Just because gardening is an exercise in patience doesn’t mean gardeners are patient. If you want to join the grow-it-yourself club, and you don’t want to wait, you can turn your unproductive, resource intensive lawn into a ready-to-thrive vegetable garden this weekend.
It’ll take some work, but probably less than you think. It’ll take money – but again, maybe less than you think. And in 48 hours, you can be sowing your first seeds in an attractive and easy-to-maintain insta-garden. Let’s get going.
Step 1: Find the perfect gardening location
Ok, “perfect location” is a gardening unicorn – it doesn’t actually exist. So find the closest thing to a perfect location that you can.
What To Look For In A Garden Location:
- Full Sun – Those lists of veggies that will grow in shade are basically making the best of a bad situation. For the best garden you want as much sun as your yard can muster. If you live in Las Vegas or L.A., maybe the rules are different, but in general, annual vegetable crops need sun – and lots of it – to really thrive. Remember, you can always add shade, you can’t add really add more sun.
- Close to Home – The best gardens are visited often! The days of keeping a garden “way out back” are long over. Place your garden on a natural path to and from your home, or locate it just out the back door. When a garden is convenient, you will take better care of it, harvest more, and keep it more attractive.
- Level Ground – If you want to make an insta-garden, you don’t have time to install a complex terrace system. Try to select an area that’s fairly level. If you’re dealing with a gentle slope, that’s ok, but if you’re gardening on the side of a mountain this might take two weekends.
- Favorable Microclimate – Look for an area that will be sheltered from the worst of the winds and isn’t in a depression or at the bottom of a slope where cool air will pool. In cool climates, if you build your garden on the south side of the house or near a driveway, you’ll reflect heat and light to your plants and extend the growing season.
- Think Irrigation Before You Build – a garden that requires 127 trips back and forth across the yard with with a watering can is going to die in July. Make it easy to keep your garden appropriately watered by planning out your irrigation right from the start. A soaker hose hooked to a simple garden timer will automate your watering and help ensure success.
Step 2: Deal With Your Grass By Not Dealing With Your Grass.
In many areas of the country, you can install your garden right over your lawn, so don’t rip up that grass – smother it! Decomposing grass becomes wonderful soil enriching compost. (Read more: Stop Ripping Up Your Lawn To Grow Veggies)
The raised beds you’re going to build for your insta-garden are more than deep enough to smother out typical fescue-type lawns and will provide plenty of root room for your first season’s crops. So, as long as you aren’t building your garden over Bermuda grass or another highly invasive grass, you can simply build your garden right on top of your lawn instead of ripping it up.
For additional security against weeds, just line your garden bed with plain brown cardboard before filling with soil.
Step 3: Build Wooden Raised Beds
Keep this simple, because cheap raised beds still grow great food. I recommend building open-bottomed rectangular frames out of inexpensive dimension lumber.
A 4×8 foot box requires 3, 8-foot long pieces of lumber. Cut one board in half for the end pieces, and screw everything together with good quality deck screws. That’s really all there is to it.
Sturdy 2x10s or 2x12s work well for raised beds, or build two boxes with 2x6s and stack to make a bed about 12-inches deep.
We build all our beds out of hemlock or fir – the standard cheap-ass 2-by-whatever lumber you can get at the Big Box Stores. The exact wood species may vary by location but the point is – this is the cheap stuff. Even in our extremely wet, wood-destroying climate, we get 7 to 8 years out of our beds before they fall apart. I imagine gardeners in dryland climates might see a decade or more from beds like these.
When the frame to your raised bed finally needs to be replaced, it can be buried to make a hugelkultur style bed, burned in a firepit or woodstove, turned into biochar or chipped for mulch. It doesn’t have to go to waste just because it’s no longer useful as a garden bed frame.
Thinking of going rogue? You can make your raised bed any way you like, but consider the following:
I skip the pressure treated lumber for edible gardens. Although modern pressure treated lumber isn’t quite so icky as the old copper and arsenic treated stuff, it’s not exactly benign. Pressure treated lumber resists insect attack, fungal decomposition and rot by being impregnated with many of the same chemicals I refuse to apply directly to my vegetables.
So this is a judgement call, but it doesn’t make sense to me to grow organic vegetables right next to wood that’s been soaked in fungicide.
Cedar or Redwood would be longer lasting than hem/fir but is far, far more expensive and harder to get in thick, dimension-lumber sizes. One other naturally rot-resistant wood we’ve used is juniper. Juniper timbers and boards are a great and very sustainable wood option for garden structures, but this wood is also fairly expensive and hard to find in many places.
Keep your beds no more than 4 feet wide so you can easily reach into the center to tend them. If you can only reach the bed from one side, stick to 2 feet wide. Much wider and the beds are just too wide to comfortably reach into.
You can make your beds as long as you’d like. Small space gardeners might like a single 4×4 bed, while someone with a long, narrow lot might build a 24-foot-long, 2-foot wide bed. You have to adapt to your location, but all else being equal, building and working with standard 4’x8′ boxes is very convenient.
Since you’ll be using these beds to smother existing grass, you want them at least 8 inches deep, and 10 or 12 inches is better.
Step 4: Position Your Garden Beds
Fiddle with your garden bed boxes until they are located exactly how and where you want them. Make sure the bed itself is level – prop up one end with bricks or rocks if needed.
If you plan to grow a lot of crops vertically, on trellises, align your garden bed(s) east to west. This puts the trellis to the north, so crops grown vertically don’t shade out the crops in front. If you don’t need a long stretch of trellis, alignment isn’t that big of a deal with raised beds. You can place them N-S or E-W.
Because the plants themselves will be planted in more of a grid inside the beds, either alignment will work.
Once you settle your raised bed frames into place in that perfect spot, if you want, line the bottom of the raised bed with plain brown cardboard and wet down the cardboard, so that it collapses. This will ensure the grass is well smothered and helps prevent weed growth up into your new garden bed.
Step 5: Fill Your Raised Beds
Now the fun part! (Or hard part, depending on how you look at it.)
Fill your garden bed frames with high quality purchased vegetable-growing soil. This is not the same as topsoil, fill dirt or compost. Your soil company may call it 3-way-mix or a vegetable growing blend.
You’ll probably want to buy your insta-soil by the cubic yard – it’s almost always cheaper to buy stuff like this in bulk than by the bag. One cubic yard of soil will fill one 4’x8′ garden bed about 10 inches deep. If you need a different quantity, use this calculator to figure out how much you’ll need.
As you fill your beds, amend the soil with lime if needed to adjust the pH. The company from whom you purchased the soil should know what type of lime is best for your climate, and how much to add per square yard. It might not be necessary to add lime at all – so if you’re not sure, wait until you see how your plants grow.
What To Look For In A Good Vegetable Soil Mix:
- A mix that’s about equal parts compost, coarse sand and high quality loam topsoil. Some composted dairy manure or vermicompost in there is a very good sign, too.
- Buy from for a company that can tell you exactly what’s in their recommended vegetable growing soil and if it’s been pH neutralized with lime. (And how much lime to add per cubic yard if it hasn’t been.) If you can feel and smell the mix before you buy, so much the better.
- If you are in an arid climate, look for a moisture retentive soil. If you are in a wet climate, fast-draining soil is important.
- Compost and manure you are comfortable with. Some compost may contain bio-solids (sewer waste) and commercial manures might come from feedlot-type operations. Ask some questions before you pull out your credit card, and if you have ethical or other concerns about the source of the soil, keep looking.
Step 6: That Cooling Off Period
Once your beds are filled with high quality vegetable-blend soil, there’s just one more thing. There’s a good chance your soil came to you literally steaming from microbial activity. You don’t want to pop your plants in soil that’s actively hot, so give your beds a day to just cool off.
Once the soil is not overly warm to the touch, it’s Grow Time!
You’ve got yourself an attractive, not-too-expensive garden and you’re ready to grow. Not bad for a single weekend, huh?
I estimate one complete 4’x8′ insta-garden bed built and filled as described here will cost approximately $60 to build and fill. Exact costs will vary based on local prices for lumber and vegetable gardening soil mix.
Materials You Will Need For One, 4’x8′ Garden Bed
- 3, 8-foot long, 2×10-inch Hem/Fir dimension lumber – $24
- 12 coated deck screws or equivalent – $2 ($10 for a 1-pound box, you’ll use about 1/5th the whole box)
- Cardboard, to line bottom of bed – free
- 1 cubic yard high quality vegetable blend soil mix – $33
(Order the soil mix beforehand so it’s delivered or ready to pick up at the right time for your lawn-to-garden project.)
- Garden lime – $1
Estimated Total Cost: $60
According to Mother Earth News and Rosalind Creasy, in these 32 square feet of growing space, you can expect to grow about $230 worth of organic vegetables and herbs. Here’s additional information about the financial return of a vegetable garden.
Do it right, and vegetable gardening is a hobby that really pays!
Pinning is good for you. Not as good as homegrown snap peas, but close. Here’s a Pinterest-friendly graphic you can share with your friends: