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Raised Vegetable Garden Instructions

A raised vegetable garden has a number of advantages over conventional ground plots in many circumstances, such as good drainage, heat retention, improved yield from concentrated rich soils, and better space usage, to name a few.

They're ideal for areas with contaminated or very degraded soils.
You can read more about the advantages here.

There are many different ways you can build one, and you're really limited only by your imagination.

Materials can include everything from field stones and bricks to old slabs of concrete. Shapes and heights vary wildly and can be crafted to match whatever aesthetic design you're going for.

I recently completed a keyhole garden based on a popular model used by the Send A Cow charity in Africa.

A keyhole garden is a raised bed vegetable garden that looks a bit like like a keyhole when viewed from above because of a small walkway built into it.

The design is pretty simple: build a circle of whatever size fits your needs and fill it with great soil.

Raised Vegetable Overview

I decided to build one that, standing at the center of the keyhole in the recessed walkway, I can just about lean over and touch the far rock wall. This is convenient when it comes to caring for and harvesting my crops.

Send a cow puts a compost heap in the center (see the above shot), but decided to just build more planting area because I already have a compost bin 10 feet away.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step One: Plan

First, figure out exactly what your needs are and what you have on hand. I made use of free materials or things I had in storage for most of my project, and my only cost was $6 for some high quality organic manure.

I originally planed to use bricks scavenged from a building demolition site, but when I started fooling around with them I found it would require double the amount of bricks I had on hand unless I used concrete, so I changed my plans.

I decided to just dig up the large rocks scattered around my garden and the woods in back of the property. I live in rocky New England, so it wasn't a problem.

You can certainly buy finished stone, employ a stone mason, or sink endless hours and resources into this project, but I went with a technique that would produce a sturdy design in a minimal amount of time.

The whole thing probably took me eight hours with some help from my father, and I spent another hour or so adding a finished brick "walkway" to the back a few weeks later.

You'll want to pick a spot that gets a lot of sunlight. A minimum of six hours is best.

Realize that if you build on a hill like I did, you'll either need to level the ground or build your walls to compensate for the slope.

I opted for the later option.

Consider how tall you want your bed to be. I decided for three or four layers of large rocks and capped it there. You can see that send a cow uses larger walls, which has its advantages, but their walls appear considerably less sturdy to my layman eyes.

My wall could survive just about anything, but a taller wall with many smaller stones and no cement will crumble with a good shove.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Two: Measure, Clear and Level

Clear Vegetable GardenFirst, mark off your center spot with a stake. Measure a circumference around the stake based on your desired size and mark it in the dirt.

You can mark off the dimensions easily using a measured piece of string tied to the center stake at one end and a second unburied stake at the other. Use the unburied steak to trace the line.

I ended up using the length of my arm as a basis for the circumference and added a few inches, but it's up to you.

At some part of the circle, measure two or three feet of the edge and mark it off. Draw a straight line from both ends of this to the center, or make a different design that you like. This will be your keyhole walk way.

Optional Step:

Dig down at least a foot and take out all the roots, rocks, etc out of this area. This takes time but helps you with getting an even surface and lessens the chance of roots growing up into your raised bed. 

Even if you don't do the above step, the land should at least be relatively flat, even if you choose not to level it. After doing your work, stamp it down.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Three: Gather Your Materials

Raised Vegetable Garden Gather Materials At this point I headed out into the woods with a rake and shovel and started prying rocks out of the earth. It was early spring and there wasn't much vegetation, so it was pretty easy. I realize not all areas will have the abundant rock resources Connecticut has, but I assure you they're usually more of a curse than a resource.

You can always buy stone, scavenge brick, or use whatever other material you think might work. Think cheap and abundant.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Four: Make A Trench

Raised Vegetable Garden DigThis step could possibly be bypassed, but I figured it would add to the structural integrity of my raised bed.

I dug a shallow trench along the circumference of my circle and placed my flatest stones in it. This provided a stable base for the rest of my wall.

The picture to the left shows you what I actually ended up doing.

The image below is of my failed attempt to use bricks. I realized at around that point that I lacked enough bricks to make a really sturdy raised vegetable garden, but you can see how I was dug a trench for my bricks and buried them partially.

Rasied Bed Vegetable Garden Bricks

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Five: Start Stacking

Raised Vegetable Garden Stack 1Now it's all about stacking. If you're dealing with small boulders like me, it can be quite an enjoyably exhausting workout.

It may take some time to find the right rock for each spot, but when you've crafted a sturdy raised bed planter that's not going anywhere, you'll be pleased with the time you took.

Raised Vegetable Garden Build Two

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Six: Put In A Floor

This is an optional step, really, but it can be important. If you have polluted soil underneath your raised bed or something like pavement, you'll want to seal your dirt off from it. You could use stone or wood for a fairly permenant choice, or, like me, go with cardboard. Cardboard should last a few years and keep weeds in the ground from infiltrating your rich soil. When the cardboard does decay, it will only enrich your soil further.

Raised Vegetable Garaden CardboardNote, you could apply the cardboard a bit thicker than this photo shows.

At this point I also added an extra liner I had from a previous project. It was completely extraneous, but I figured it may help keep the dirt in. If you don't have one of these. It shouldn't matter at all.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Seven: Build The Back

Raised Vegetable Garden Back BricksYou can just as easily build the back out of whatever material you used for the front, but I opted to switch to bricks because I was building on a hill and I didn't need to build as high.

They were also easier to set into the ground for the tighter quarters of the keyhole walkway. You can see that I buried part of them in the ground.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Eight: Shovel In The Dirt

Raised Vegetable Garden Soil ShovelI filled my garden with 80 pounds of organic cow manure I bought for $6, a random 30-pound bag of organic top soil I had lying around, some peat moss, and the rest was organic compost made from vegetation, wood, leaves, grass, food scraps, etc. Just mix it up and shovel it in.

It's a very rich combo, and it  yields some tasty vegetables.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Nine: Getting Fancy

Raised Vegetable Garden Getting FancyIf you have the time and inclination, you can add something fancy like a stone or brick walkway in your keyhole and a double back wall.

Raised Vegetable Garden Step Ten: Plant

Raised Vegetable Garden Growing

Plant whatever you please. The shot above is from early spring the year after I made the garden. At that point I'd only planted a quarter of it with several varieties of lettuce.

As you can see, I added wooden poles and netting because a rampaging deer decided my vegetables were more tasty than whatever it was eating in the forest.

I've had this garden for several years now and it always produces and abundant harvest.

Raised Vegetable Garden: Following Up

Watch my video about this keyhole garden here. It also appears in a lettuce-growing video here.

Read more about growing organic produce in situations like this raised vegetable garden.

Learn about adopting a healthy raw food diet here.

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