Converting Lawn into a Vegetable Garden with Raised Beds
Do you have an unused patch of your world that’s screaming to be turned into a veggie garden? Don’t make the mistake of throwing away all your turf and bringing in brand new soil. This project is about converting nutrient-rich lawn into the most productive vegetable garden in town!
This project covers how to build a raised bed from a gardener’s perspective. There are many plans on building the structure of a raised bed, so this will cover materials, location and soil requirements, plus planting and maintaining a veggie garden.
The most important step in building a vegetable garden is to choose the right spot. Most veggies require 8-12 hours of full sun to produce abundantly so you want to make sure your veggie garden is located in the sunniest part of your yard.
Being close to your outdoor water source is another consideration you will be happy you incorporated come summer when the hot, dry days can mean daily watering is required.
photo courtesy of Victory Gardens
Lumber / Materials
Do. Not. Use. Treated. Lumber. OK good, now you get that this is important. Treated lumber contains chemicals that should not be consumed. They will leach into the soil and be absorbed by the plants, making the food toxic as well. There are some companies that are now making less toxic treated lumber but I would stay away from it. If you choose to use wood, build an organic garden with untreated cedar for best results.
Old bricks and other found materials also make a great raised bed as seen in the photos here. I have 2 beds, one with 150 year-old railway ties that I was given and the other with new cedar. Found materials make the most interesting beds but new materials can look pretty great as well.
photo courtesy of Victory Gardens
You can build a raised bed on an existing lawn or concrete patch. Just ensure you have at least 12”-18” height on a lawn and 18”-24” height on concrete to allow lots of room for roots, water, and soil organisms to share the space.
Beds can be any width and length that fits your space and growing needs. A good rule of thumb for width is that you should be able to reach to the middle from each side. Any wider and you won’t be able to work on the bed without stepping into it (and you should really stay out of the bed to not compact roots and soil).
Choose the square footage based on what you want to grow for your family. One square foot of garden will grow 1 tomato plant; 1 head of broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage; 16 beets or carrots; or 4-9 heads of lettuce or spinach (for example). Choose the garden bed size based on how much and what you want to grow. All New Square Foot Gardening is great book for helping you lay out a garden plan.
Building the Soil
If you are turning your organic lawn into a garden bed, YAY!, you have a great source of natural fertilizer to use (if you have treated your lawn with fertilizers or pesticides skip this step and remove the turf to the city’s green waste bins). Untreated turf grass makes great base for your raised bed. Remove the turf from the area and set aside. After you build your bed, flip the turf roots side up in the base of the bed. Cover with some newspaper and top with high quality veggie garden soil or compost.
When building a raised bed on concrete or stone, drainage shouldn’t be a problem in most cases when you build a box with no bottom. In areas where there are heavy rains and water is not flowing through the bottom, drill a couple of drain holes near the bottom of the sides. Fill will high quality veggie garden soil or compost and you are ready to plant.
Choosing what veggies you love will be the basis of your garden plan. Make a list of everything you want to grow then head down to your local nursery and buy seeds or veggie starts suited for your area.
When planting multiple varieties of veggies in one bed, Place tall vining plants like tomatoes, peas, beans, and cucumbers at the back of the bed, supported by stakes or trellises. Next plant large vegetables like squash and then plant smaller veggies like basil, peppers and eggplant in front. I like to tuck compact bunches of green onions, marigolds, and herbs all around the garden bed to ward off pests and efficiently use the space.
Be sure to space plants for the size they will be full grown so they have lots of room to mature. Spacing information should be available on seed packets or on plant labels.
Crop Rotation and Companion Planting
Crop Rotation is an important factor in vegetable growing. Planting one kind of veggie year after year in the same place will reduce nutrients from the soil and encourage pests. Changing they types of plants so that one grouping is grown only every 3 years is a good place to start. For example, try cabbage, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower with celery, dill, chamomile, rosemary, sage, onions and potatoes one year. Year two grow beans, cucumber, peas, radishes, corn and melons. Year three grow tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplants, squash, carrots, parsley and chives. Carrots Love Tomatoes is a fabulous book that covers everything you ever wanted to know about companion planting vegetables.
Seeds vs. Starts
Depending on the time of year and type of plant you may choose to start seeds
or buy vegetable starts. Planning your garden in the winter or spring means many plants will most likely be started from seed. Also many unique heirloom varieties can only be found in seed catalogues. Have a look through the many articles in the Seed Starting Series for the basis on how to do it yourself. In late spring and summer, starts are widely available and an easy way to get an instant vegetable garden. Varieties are limited but generally what’s available is tried and true, good for a first year veggie gardener.
Maintaining the Garden
Once the bed is built and planted, maintenance is the name of the game. Make an effort to check on the garden every few days. Inspect the plants and pull weeds when you see them. Check if the garden needs watering by sticking your finger all the way into the soil to check if it’s cool and wet (has enough water) or warm and dry (needs water). Putter. Munch. Enjoy. The garden is there to feed you, body and soul. Have fun with it.
photo courtesy of Victory Gardens
For more information on vegetable gardening in all seasons, check out The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live. It has some great projects as well for adding to your raised bed like hoop greenhouses and trellises.
Or if you live in Vancouver and want to start a veggie garden but don’t have the time, my friends over at Victory Gardens will build one for you and teach you how to work it. A special thanks to the fabulous farmers over there who shared their beautiful raised bed photos with me.