Planter Boxes Made Easy

Want to grow the healthiest vegetables you’ve ever eaten? Use this simple technique with straw and hay to yield amazing results.

20130408_170103When we started considering installing raised garden boxes around our property we had no idea which method to use. In fact, we were actually over saturated with information on every conceivable design and raised bed soil blend known to human kind. With so many options, we couldn’t decide which way to go until our good friend Betty Diehl, she of the amazing green thumb, came to our rescue. A few years back, Betty had helped us convert a section of our backyard from lawn to low-water plantings, based on a layering of alfalfa and straw, that had worked wonders on our old clay soil and reconditioned a huge area with practically no effort. She suggested we use this same procedure in our garden boxes and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Crazily, you can actually apply these garden boxes to concrete (or apartment balcony, for example) and they’ll still produce awesome eats! So, without further delay, here is our no-fail recipe for raised garden success!

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You’ll need:

1. Lumber for building a garden box in your desired size. We use 2″ x 6″ x (whatever length you want your sides) pine boards with 4″ x 4″ posts to bolt them together.
2. Screws or nails for fastening the lumber together.
3. Cardboard or newspaper.
4. Alfalfa and straw (available at any feed supply store). Half bail of each will suffice.
5. Blood meal and bone meal (available at any garden supply store).
6. Soil (either from your garden or buy a couple bags at your local garden center.
7. Plants or seeds to start them (duh).

A few helpful tips and tricks.

  • For the lumber, we usually go to the remnants section of our closest Home Depot and scrounge up enough wood to build our boxes. You can pay them a mere 10 cents per cut and they’ll do all the sawing!
  • Don’t get too fancy and think you have to buy weather resistant types of wood. We use simple pine boards, which last, well… they’re actually still going and it’s been over six growing seasons for some of our boxes.
  • Don’t overbuild on the height of your boxes. 12″ is plenty of height for growing great produce. Remember, the higher you build, the deeper the box, meaning more soil to fill it.
  • Purchase full bales of straw and alfalfa, which brings the costs WAY down. You can use whatever you don’t put into your boxes as mulch all over your property or, better yet, store it out in the open to use next season.

20130329_174010OK, so you’ve gotten your materials and are ready to go. The first step is obviously building your box. We like to build 4′ x 4′ square and 12″ deep, but really, any size will depend on where you want to put it. We are now up to 8 boxes total, a couple as small as 2′ x 4′, which we use for herbs. Once built, maneuver your box into a sunny place in your garden.

Once in place, take your cardboard and cover every inch of visible ground inside your box. Don’t be afraid to layer the cardboard liberally. If you don’t have cardboard handy, newspaper will suffice, but make sure there is a thick covering over the ground that will prevent weeds from working through. On top of the cardboard or newspaper, place 4″-6″ of your alfalfa, breaking it up as necessary to fill the entire empty space. Now, add straw all the up to – maybe even a little over – the top of your box. Take your blood and bone meal and sprinkle over the top of the straw, again being generous with the amount, and finally top everything off with a heaping of garden soil, just enough to cover the straw (it will compact down as you add the soil). Give everything a good watering for a couple of days. Add more soil if it compacts down below the top edge of your box.

Now, it’s time to plant! If you are using seedlings or slightly mature plantings, dig down into the soil and part the straw enough to insert your new guests, then slightly press down and cover over any straw poking out. Again, plant the seedling INTO THE STRAW. Continue until you’ve place all your prospective tenants, making sure to allow space where necessary to accommodate their eventual growth. Give a light watering, step back, and admire your handiwork. If you live in a particularly hot climate, give your box a light watering once per day, preferably in the morning. Milder zones, such as those near the coast, can get away with every 2-3 days watering, and you can always rely on the plants themselves to let you know if they’re parched. Wa-lah – within just a few short weeks you’ll be dining on fresh greens that’ll put your local supermarket to shame! As a bonus, once your growing season is done, you can remove the composted soil from your box and add it anywhere in your garden to supercharge the soil. Or simply repeat the layering process again next season on top of what’s left.

Dealing with bugs…

No matter where you place your garden boxes, you’ll have to deal with insects at some point. Earwigs, pill bugs, slugs, and a multitude of other unwanted guests will see your new project as prime feeding grounds and it’s quite a bummer to come out in the morning and see your poor plants eaten away (and not by you). We have solved the bug problem in two ways. The first is to bury tuna cans filled with beer among the plants, which draws in snails, slugs, and pill bugs each night and drowns them. For earwigs, you can also do the same thing with tuna cans, except substituting vegetable oil and a few drops of soy sauce in place of beer. The second way we repel pests is to make our own insecticidal soap and spray it on the plants each day until the pests are gone. Simply take two tablespoons of Dr. Bronner’s liquid peppermint soap and mix with water in a sprayer and apply to infested areas. You can find more insecticidal soap recipes in another post here.