The Asparagus Needs To Move Just A Hair To The Left

It started with this idea that everything would be much more attractive and efficiently laid out if only there was a dedicated space for perennials.

My asparagus was doing well, hanging out in a big sandy berm that used to form a sweeping naturalistic border across one side of the veggie patch. It flowed in, diving the curving diagonal of lawn from the rectilinear order of the 8 original raised beds.

The problem was, my raised beds were marching across the lawn like soldiers. A nice, rectangular little garden shed went in. Sweeping vistas of grass were cut up, dug out, flipped over, fed to worms. The curving gentle asparagus bed was now decidedly out of place, surrounded by so many 90-degree angles. In addition, the natural fall of the yard between the shed and the back raised beds was about 2 ½ feet and was awkward. Half the shed was stuck up on 4×4 stilts. It worked, but it wasn’t elegant.

We sketched and measured and sketched some more. We had a space about 18′ x 10′ to work with, and had to deal with the slope. The solution was half-retaining wall/half-perennial bed. Our final design was simple: a big rectangle built out of 5×5 rough-hewn juniper timbers with three tiered levels, working up to connect the lower and upper levels.

And I’m happy to say, it worked. Here’s how we did it:

Maggie & Jim of Casa de Arboles deliver our Juniper Timbers. They are Alpaca farmers who are the Western WA distributors for Western juniper wood.

Juniper wood is, according to Oregon State University, very naturally resistant to rot. Studies of fence posts condected by OSU indicate longevity of over 30 years. We chose to go with juniper timbers on the advice of Brad Halm of the Seattle Urban Farm Company. Like cedar, these will fade to grey with exposure to the elements. But look how pretty they are fresh!
Here’s the space we were starting with. Shed-on-stilts is to the left, veggie beds are to the right. You can see the stubs of asparagus.

We started by using twine to line out where the timbers should go and trenching a level-ish base for the timbers.

The fall of the ground from the back to the front of the shed was enough that we stair-stepped the first course of timbers. The timbers were set on a base of crushed rock.

Some spots were extra mucky and we had to use a little extra rock. Here Nick managed to step out of his shoe after it got suctioned into the mud (by the way, if you want a sexy pair of Muck boots yourself, you can find them under the Resources tab in the Gardening Tools category. I prefer the boots but Nick loves the easy-on, easy-off shoes. In this case, maybe too easy-off, huh?)

We got the first course laid in. Notice that the back is actually 1-level taller than the front due to the fall of the ground and my refusal to dig any more than I needed to with a kid on my back.

I’m not kidding. Every step of the way, little man was strapped to my back.

After we got the first course all level and square, Nick drilled ⅜” holes through the timber and we hammered in 24″ lengths of rebar to anchor the timbers into the ground.

Look at that kid, sleeping while I work. Those suckers aren’t moving now, though, I tell you what.

The next courses of timber were laid Lincoln Log style over the first. Nick used a 1½” spade bit to drill countersinks in the timbers, then attached each course to the one below it with ⅜” x 8″ lag bolts with 1 ½”x ⅜” fender washers. Each countersink was coated with waterproof epoxy because I’m extra aquaphobic about wood.We ended up with three courses at the front (nearest the veggie beds), four at the high-ground half of the back (by the shed) and five at the low-ground half of the back, with the difference being because of that initial stair step.

The dividers between the levels were built of two lengths of timbers. The lower beams were cut 5″ shorter on each end than the upper beams to compensate for the 5″ thickness of the timbers. The two levels were screwed together in the middle and on each end. In this way the upper beams hung flush with the outside of the bed and the lower one recessed inside the bed. We did this so that, when the beds are filled with soil, the roots of the plants will have free range of the whole bed, not just their level, but the visual divide between levels will be clear.

Kidlet was excellent at putting the timbers together. It’s basically like huge Legos, so she was a natural.

One three-day weekend later, our three-tiered bed was done. We finished a bit late, as you can probably tell from the nighttime shot of the bed. Our job for the upcoming weekend is to fill this sucker with soil and compost and get the asparagus crowns and rhubarb replanted.

I couldn’t be more happy. The bed turned out beautifully. It solved the slope problem and will be just lovely filled with perennials for the next 30 years.

If you are thinking of building a long-lasting bed like this, I would encourage you to look at juniper timbers. Based on our research they seem like an excellent alternative to pressure treated lumber. As they weather and age I’ll report back on their actual durability.

Update:
Here’s a few more pics of the finished bed from this morning, all dusted in snow. Still need to get this sucker filled with soil. Good thing I have 18 yards of it coming tomorrow.

Weekend Inspiration: Chickens!
Garbage Made Useful: Wire Hangers Into Garden Staples

Comments

  1. Turned out fantastic! What did you find out about moving asparagus? I decided I don't love where I planted ours and was pondering moving it. I forgot until I read this =) Anyhow, the beds look gorgeous and strong! Did you follow plans or make it up? Or?

  2. Hi Meg – thanks! we made the design up, but since our space was 18×10 and the timbers came in 8 ft and 10 ft lengths, it wasn't too hard. :) I can give you more specifics if you are thinking of doing something similar.
    The asparagus was a serious beast. It may need it's own post. I broke a garden fork getting some of the crowns out, they were over 24" across. I had to cut some in half. It was like dealing with something from Aliens. But I am hopeful they will transplant well. I figure anything that puts out roots like that has to be good at growing them so they'll probably be ok. I think after we get the bed filled and get them replanted, I'll give them thru Spring, make sure they live (LOL!) and do a post about the transplanting. But it was relatively backbreaking, I'm not going to sugar coat it. :)

  3. Wow, what an amazing job! I love the timbers. 4x4s look so much better than my 2bys. And I hope you're right that yours last as long as my pressure treated beds.

    You sure put a ton of work into your beds, definitely built for the ages. Mine took half a day to make all four beds, and look like I threw them together. Whatever works. Congrats, you guys look like you had fun and were amazingly productive. Can't wait to see the beds in full bloom!

  4. Love the tiers! We are in the process of laying everything out in our new house and we have the beds decided on but have not decided on the edging.

    I might have to steal this idea.

  5. Thanks! I adore looking out on it. So excited to get it filled and get my asparagus back in the ground asap.

    Sinfonian-thanks, these are actually 5x5s, true cut but rough. Quite hefty. They also come in 6×6 but those were quite a bit more money. We'll see how they age but I'm hopeful, and personally I'm happy to avoid the pressure treated around edibles. As you know, our standard annual veggies beds aren't built like this! Nick talked about this in Raised Beds & False Economies – we prefer to go cheap, fast and dirty for the bulk of our beds, and they still work great. It's just about whatever works to get those veggies growing, right? :)
    Brianna-Steal away! Maggie at Casa de Arboles was really nice to deal with if you are in the Seattleish area and are looking at Western Juniper.

  6. Advice to anyone who chooses to follow in our footsteps working with these wonderful juniper timbers – the measurements are not as precise as a piece of dimension lumber that is planed smooth. I found lengths running from 1/4" to 1" long and perhaps a 1/4" variation in the nominally 5" square dimensions. My original plan was to cut all the bits to measure and then assemble them like a big kit. First contact with the product disabused me of that notion! It was very much of a measure-and-cut-in-place process. Went fast though – all the cuts were with a Sawzall which ended up producing a surprisingly clean cut end. And it smelled SO GOOD!

  7. Sigh. All that virgin dirt. So jealous.

  8. Looks beautiful. Maybe I'm missing something, but how are you going to reach the middle of the second and top beds?

  9. What an elegant solution! After the pic of you and the babe, all I could think was "OMG, she did that with a kid attached?" I walked a few miles yesterday with my son in the Ergo, and I whined all night about my sore legs and back. I cannot imagine how I would feel if I'd been digging trenches instead! Bravo. :)

  10. Chile, the plan is to have permanent mulched paths running along one side of each tier. They will be accessed by matched stairs that have yet to be built.
    Thanks Natalie, I'm just glad he's finally big enough to go on my back. It's the front carries that hurt me! :)

  11. Wow. I am so impressed – and you did all that while baby wearing?! That's insane. I remember once shovelling while wearing my daughter and feeling like the skies should open and the angels should bestow me with a Mother-of-the-Year award or something, but you've clearly earned that award. :)

  12. Nice! Ok, good to know about how difficult it is…I'll probably reconsider. Access was my issue. I didn't want to trample soil to access the area. But I'll just put a small path/walking area and call it good =)

  13. Gorgeous!

    I know what you mean about the crowns when they are so established. Last time the ancient bed was thinned out we told the neighbor (who's family actually owned the place for many generations) he could have as much as he dug out. He showed up with a backhoe! Good thing too because digging up a couple hundred crowns by hand would have been horrible.

    If they were dug up and kept fairly intact then they should bounce back well. Worst case is they need some time to reestablish their root system.

  14. Locavore-Don't let the baby wearing fool you, my older kid was inside playing video games the whole time. :) My little one is really only content being held, so it's either do stuff with him on my back, or don't do anything at all!
    Meg-I think if we could have built the bed around the asparagus I would have but since it ran at an angle it had to come up. If it's happy and no too big a pain I wouldn't move it.
    Anne-Smart neighbor! Thats good to know. I tried to keep them together but some had to get cut just so I could lift them. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and plan not to harvest this spring or, if necessary, next.

  15. You are so inspiring. I love the shots of your son on your back. Great work! Can't wait to see it filled in.

  16. I am going to read your whole archive again. Your blog is by far my favorite. I know I've mentioned that before, but I really mean it. :-)
    I am going to go into my blog right now and put that with your blog link.

  17. I'm so glad you took the plunge and tried the juniper lumber. I've been reading about this for quite a while. I'm a big fan of cedar as a chemical-free alternative to pressure treated, but cedar's very expensive. I've taken to purchasing used lumber from the Re-Store (when I can find it) and just letting it rot – then rebuilding it every few years. Given this imperfect solution, juniper has definitely caught my interest. The only problem was getting the lumber delivered, as it's only sold by a couple of places in Washington state. Your helpful post has taken some of the mystery out of that process.

  18. Jim Klaassen says:

    Joshua,

    If you are interested, we can tell you more about western juniper. It is definitely more dense and therefore more durable than cedar (slower growing). Delivery should not be a problem, even for big orders. Contact information at casadearboles.com or 360-794-6369

    Jim Klaassen

  19. Hi Erica,

    A couple of years in, can you provide feedback on how happy you are with your choice of juniper for your boxes? I am preparing to do a large raised bed for a blueberry hedge as my topsoil has too much clay, and they are going to need much better drainage. The rest of our garden was all done in cedar, which we are happy with, but I am hoping that the blueberry boxes will last longer than the 10 years I have projected for our other beds.

    Thanks a ton, and keep up the great work!

    Ryan

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Left: Perennial Bed. The back (topmost) tier holds the transplanted asparagus, the middle is planted in raspberries and [...]

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