Setting up and enclosing raised beds for a first-time gardener?
January 23, 2017 8:05 PM   Subscribe

I recently moved to the suburbs (zone 7A) and am looking to start gardening in raised beds. How tall should they be? Also, we have a bunch of fauna in the yard, so I'm thinking we need to enclose the beds. What's the best way to do that?

We're in the NYC suburbs in zone 7A. I see raised bed kits in a number of heights - 7", 11", 16". Clearly the taller it is, the more soil I'm going to have to buy. In one of my gardening books they say to till the soil maybe 8" beneath the ground so you can get more use out of it. Is that a good idea, and if so, what's a good size height for raised beds?

Our yard has rabbits, birds (a lot of blue jays, interestingly), squirrels, woodchucks, and the occasional deer. I've read about planting things to keep some of the animals away, but I think we need some real fencing to keep our the rabbits. A giant enclosure like this seems like overkill, so I'm not sure where to go from here. My wife wants something that's at least marginally attractive to look at, so I think just chicken wire wouldn't really work. So what's a better solution?

Side note: I can't find much about squirrels being a pest to gardens, but they're all over the place. I'd imagine they can climb up most fencing, so do I need to worry about them - and if so, how do I combat them? (Shooting them is not an option, sorry.)
posted by gchucky to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want beds with sides vs. just digging up some grass and making beds that are at ground level? If your soil is decent and reasonably well-drained, you can save yourself the expense of buying a kit and a bunch of soil by just digging up some rectangles and adding manure or compost.

If you really want sides, seven inches should be high enough if the existing soil is okay. And you may not even need to buy additional soil. By the time you loosen and turn over the soil that's there and dig in some manure or compost you'll find that the soil in your bed is already mounded up higher than the surrounding ground. There should be room in the bed to add more soil if you want to, but probably no need for it. (Unless your existing soil is really bad or you're putting the beds in a swampy spot.)

Fencing out the animals is going to be hard. You're going to need to provide access for yourself and it's going to be tough to make a gate that doesn't have any little spaces a rabbit or woodchuck can slip through. And of course squirrels can climb over. Deer can jump a fence unless it's about 8 feet high. I'm afraid I don't have any easy, attractive solutions to suggest.

I think squirrels could end up being a problem for you. I could see them going after things like tomatoes. But my guess is that they wouldn't be a huge problem. Probably one reason you haven't found much about squirrels as garden pests is that most vegetable gardens are in open areas away from trees. Your comment that squirrels are "all over the place" implies there might be a lot of trees around your house. Are you sure you have enough sun to grow vegetables? You'll want to be sure of that before you put a lot of money into raised beds.
posted by Redstart at 8:39 PM on January 23, 2017

I'm not super (or really at all) experienced, having done raised beds the last two years, but got advice and hands on help from someone who knew what they were doing to set up. 7" is plenty for everything I grew (zuchini, string beans, peas, tomatoes, etc.)

For animals, on advice I bought bamboo skewers--you know, the ones for kebab'ing at 99 cents for a hundred--and stuck them in at random angles so approaches to my vegetables looked like an obstacle strewn Normandy beach. Seemed to work against birds and squirrels, as the section I didn't protect was nibbled at.

There are fancier and slightly pricier things to do to enclose a whole bed in wire.
posted by mark k at 8:40 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

The only real reasons to have anything higher than 6-8" is if you have trouble bending over. I made my raised beds 16" and honestly it's kind of overkill. And every year the soil settles down and I have to buy another 10 cubic feet.

Squirrels are funny and there's a lot of stuff they don't eat. I have squirrels and they've never really touched our kale or english peas. heck, I find peanuts buried in our garden beds. But yeah, they might very well eat your stuff. maybe grown some garlic as well.
posted by GuyZero at 8:59 PM on January 23, 2017

I use raised beds primarily because I have a bad back, but I only made them 12". Make sure they aren't more than 18 inches from each accessible side (so 3 feet total width) and less if you are shorter than average, since you aren't supposed to walk in them and bending over stinks.

Make sure to use two layers of overlapping cardboard underneath so weeds don't shoot up into the bed.
posted by flimflam at 10:40 PM on January 23, 2017

The main reason I do higher raised beds is so I can place seating around them so I want my seat top between 17½" and 20". I usually go to a roofing manufacturer and ask them to bend corrugated roofing so it looks sorta like this , I then use an off-the-shelf clip to put solid timber seats on top. Where I don't have seating I cut a garden hose open to provide protection from the sharp edge.

It is very worthwhile breaking up the soil beneath the planter but I wouldn't go so far as to till it; deep rooting plants will break it up for you.

As for pests I'd use a mesh electric fence e.g. - I know nothing about US fence systems but I've used several NZ systems - most systems are designed to be wound up onto a vertical reel and run off a car battery or small solar unit about a foot square. A friend of mine built a system of electric wires across a wastewater pond here in NZ to keep birds out of the water - very effective.
posted by unearthed at 1:27 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you have more than the occasional deer - and many NYC suburbs have very dense deer populations - you're going to have to pretty aggressively fence things.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:46 AM on January 24, 2017

I don't like raised beds; I've found that when people say well-draining they mean 'I hope you like dragging hoses around.'

At the moment my 'raised beds' are enclosed by cedar 2x4s but that's just for fancy-ness sake and the desire to define the space. You still want to amend the soil and dig it in before planting whether you do more than that depends on some lifestyle factors, like whether you'd have to drag a hose four feet or forty feet.

What you need to enclose depends on first what you plant. I've found movable solutions work best for me, so I can drag the lettuce dome thing over to the whatever after the lettuce is done. I haven't found a perfect way to make such things, have done various things with netting and chicken wires but not everything needs to be protected all of the time
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:21 AM on January 24, 2017

I participate in a community garden in zone 7A in the NYC suburbs. Our raised beds are 8" deep, except for the ones that are deliberately higher for wheelchair use. Our whole garden is enclosed by 7' or 8' deer fencing, with an entry gate. One deer can render all of your work pointless in a few minutes of munching, so it's important to keep them out. The deer fencing will also keep out rabbits.

I garden at home too, where there are squirrels, and they never eat anything. They do dig in fresh dirt, so they can uproot your plantings. I deter them by mulching with straw so they don't see the dirt.

In this area we have a drought and there are water restrictions in place, so if you can get a rain collection barrel to collect water off of your roof and connect hoses to it, you'll be in good shape for the coming growing season.
posted by xo at 5:50 AM on January 24, 2017

If i could do it again! When I dug up all that dirt and put my beds in place, I would put fine mesh at the bottom of the bed and put the dirt back in over the top. Your plants roots will be able to get through, but rabbits and groundhogs (Ask me how much groundhogs like carrots and fennel!) won't be able to burrow up from the bottom.

Squirrels are jerks. If your plants go to seed or you grow anything with berries, they will eat them. If you have bulbs, they will lop the heads off the bulbs. I don't know why. If you want something lower key, you can use bird netting. If you're feeling fancy, you can put hoops up to keep the netting off the plants.

Honestly, I take my morning coffee and wander through the yard and check to see if anything looks amiss, and then I can adjust before it gets too out of hand. I accept that sometimes I'm going to pay a chipmunk tax. You're on their turf.
posted by Bistyfrass at 9:07 AM on January 24, 2017

Seconding Bistyfrass on the mesh bottoms for the bed.

When I put my new raised beds in last year I used a 50% coir 25% mixed compost 25% perlite fill with a few lbs of lime mixed in and it was my most successful gardening endeavor yet. During planting I added a handful of Milorganite worked into the soil around around the plant.
posted by Dr. Twist at 1:33 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I made a series of 4' x 8' raised beds, then bought some lengths of PVC pipe and stuck the ends into the corners of the beds to make an arch at each end of the bed. I drape good quality nylon mesh pond netting over the arches. This keeps the critters (cats and birds) out.

The bed sides were made with 10x2s, waterproofed, with metal corners I bought at Gardener's Supply. I've piled wood chip mulch around the outsides to the point where the sides are only five inches above the surface. Every spring I add the potting soil from the previous summer's containers and buy new. When you put good soil on top of bad (or even mediocre), it attracts worms. Worms cultivate the good soil into the underlying layers, so you start out with a depth of 8 inches of good soil, but you eventually end up with 15 inches depth.
posted by caryatid at 11:06 AM on February 2, 2017

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