and dig straight rows. (Note that the pile of unearthed roots continues to grow...)

Photo Caption: While I was digging rows my friend got serious with the root problem. Dirt and chainsaws aren't a great combo so we'll have to replace the chain.

Photo Caption: Some success! If we hadn't encountered these roots we would probably have finished the entire tilling and path digging process in a single day.

Photo Caption: As I dug the soil out of the paths I would pile it up to make instant raised beds!

Photo Caption: The soil we tilled had been undisturbed for a long time and was already full of organic matter from decaying lawn plants. We do plan to add copious amounts of leaf compost but you could plant in this soil without it.

Photo Caption: We changed the garden plan slightly to compensate for areas where we could not remove the stump. It's still very similar to the original blueprint.

Photo Caption: Our pile of roots felt like trophies by the end.

Photo Caption: After we piled the soil from the paths onto the raised beds we smoothed them out to make them more stable. Otherwise they tend to wash away when it rains.

Photo Caption: The finished product! Raised beds without having to purchase materials to build structures to hold them. Each bed is at least 8" deep, but most were closer to 12" - 18" of loose soil.

We are going to add compost to our beds and mulch with shredded leaves. When we start putting the veggies in we’ll use my homemade organic slow-release fertilizers, too. I also want to get a soil test to find out what our pH is. The tree we unearthed seemed to be a pine and that can make soil especially acidic.

Look for further blog posts with updates on our progress!

Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

22 thoughts on “How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay)”

  1. Liza - March 11, 2010 12:37 pm

    Ohmigosh, so much work! I know it will be well worth it for you! I’m excited to see your progress, and I really love that you’re sharing between three households. That’s a great idea!

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 1:21 pm

      Thanks! Honestly, after this long winter I thought working hard outside was a relief! I’m pretty sore today, though. :)

  2. Tatyana - March 11, 2010 3:37 pm

    Good post and good job! Without buying anything, but WITH having two strong guys! If I had their help, I think I’d have my dream garden already!Dreams… dreams… Back to reality.
    I have three wooden raised beds, but several others are created by piling the dirt and adding compost, etc. When I have pieces of turf, I put them around those beds to keep soil in place. Happy gardening!

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 6:09 pm

      Haha… actually THREE guys! It was definitely a shorter job than when I do this by myself (I’ve actually done gardens this size by myself though… looking back I’m pretty impressed).

      I like the sound of your combo raised beds!

  3. Sandra - March 11, 2010 4:43 pm

    This looks amazing! Is this the back yard at your Mom’s house? We want to have raised beds this year, am in process of figuring out how to do it…what kinds of materials to use, etc. One thing we have in abundance is horse and sheep manure; most excellent fertilizer!
    BTW, ran across this and thought it might be of interest.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 6:51 pm

      I wish I had ruminant fertilizer… wouldn’t go over all that well in the city, though! This is the backyard at one of my friend’s houses (the guy with the chainsaw). He has a lot more sun than my mom’s yard… as I unfortunately discovered last year. I did my usual garden and got very little rewards because the neighboring trees gave us too much shade.

  4. Tina - March 11, 2010 5:10 pm

    Great that the work can be shared! If we end up taking our house off the market I’m thinking of having a little community garden type thing here with some friend.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 6:51 pm

      Your friend will be pretty lucky given that they’d inherit a share in that awesome greenhouse, too!

  5. Meredith - March 11, 2010 8:31 pm

    That is so cool! I love seeing what can be done in a couple of days of hard work. When we built our little kitchen garden, we did it in stages, because of no tiller (F. did the initial digging, then we both broke up the soil clods, amended everything, then raked it fine). It took us about a day to do one 12′ by 12′ area. Still, it’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. I bet you and all those participating feel like heroes now. :)

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 9:56 pm

      Yeah, it is one of the few times when I enjoy being sore. Every muscle cramp feels like a victory spasm… haha! Hand digging a 12′ x 12′ clay (I assume?) bed is hardcore!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay) =-.

  6. Sandra - March 11, 2010 9:16 pm

    I thought it didn’t look like home; mainly because the lack of trees. What an incredible job that would have been, cutting down all those trees!
    Are you going to can food this year?
    .-= Sandra´s last blog ..Sabbath Keeping =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 9:55 pm

      Yes! We’re going to have to. We are growing far more food than our 3 households can eat fresh. Our dehydrator is going to be gasping for breath, too!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay) =-.

  7. Curbstone Valley Farm - March 11, 2010 10:31 pm

    OH! What we wouldn’t do for that much flat space! Oh well, you learn to make do with what you have. We also don’t seem to have much in the way of soil in some areas…well, not atop ‘Mount Mudstone’ anyway…which is where we’re putting our veggie gardens. Alas for us, it will have to be constructed beds, deep enough to hold some real soil. But I’m very impressed at what you achieved in just a couple of days, and thoroughly jealous of both your flat ground, and your soil!
    .-= Curbstone Valley Farm´s last blog ..Anemone oregana =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 11, 2010 10:47 pm

      Thanks! Here I was worrying it was a little too sloped for our heavier rains (it actually does taper slightly toward the northern end). I’m thinking about burying some 2′ horizontal pipes at the bottom of the lowest rows to help with drainage… just in case.

      “Mount Mudstone” certainly sounds more daunting than even our hydra tree! Your constructed raised beds seem like the way to go. :)
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay) =-.

  8. Kyna Adams - March 12, 2010 7:18 am

    Funny how things seem to take longer, the more guys there are involved LOL. That post was really funny (as well as informative), what got me was the chainsawing of the ground ๐Ÿ˜€
    .-= Kyna Adams´s last blog ..Okame Chameleon =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 12, 2010 9:28 am

      Haha… no kidding! Although they were pretty optimistic. They thought we were going to also get the compost and mulch done in one day. Gotta love that. ๐Ÿ˜‰
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Tell a Carolina Mantis Eggcase from a Chinese Mantis Eggcase (Whatโ€™s an Ootheca?) =-.

  9. Anna - March 12, 2010 9:40 am

    That’s exactly the method I use, and I highly recommend it! My soil has stayed soft in most of the beds years later, never needs tilling again.

    I’ve learned over the course of three years of building these beds that the areas where I left wide aisles do the best by far. I settled on making aisles as wide as a long-handled shovel (minus the blade), which is the same width I make the beds.

    I also try to make sure that I don’t till down into the subsoil when preparing the soil, so that what I get is a double layer of topsoil on the beds. But in more clayey areas of the yard (which looks more like your soil), that’s impossible because the topsoil layer is just too shallow. As long as you’re adding compost, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Anna: Spring planting dates =-.

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  11. Natalie - May 11, 2010 3:37 am

    That is a fantastic space you have there. It puts my three little raised beds to shame!
    .-= Natalie´s last blog ..Head first into a trench =-.

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