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How (Not) to Build a Garden Box: An Absolute Beginner Guide

Olivia is a writer, editor, and novice gardener. She enjoys documenting her plant-based lifestyle journey and helping others take the leap!

how-not-to-build-a-garden-box-an-absolute-beginner-guide

For the first time in my adult life, I have a yard. Since relocating from the cement-covered city blocks of San Francisco to Portland, I now entertain cozy homesteading fantasies set against the lush Pacific Northwest backdrop. The surrounding greenery serves as further inspiration to test out my own green thumb. Giddy over the possibility of tending to living things and growing my own food, I decided to build a garden box. How hard could it be?

A Preview of What’s Inside

The intent of this article is equal parts instructional and cautionary. My experience building a garden box wasn’t as straightforward as some how-to articles lead readers to believe. Too many hiccups and hurdles for first-timers get overlooked (and oversimplified). Here is an honest and comprehensive look at what to consider when building a garden box. Find the following in this article:

  • What is a Garden Box?
  • Benefits of Garden Boxes
  • Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Garden Box
  • Things to Consider When Planning a Build
  • Garden Box Q&A
  • Garden Box Supply Checklist
  • Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Garden Box
  • Final Tips for Building a Garden Box
how-not-to-build-a-garden-box-an-absolute-beginner-guide

What is a Garden Box?

Before detailing each failure and flourish along the path from growing weeds to becoming an expert gardener, let’s go over the basics. Garden box is another term for a raised garden bed, which is what it sounds like—a gardening method involving planting flowers and/or vegetables within an enclosed space sitting atop the ground.

Typically, garden boxes are made out of wood or metal, but almost any building material will get the job done. A little creativity and resourcefulness can go a long way in keeping your pockets padded. We’ll talk more about material considerations in a bit.

Why Use Garden Boxes?

There are many benefits to using raised beds for gardening, ranging from aesthetic quality to functionality. The chart below provides a quick list of reasons for planting in garden boxes:

Benefits of Garden Boxes

  • Soil Quality
  • Pest Control
  • Drainage
  • Prolonged Growing Season
  • Visual Appeal
  • Minimize Back and Joint Pain
  • Temporary/Portable
  • Beginner Friendly

Garden boxes are especially useful when living in an area lacking nutrient-dense soil or with soil contaminated by heavy metals as is common in urban areas. Testing native soil (the stuff that’s already in your yard) to be sure it is toxin-free and nutrient-balanced can be costly and time-consuming.

Skipping the scientific and bureaucratic hassle of undergoing a lab analysis on dirt is great but garden boxes also allow the gardener to exercise more control over what exactly is in their garden by using soil that will be optimal for the plants—think texture, density, drainage, compost ratios, etc.

Soil queries aside, garden boxes also help prevent weeds and pests from overtaking the crop. Though garden boxes don’t typically have a hard bottom, lining the bottom with landscape fabric can prevent ground burrowing pests and pesky weeds from causing problems while still allowing ample drainage. Garden boxes keep things contained, clearly delineating what has been planted intentionally from whatever just so happens to be growing on the property.

Since garden boxes increase efficiency in drainage and temperature regulation (they warm up relatively quickly), using garden boxes can prolong the growing season. Gardeners can plant earlier in the spring.

There’s also the body to consider. Tending to plants raised off the ground is much easier on the back, knees, and joints. Utilizing raised bed gardens can prevent injuries associated with bending over for sustained periods.

Another, perhaps more obvious benefit of garden boxes is their visual appeal. Incorporating garden boxes can add property value. Garden boxes are even renter-friendly as they can be removed or transported with little to no residual consequence.

Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Garden Box

When beginning my garden box journey, I had every reason for wanting a garden box but didn’t know much about the process involved in making my vision a reality. I ran into several unexpected problems while building my first garden box in every stage from conception through completion.

Perhaps reading my wince-worthy tale of a newbie DIYer navigating the world of lumber yards and power tools might offer a sense of camaraderie for fellow first-timers or at least alleviate fears of making a mistake (or two). Here goes nothing!

Mistake 1: Biting Off More than I Could Build

Initially, I planned on building three boxes that would take up the length of my yard. I spent a good deal of time researching which plants enjoy each other's company and which to avoid making neighbors, but that’s another article entirely!

With lofty plans and general measurements in mind, I moved onto the supply gathering portion of the project, where it became overwhelmingly apparent just how naive my initial plans had been.

Armed with a tape measure and a dream, I donned my best Bob the Builder cosplay and headed to the local lumber yard. The first sign of trouble was the jam-packed parking lot. With spring freshly in the air after a long, solitary winter, plenty of other folks were geared up for home (and garden) improvement projects too.

It was a madhouse inside. The smell of fresh-cut wood was intoxicating, but the rush of pushcarts piled high with various beams and boards was downright dizzying. Walking into a male-dominated space as a novice can be intimidating.

Overwhelmed by the process, I decided on the spot to scale back the project. After all, I wasn’t starting a farm (yet). I decided to begin with a single 4x4 garden box.

My initial plan for three large garden boxes would eventually be revised to a single 4x4 box once I determined the wood cost. Seeing this mockup now makes me smile at my initial bravado.

My initial plan for three large garden boxes would eventually be revised to a single 4x4 box once I determined the wood cost. Seeing this mockup now makes me smile at my initial bravado.

Mistake 2: Missing the Mark (Failing to Consider the Cost)

After taking a lap around the lumber yard and surveying my options, I began to pile my pushcart with cedar boards since cedar is rot-resistant and long-lasting—more about wood type later.

I wasn’t prepared for the price point. I hadn’t bothered to set a budget, assuming that building it myself would be cheap. Otherwise, why not just buy a premade garden box online or go to one of the big-box home improvement centers and purchase a ready-made kit?

When the aloof, older gentleman working the register rattled off a total exceeding $200, imagine my shock. I panicked and silently fumbled with my wallet.

I miscalculated. I had selected lumber priced by the foot, not the board. Yes, this is likely super obvious to seasoned builders, but I was completely naive to the price of lumber.

I ended up settling for a box of 2.5-inch deck screws and four 2x2 stakes before retreating to the car. I drove home to regroup and rethink my plans.

After poking around a few building material reuse centers and scrolling through the free section of Craigslist, I went back to the lumber yard on a weekday when things were less frantic. With the help of an employee who was a bit more forthcoming than that original cashier, I found a sale section out front that had pre-cut cedar boards priced per unit. The boards had some splits and warps but were in fine condition for constructing a simple garden box.

Hopefully, my mistake can save others some embarrassment. Look closely at pricing to determine if a product is sold per unit or some other metric—like length or weight!

Mistake 3: The Power Tool Learning Curve

With everything I needed safely transported home, it was time to build. Ok, I hadn’t actually used the drill before. With trial and error (learning about torque control, the difference between the drill and the impact driver, and an onslaught of new vocabulary—ahem, chuck), I managed to get all but one of the screws snuggly flush with the wood.

Mistake 4: A Knot So Smooth Finish

The problem screw? Well, I was trying to drill into a knot in the wood. As it turns out, knots are hardened bits of wood and should be avoided. The solution? Simple—I moved the screw placement so as not to interfere with the knot. Voila! I had my very own garden box.

With the garden box built, the rest was smooth sailing. I filled the box with three parts soil and one part compost then planted the veggie starters in neat little rows. For a complete lowdown on the process, see the step-by-step instructions further on in the article.

Things to Consider When Building a Garden Box

While I found experience to be the best teacher when building my first garden box, learning a thing or two from my mistakes might be helpful. Before beginning a build, consider the following aspects of the project:

  • Size
  • Materials
  • Cost
  • Longevity
  • Location

With these general considerations in mind, there are so many questions I wish I had the answers to (or at least known to ask) before getting started on building a garden box. Let’s answer some of them here:

What Kind of Wood is Good for Raised Beds?

There are two main factors to consider when thinking about what kind of wood to use for building a garden box—longevity and cost. Longer-lasting, rot-resistant-wood is more expensive. Think about whether you want a garden box to last a generation or just need to get a single growing season or two out of it.

For example, using pine is a more inexpensive option but will deteriorate in the elements. Cedar, as I mentioned earlier, is rot-resistant. There’s no need to worry about upkeep or replacement, but it will cost more upfront.

Regardless of wood type, get untreated wood to avoid chemicals leaching into your vegetables.

How Much Does Building a Garden Box Cost?

Like everything else, the cost of building a garden box will vary depending on supplies and region. However, consider a budget before building. I set out to build during the pandemic when lumber prices skyrocketed due to lumber mill shutdowns and increased demand. This wasn’t ideal and I certainly hadn’t planned for it.

Honestly, I’d never so much as considered the price of lumber or its fluctuation. Now I have an added sense of appreciation each time I pass a garden box while walking through my neighborhood.

To combat too hefty a cost, I recommend researching local suppliers. Does your area have a scrap yard or building material reuse center? Check Craigslist to see if anyone is giving extra materials away.

Remember, if you are picking up scrap materials on the cheap it is good to keep wood type in mind and whether it has been treated—again, nobody wants toxins leaching into veggies grown for consumption.

What Do You Fill Raised Beds With?

Filling a garden box is largely dependent on what is being grown and the resources available. If living in an area with nutrient-dense soil, go ahead and fill it up right there from the yard. Maybe there’s a local farm or garden center unloading bulk soil for a fair price. The beauty of a garden box is that you can exercise control over what exactly is in it. Just don’t forget the compost! For reference, I used a 3:1 ratio of soil to compost.

how-not-to-build-a-garden-box-an-absolute-beginner-guide

Garden Box Supply Checklist

It is time to talk supplies. Here is what I used to build one 4x4 garden box:

  • Two 8ft long 2x12 planks of cedar (I had these cut in half at the lumber yard to become four 4ft long 2x12 planks)
  • A drill
  • A box of 2.5-inch deck screws
  • Three 3-cubic ft bags of soil (9 cubic ft total)
  • Two 1.5-cubic ft bag of compost (3 cubic ft total)
  • Gloves
  • Safety goggles
  • Measuring tape

How to Build a Garden Box Step-by-Step

  1. Make a plan. Consider what you want to plant, the location of the garden box (full sun, partial shade, etc.), dimensions, wood type, and budget. Remember to be flexible. The beauty of making plans is that they can (and likely will) change!
  2. Gather supplies. Maybe you already have a box of screws lying around the garage. Take inventory of what you have and what you need. Feel free to take another look at my supply list for inspiration.
  3. Prepare the area. Level out the ground where the garden box will be and weed the immediate area. A nice, level starting point will help the build process go smoothly.
  4. Stake out the corners. It is a good idea to use the side paneling boards for measuring when staking corners to be sure the boards will form flush corners. (If you don’t want to use stakes or the ground is too hard to drive into, the sideboards can be drilled directly into one another. However, you risk splitting the boards and the final product will have less stability—which is ok! Whatever gets the job done.)
  5. Screw in the boards. I recommend making pilot holes before driving in the screws. This decreases the chances of splitting the boards and makes driving the screws easier since there is an existing hole to guide them. (Remember to use a drill bit slightly smaller than the width of your screw so that the screw has something to anchor into.)
  6. Once the boards are screwed in, take a step back and admire your work. This is an important step! Look how far you’ve come.
  7. Next, fill the garden bed with soil and compost. Evenly distribute the soil so that there is a level surface to begin planting.
  8. Plant your starters or seeds and watch them grow!
how-not-to-build-a-garden-box-an-absolute-beginner-guide

Final Tips For Building a Garden Box

Here are the most useful (and surprising) things I learned while building my first ever garden box:

  1. It is ok to mess up. Don’t expect perfection.
  2. There is a lot to know about lumber! The options are seemingly endless. Remember to consider the relationship between longevity and cost when choosing building materials.
  3. Measure twice, cut once!
  4. Knots and screws don’t mix well. When drilling into wood, try to avoid knots.
  5. Simplicity wins. I scaled down my project from three boxes to one and used a simple design consisting of only four boards and four corner stakes. Flashy designs can be tempting, but it is good to keep things simple to start. There’s always room to grow!
  6. The payoff is worth it. The sense of accomplishment that comes with hard work is incredible. As someone who hadn’t built anything before, seeing my garden box each day brings immense joy. And growing my own food? There’s nothing better.

If building a garden box sounds like too much work, I don’t blame you. There were points along the way when I felt way in over my head—remember when a few pieces of wood and a box of screws totaled more than $200? Ultimately, the thrill of watching little vegetable babies grow and knowing all that went into building their home is a reward well worth the lessons learned and stumbling blocks hit along the way.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Marlene Bertrand from USA on April 16, 2021:

I live in a place where the soil is packed with iron, but it is dense clay. I designed a garden box to mix the clay dirt with "regular" dirt. It turned out OK.

I had some of the mishaps your article speaks about and I wish I had read it before considering my garden box.

Jasmine Hanner from Maui, Hawai'i on April 05, 2021:

Sounds awesome, great details offered in a comforting way for another beginner! Next time I have my own yard, I'll definitely give it a try.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on April 04, 2021:

Great article, but a little too much work for me.

I know back in my younger days I would still try it..but I'm certain it wouldn't look right.

I'm not the best with building.

I will either buy one premade or dimply put out soil bags and cut top off then make my garden there.

The cost of wood can be outrageous. Home depot usually has a sale section of warped boards or ones that were cut wrong.

I wish you the best. Happy Growing.

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