Thinking Inside the Box Some More

Monday, November 29th, 2010

This is a continuation from a previous post on the wood boxes we made to contain the kitchen garden beds.

Once the box is constructed, you’ll want to put it in place. We’re fortunate in that the concrete walk, the patio, and the fence create lots of square edges and right angles, and the surface was already fairly level. We decided to locate the first box by the garage door and situate the rest of the boxes using it as a starting point – originally, we had a bed directly opposite the door and it made circulation so tight that we decided this was the most important part to get right in the new plan. (If you don’t have straight edges to work off of, I suggest laying out the box locations using stakes and string first – believe me when I say moving those around is easier than moving boxes.)

A Word (or Two) of Caution

You’re going to need a level site before you start permanently placing the boxes – it makes levelling the boxes themselves so much easier. It doesn’t have to be perfect though – within an inch or so – because if you’re using pea gravel or bark mulch for the path, you can increase the thickness to hide any gaps where the box bottom meets the ground; the most important connection is between the boxes themselves.

Because It’s All About the Connection

Using a level is a good place to start but make sure it looks straight to the eye as well. Using a level is a good place to start but make sure it looks straight to the eye as well.

Once you’re happy with the first box, it’s time to move on. Assuming that you’ve already sketched out the garden plan (you did do that, right?), you’ll know how much path space you’ll want to leave between the boxes – in our case, we took what was left over after locating two 4 ft. by 4 ft. (inside dimension) beds in a 10 ft. wide space. Then, after setting the boxes equidistant apart, we set about trying to get them level with each other, either by packing soil under the corners to raise the box or by trenching underneath to lower it. Warning: This can be the frustrating part! Sometimes it can feel like you’re going around in circles. But take a breath and remember that neither Rome nor Versailles were built in a day – and they had slaves to do the hard part!

Once we got the first two boxes done, we set up a system where I would shovel soil into the box and my slave husband would double-check that the box hadn’t moved (remember: we didn’t stake our boxes in place). Because I don’t do much digging over in the spring and, therefore, don’t shift the soil very much, I figure the weight of the soil will hold the boxes in place fairly well.

Raw Food Might Be Good But Raw Wood, Not So Much

2010 More Refined Garden

2010 More Refined Garden

If we hadn’t been so eager to get the boxes constructed and installed, we’d have stained them first. Who knew the sight of so much raw wood would bother us so much though? It just made the garden feel so Basic Handyman in style, not at all the polished, professional appearance I’d hoped it would project! So we toddled off to the big box store and picked up a can of dark, semi-transparent exterior stain, and then attempted to get all the wood stained before it rained (we were unsuccessful and, if you look closely, you can see some streaking). But next year will be soon enough for another coat.



Thinking Inside the Box a Little More

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

This is a continuation from a previous post on the wood boxes we made to contain the kitchen garden beds.

What Not To Do

Although they weren’t difficult to build, I’ve been asked to specify how the boxes were constructed but, first, this disclaimer:

I’ve been a garden design professional for about 20 years and what I do in my own garden isn’t what I do in my clients’ gardens. In my own garden, because I know the risks, I take shortcuts that I would never take in someone else’s garden. For example, these beds are constructed from the cheapest 2×10 lumber we could find and not staked in place. This is because we currently live in a rental house and, by extension, this garden is temporary. I don’t need these beds to last beyond a few years and, when/if we eventually move, we might be required to convert the garden back to lawn so the beds need to be easily removable. If you don’t have these same considerations, use a naturally weather resistant wood like cedar and secure the corners of the beds in place with 2×4 stakes.

How To Build a Box (…because it can get more complicated than you’d think)


Click on image to enlarge it. Click on image to enlarge my first-ever attempt at Google Sketchup.


The first step is to calculate how big you want the bed. My favorite dimension is a 4 ft. x 4 ft. square  with a soil depth of 10 to 12 inches but, in this case, I had to lop a corner off of each square which meant a little fiddling with cutting angles. (This calculation I left up to my 20-years-in-construction husband and, if you want to know how he figured it, let me know in the ‘Comment’ section.) If you aren’t doing any angle cuts and are just building a square box, you can simply construct a butt joint at the corners. (A butt joint is when you take two pieces of wood and ‘butt’ them together at right angles. More than you ever need to know about the butt joint can be found here.) Regardless of what kind of joint or angle you have, use at least two galvanized screws to hold it all together (a galvanized screw won’t rust and bleed orange stains down your box).

Next post…laying it all out.

Thinking Inside the Box

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

This year’s kitchen garden was very different from last year’s…

2009 Wild Child of a Garden

2009 Wild Child of a Garden

2010 More Refined Garden

2010 More Refined Garden

See what I mean? The first one was always getting out of hand – weeds filled the clay-hard dirt paths, the mounded beds that I’d painstakingly sculptured never showed a clear delineation of their edges, and the metal spirals were inadequate supports for the fruit-laden tomato plants, always listing drunkenly askew.

Now For a Little Design Chat

The design elements I incorporated this year radically changed the appearance and maintenance of the garden.

The bamboo supports more than meet the weighty demands of indeterminate tomato plants and provide a sense of definition to the kitchen garden ‘room’.

The pea gravel, layered on top of landscape fabric, provides a dry surface to walk on (unlike last year’s muddy skin) and, while I had to weed a couple of times along the edges, it was wholly unlike last year’s epic battle against the unwanted. The pea gravel path also provides a uniform background to the vegetable foliage which both highlights the greenery through contrasting texture and color, and ties the various plantings together.

But the wood boxes are what really defined the garden this year. They crisply sculpture the garden and bring a sense of order to last year’s vegetal chaos. Because I don’t plant in rows and I have a lot of different kinds of plants in a very small space, unless the beds are kept contained, the whole thing can quickly look like a mess. But a lush abundance of plants, edged in a single containing material, I think creates a lovely perfect tension between human control and natural exuberance.

So, in case you too would like this “lovely perfect tension between human control and natural exuberance” in your own garden, stay tuned for my next post on how to build a box.