Tools for (Over) Planning Raised Garden Beds

The law of diminishing returns reigns supreme around here.  Every minute over 30 spent making dinner, for example, leads to 5 diminished units of consumption enjoyment. (For the record: Taco Night yields the optimal ratio of minutes spent-to-units of consumption enjoyment.)  Projects I find most satisfying, like the catio portal, come together with minimal hassle and no last-minute trips to The Home Depot.  Therefore, the risk of spending so much time and money on the raised beds I built is that I’ll be disappointed if they don’t produce a bounty of food.  What do you do to ward off disappointment?  Excessive, exhaustive planning!  Bring on the graph paper.

Square foot gardening seems like the right option for the space I have available.  There are a lot of guides online – basically, for each square foot, you plant 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants, depending on mature size.  Tomatoes and broccoli get their own squares, whereas lettuce can be planted four heads to a square.  This approach also seemed like the easiest way to sow seeds at different times – one square will be planted with lettuce now, another square in one week and so on until the end of May – extending the harvest and increasing the likelihood that at least one square of each crop will survive.  Once lettuce season has passed, that square will be filled with a second season crop, like bush beans.

Square Foot Gardening Plant Spacing(Image via

Download some free graph paper (I like the customizable PDF options on this site) and nerd it up on your ride home from work.  I myself take the #2 from Hyde Park – it would take a lot more than some graph paper to be a stand-out nerd on that bus.

Garden Planning Graph Paper

After this initial draft, I discovered the Kitchen Garden Planner on Gardener’s Supply Company’s website and put together a couple of plans.

Gardener's Supply Company Kitchen Garden Planner

Middle garden bed:

Gardener's Supply Company Kitchen Garden Planner

Back garden bed – I modified this one in Photoshop to show the single row of lettuce and spinach I planted along the front of the bed:

The best part of this planning tool is that it generates a gardening plan with instructions and tips for each of the plants you selected:

Gardener's Supply Company Kitchen Garden Planner

I placed an order through Burpee for an assortment of vegetables and herbs. My shopping process was heavily swayed by product proclamations like “Customer favorite!” and “It doesn’t get any easier!” and “If you kill this you should probably just quit.”  My selections included tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, snap peas, green beans, cucumber and zucchini.

Burpee Vegetables

It is with some shame that I confess that I made a spreadsheet in Google Docs to record and track the plants I plan hope to grow:

Garden Planning Spreadsheet

Sorry, clicking this image won’t make it any bigger. I reserve the right to confine the
width of my embarrassment to 590 pixels.

Jarrod and I also hit up Gethsemane Garden Center to pick up some transplants.  Buying and planting loose leaf lettuce that is nearly harvest-ready seems like cheating, like letting loose dozens of quail in front of your rifle and calling it hunting. But I was anxious to see some green in the garden beds and know that I’m starting a little late on my cool season crops.

Garden Plants

Back Garden Bed Plants

Back Garden Bed Lettuce

I’m experimenting with interplanting (planting a fast-growing crop in between a slower-growing one).  Broccoli and spinach, in this case.  I don’t have high hopes for that kale – I think it will get too hot before it matures.

Middle Garden Bed Plants

Do you have any tips for a first-time gardener?  Favorite can’t-lose vegetables?  I’d appreciate any advice!

Raised Garden Beds: Two Tons of Soil, One Bucket

This past weekend was perfect weather for tackling our raised garden beds and I’m pleased to report that they came together really well.  A few splinters, minimal cussing, no regrets.

Our bed size was predetermined because of these existing garden plots:




Pretty sad, right? We had mediocre success growing in them last year, likely due to crummy Chicago dirt. I wanted to start from scratch with known-to-be-good soil: hence the raised garden beds. I planned an 8′ x 20″ bed for the corner plot and a 12′ x 26″ bed for the middle plot.  I chose to build them using stacked 6″ boards instead of 12″ boards because they were cheaper and I could cut them with a miter saw.

As for wood choice: the Internet seemed to have reached a consensus on cedar as one of the best lumbers for raised beds. I purchased ours at Menards, after a friend (hi, Kei!) recommended I keep an eye out for their sales.

Menards Sale Ad

On the upside, Menards red cedar sale did save me a bit of money. On the downside, it meant I had to go to Menards. That place is the worst! I’ve just never had a positive customer service experience there. I don’t like that you have to purchase the wood before you see the product.  And, I don’t want to do my project shopping at a hardware store that also sells dog food, Totino’s pizza and men’s undershirts. Furthermore, I’ll confess that I may harbor resentment toward Menards because I was arrested at a Des Moines store in 1999 for protesting their use of wood harvested from endangered old growth forests. College, man.

One more note about the wood: upon learning that a cedar 4×4 would cost $29, I balked and went with an $11 pressure treated pine 4×4 instead. I know that previous versions of pressure treated pine raised alarm when used in garden beds, but MicroPro AC2 is seemingly safe for this purpose and is even certified green. Perhaps this certification process is similar to the one that allows Cheez-Its to claim they’re “made with real cheese,” but I decided to suppress my hippie past and take it at face value.  This is what a whole bunch of wood looks like tied semi-precariously to the top of a Subaru at night:

Starting early Saturday morning, I secured the saw to an old wood table with bolts and wing nuts and then made quick work of the 4×4:

Yeah, that’s right.

Wood 4x4 Posts

Because installing them pre-dirt would be far easier than at any other time, I went ahead and made a few PVC sleeves that could be used for future modifications, such as hoops + tarps if I want to extend the growing season. I don’t know if I’ll actually do that, but saying things like “extend the growing season” makes me sound like a legit gardener.

Supplies for PVC Sleeve

Two of the sleeves in the back garden bed will be used immediately for a heavy-duty metal trellis, which I will detail in a future post once my trellis netting arrives in the mail.

PVC Sleeves for Raised Garden Bed

First box placed and perfectly leveled.

Raised Garden Bed

As for the dirt: I went with bulk soil instead of bagged because of cost and convenience, and I went with Evanston-based Buy the Yard because of a recommendation from Jarrod’s coworker.  Their “garden mix” (a “custom blend of topsoil, leaf compost and aged horse manure recommended for planting annuals, perennials or vegetables”) is $33 a cubic yard (cheap!) plus $81 for delivery to our Chicago neighborhood (steep! but acceptable).  I found their cubic yard calculator helpful and accurate. We needed about 1.4 yards for our beds. They don’t do half yards, so I rounded up to 2 yards so that we could replace a lot of the bad dirt in the areas not covered by the beds, where I plan to plant flowers.  This is what two cubic yards of soil looks like:

Bulk Soil

Note: we don’t own a wheelbarrow, so all of the soil – all two tons of it – was moved with this bucket.  It was not ergonomic.

Filling Raised BedsMarti: “How do you feel about being on the internet in this outfit?”
Jarrod: “Happy!”  (Said in all sincerity.)


Good soil on the right, bad dirt on the left.


Bad dirt out, good soil in.  “What did you do with the bad dirt?” you might ask.  To which I would reply “Don’t worry about it.”

Raised Garden Bed

Raised Garden Bed

Here’s the cost breakdown:

Wood, etc.
$16 – 1×6 10 ft (qty: 2 at $8 each)
$28 – 1×6 8 ft (qty: 4 at $7 each)
$40 – 1×6 12 ft (qty: 4 at $10 each)
$11 – 4×4 12 ft (qty: 1)

$6 – 100 decking screws
$3 – Square recess bit tip
$8 – Weed barrier fabric

PVC Sleeves
$5 – 15 ft of 1″ PVC pipe
$5 – Galvanized straps for PVC pipe
$3 – Brass screws

Trellis (details to come in a future post)
$11 – 3/4″ Metal conduit
$7 – Pull elbow
$9 – Trellis netting

$153 – Garden soil (2 cubic yards at $33+tax, $81 delivery charge)

Total: $305

Not cheap by any means, but I hope they’ll see us through several years of bountiful harvests. And I’m not factoring in the cost of my new chop saw because that’s an investment, goddamnit.

Even just sitting there plant-less, looking like a weird graveyard, I think the boxes are a major improvement to the yard.  Victory!

Garden Overhead

Bloom and Grow Forever

One of the good things about knowing our future downstairs neighbors is that today we were able to help garden in our future backyard.  Jarrod, Kateri and I went to work while Cora supervised.


Why are those bricks in the middle?  Why are there ceramic tiles at the end?  Why did someone plant marbles?  Who knows.


The vegetables look puny now but they’ll thrive in this super sunny spot.



It’s going to be so pretty by the time we move in!  A really great thing to look forward to.