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How we built our Raised Bed Garden and Hoophouse

How we built our raised bed garden and hoophouse...

Last spring, we moved onto a fixer-upper house in suburban Chicago. It has a huge sunlit backyard and we decided we were finally going to realize our dream of growing a significant portion of our own food. After a delay (we spent most of last summer fixing up the inside of the house), a harsh winter and cold late spring, we were finally ready to start this whole gardening thing. Of course, we know practically nothing about gardening, but we have the belief that if you wait until you're confident that you know how to do something, it will never get done (this logic led to Vegan Street: we didn't know how to start a business, build a website or publish a bunch or recipes and eco home tips, but by muddling through it, we eventually figured it out).

We did some research online, and learned that the most effective way to garden is to build a raised bed. This lets you control your soil better, plant things closer together and let it warm up more quickly in the spring (or so we read). We looked at several different raised bed plans. Ours is a hybrid of two or three that we stumbled upon. We also saw this cool idea about building a hoophouse. We didn't read it, but we looked at the pictures and swiped a couple of ideas from that. I was looking for that later, and I couldn't find it again, but I found something similar and we got some more ideas from it. We've since seen several other hoophouse plans.

This project came together over a couple of weekends that were about three weeks apart (due to a combination of lousy weather or other commitments). We made up a lot as we went along, and we decided to let the whole experience be kind of an adventure. I have to say, though, that I'm pleased with how it came out, and we have now built a second one plus two smaller raised beds (though again weather and other commitments have kept us from filling and planting two of them). Each 4' x 8' garden has so far cost us about $150 counting soil, seeds and everything, which is about the cost of a major shopping trip at Whole Foods Market, and we expect they'll be providing food for us for years.

Here's how we did it...

Raised Bed Garden and Hoophouse
(4' x 8')

To build the box:
6 - 2" x 6"  8' long boards - we used cedar.
One tricky thing from the start is that most lumber in most lumberyards is treated with chemicals that can leach into your food and pretty much undo all the health benefits of growing your own vegetables and could potentially mess up your body. Cedar is more expensive (these boards were about $13 each), but in the larger scheme of things, it's not a lot of money. It also smells pretty and isn't treated.
2 - 4" x 4" 8' long posts - ours were cedar, too
. We used 3 8' posts to build two 4' x 8' gardens.
A box of 3" wood screws

Tools needed:
A saw (we don't have a power saw, so we used a little old-fashioned hand saw which worked great)
A drill with a Phillips head screwdriver attached
A tape measure that's at least 8' long
A garden spade

First we used
our hand saw to cut two of the boards in half (so we now had four 4' boards) and also cut the 4" x 4" posts into 2' lengths.

We laid out three of our 2' posts and set one of the 8' boards on top of them so that all three were flush with one side of the board and two of them lined up with the corner with the third sitting halfway in between. We drove four nails through the board into each post.

We set a second board flush along the edge of the first one and secured that with four more screws into each post. Now we had one of our long sides built. We repeated this whole process to build the other long side.

We set the two long sides parallel with each other with the post sides in, and we lined them up so that our 4' boards would cover the posts and the longer boards. Then we screwed them in place with four screws into each post.

 At this point, we had a garden box, except it was upside-down and in the wrong place.

We temporarily set the box atop the place where it would eventually sit and marked where all the posts were. We moved the box over and dug six holes for the posts. They have to be at least 13" deep. Because of the size of the shovel, they all were nearly a foot in diameter as well.

One note about the soil: We read a lot of contradictory advice all the way from "tear out all the grass and dig up the soil under it" to "just pile all your new soil right on top of the lawn." A couple of places even suggested putting a metal mesh under it to prevent critters from burrowing up from below. We haven't seen any burrowing critters, but our lawn is as much weeds as grass, so in the end we decided to dig out the grass while saving as much of the soil as possible. We have naturally good soil -- loamy and black with lots of earthworms slithering through (earthworms are natural composters and good for your soil).

Most of the soil we dug up ended up filling the six holes.

This is what the bed looked like once we got it into place. Now it was time to build the hoophouse.

To build the anchors for the hoophouse:
1 - 1" diameter PVC pipe - this comes in an 10' length which is more that we needed

3 - 1/2" diameter PVC pipe - also comes in an 10' lengths, but that's about right for our purposes
12 - 1" pipe straps - for some reason I had a really hard time getting the hardware store guy to understand what I needed. They look like those half-round metal things in the above picture and these came in packs of 6, so I got two packs.
More of the same screws that we had used for the wood

We cut the 1" pipe into 10" lengths and used the pipe straps to screw them to the sides of each of the six posts. The top of the pipe should be about at the same height as the top of the post.

At this point, we could have just filled the box with soil if we had wanted to, but it was still April and the temperature was still dipping below freezing. So we decided to get some use out of our greenhouse before we turned it into a garden.

Now we could slide each end of the 1/2" PVC pipe into each of the sleeves we created.

The completed hoops looked like this. Now it was time to build the hoophouse.

To build the hoophouse we used:
A clear 9' x 12' painter's tarp
- it wasn't quite big enough, so we had to get a second one to build a door flap at one end of the hoophouse. The tarp is translucent, but it appears to let in plenty of light. We have not yet found a completely clear plastic tarp.
A roll of 1" Velcro®
Some good heavy 2" wide tape
2 - 4' pieces of lightweight lumber
- we used what I believe are called furring strips that are about 1 1/2" wide and 1/4" thick that were scrap from some earlier construction project. Any small pieces of trim owuld work, though.

We used the tape to secure the strips of wood to the apex of the PVC loops to stabilize them. There probably is a better way to do this, but this is what we came up with.

Affixing the poly tarp took a fair amount of improvisation complicated by a nice strong wind to keep things interesting. We decided that if we wrap the 9' part over the top, we'd use pretty much all of the width, and would have enough to wrap one end of it.

We cut our Velcro into 6" strips and affixed the hook side to the outer edges of each hoop at five points -- across the top, and at about 30° and 60° on either side (it has an adhesive back with peel-off strips). We had left the loop side stuck to the hook side (It comes that way), and once we had lined the plastic up where we wanted it, we peeled off the other back of the Velcro and stuck it to the plastic (one caution: the Velcro adhesive really sticks to the poly tarp. This is ultimately a very good thing, but we had to make sure we stuck it in the right place. Once it's stuck, it can't be removed without damaging the plastic).

This is kind of hard to see from the above photo, but we took all the excess plastic and wrapped it around one end almost like a gift (there wasn't enough to wrap both ends), and then used more Velcro strips to hold it together.

On the other more accessible end, we folded the small bit of excess poly around the hoop and adhered it to itself - again with Velcro. We then stuck another layer of Velcro strips on the plastic at the points where it is adhered to the hoop. We then cut piece of plastic from another tarp in roughly the shape of the end, and fastened the loop end of this to the indide of that plastic. This created an easily openable and removable door.

Here's the completed hoophouse (still without the soil added into it). That's Romeo standing guard. During the three weeks it was up, we had some pretty substantial wind and rain storms and it held fine. We'll see how it does in the fall.

At this point we planted a bunch of seeds into starter cups and stashed them in our greenhouse for three weeks, making sure to go in and water them pretty much every day. Note: this was late April by the time we got this built and things were starting to warm up. After two weeks, we decided to take the plastic off. Before we did this, we wrote directions (north, south, east, west) as well as the words "inside" and "outside" on both the plastic and the hoops, so we can figure out how to get it back on correctly in the fall. The plastic folds up to the size of a small throw pillow, and we stashed it comfortably in a corner of our tool shed.

Now it was mid May, and we finally bought a bunch of soil. We had 20 40lb bags of topsoil, 10 40lb bags of garden soil, which was mostly peat moss and 6 bags of mushroom compost, which was the only vegan compost at our local hardware store. This filled up this bed and another smaller (1 1/2' x 8' and 8" deep) bed that we set up nearby.

We transplanted a lot of our seeds as well as a bunch of seedlings we picked up at a charity garden show.

We've now built another large box and another smaller one that we'll fill and plant in the next few days.

We'll keep you posted of our progress.

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