Building a Garden

Assess your soil

The first step is to assess your soil for possible contaminants.

Raised beds

Raised garden beds

The question of whether or not to build raised garden beds is a fundamental one in garden design, and there are many factors to consider. Here are some pros and cons to help you with the decision.

  • Appearance. If the appearance of the garden is important (for example, it’s on a busy street corner or located on public property), consider building raised beds. Even if they are full of weeds, they have a more “tidy” look than in-ground gardens.
  • Ease of gardening/accessibility. If the soil in the garden is hard to work or several gardeners struggle to bend over, you may want to consider raised beds. Often the soil is easier to work, there are fewer weeds, and you can construct beds to be of a height that’s easier to work for gardeners with limited mobility.
  • Cost. The cost of raised beds makes a garden much more expensive to build. If cost is a limiting factor, you may want consider amending the existing soil, rather than bringing in soil for a raised bed.
  • Reduced risk. In some areas of cities, soil contamination can be a factor. If you suspect high levels of heavy metals in your soil, building raised beds reduces your risk.
  • Existing soil quality. Sometimes soil in urban areas has been neglected and can take several growing seasons to rehabilitate. Importing soil from elsewhere can sometimes be a way to speed up the time to a productive vegetable garden.
  • Skilled labor. While they are not complicated structures, raised beds do require some construction skills. If your garden does not have volunteers with these skills, either reach out to the community for assistance, or build your garden in the ground.

Garden construction materials: Pros and cons

Once you decide to construct raised beds, the next question is: What you will construct them from? Some factors to take into account are:

Raised beds in a community garden built with stone

  • Aesthetics. How important is it to you how the garden looks? A garden in a public park may be under more scrutiny than one on private property.
  • Cost. Material costs can range from nothing for scavenged materials to several hundred or thousands of dollars for stone, cedar, or recycled plastic lumber.
  • Durability. Some of the less expensive options are less durable. If the labor to replace the garden will be harder to acquire than the money for materials, then it makes sense to invest more upfront.

Anything that holds soil above the ground will work for garden construction. Here is a list of common materials and some of their pros and cons.

  • Treated lumber. Today’s treated lumber is not made with arsenic, so it’s safe for vegetable gardens. It will last much longer than regular lumber, but it does cost more. Extra care should be taken when cutting the wood as the sawdust can be toxic. But once assembled, the wood is safe for the garden.
  • Cedar. Cedar has natural anti-rot properties that make it a long-lasting, beautiful addition to the garden. It is also very expensive and therefore cost-prohibitive for many garden groups.
  • Recycled plastic lumber. There are many types and brands of recycled plastic lumber that are appropriate for vegetable gardens. These materials will last a very long time, but they are also expensive. Check with your local lumber yard for options available in your area.
  • Fir/hemlock. Untreated fir/hemlock lumber will not last as long as other materials, but if the size purchased is at least two inches thick, it can last 10 years or longer. It is one of the least expensive options.
  • Stone. Stone will last forever and is beautiful. It is also very expensive. If you have an affordable source or can re-purpose some existing stone, this can be a great way to go.
  • Salvaged materials. Anything that can hold soil up in a mound and handle the weather can work as a raised bed: wine bottles, concrete blocks, etc.


Next...Amending the soil