When I was little, before I recall having any real interest in growing flowers or trees or shrubs, my parents granted me a little territory in the backyard where I was permitted and encouraged to plant things. Tucked behind the garage and a part of the deck, this was a terraced section of the yard, each level retained by railroad-tie-style walls. It’s a set-up not uncommon for over-scaled homes built in the 1990s, where developers insisted on constructing houses whose boxy plans bore no relation to any given site’s existing topography. The land was simply built-up as needed, compacted, retained, and mulched. Consequently, the soil was difficult to plant in: rocky, full of clay, and nutrient-poor. It was shady back there, too, but I did what I could to encourage the success of my garden. My brother and sister had their own plots adjacent to mine, although I don’t remember my brother ever taking advantage of the opportunity. For her part, year after year my sister wrestled with a few strawberry plants whose results were scant at best, but found her footing more successfully with cucumbers. She took to peeling one and then perching at the kitchen counter with a paper plate of salt in front of her, eating it like a carrot and dipping the gnawed-off end onto the plate between bites. She still does this, and I still find it equal parts cute and grotesque.
Tomatoes were my thing. I don’t recall even especially liking tomatoes, but I really liked growing them. Part of it might have been that I knew my sister—who despised tomatoes—wouldn’t mess with my crops. She treated the plants like they were toxic, as though failing to give them the proper berth would result in disease or instant death. I’m not sure why sibling tampering was such a concern of mine. Would she try to…sabotage me? I can’t really say. We’re deeply competitive.
Likely due to the aforementioned sun and soil conditions, our plants’ production was never especially impressive but we didn’t know that. To us, anything our plants grew that we could eat felt like some form of low-level sorcery. Ripening tomatoes were placed in a neat row along the windowsill behind the sink, and on weekends they’d get sliced and served with bagels and lox to much fanfare and accolades. I loved it.
Then I grew up. Summers in high school tended to keep me away from home for long stretches, so it didn’t make sense to plant crops I couldn’t tend and harvest. Of course I didn’t know that over the next decade I’d find myself in a series of small urban apartments without outdoor space, occasionally entertaining the idea of one of those upside-down tomato plant grower-thingies from Skymall before forgetting about it. Then again, tomatoes were readily available at the store, and—like I said—it’s not like I even love tomatoes. I like them. I really like growing them. Outside. In the sun. And the dirt. With bugs and stuff.
SO. Then I bought a house, and shortly thereafter experienced the revelation that omg I can do that again! Technically, as it happens, some olde-timey Kingston law actually grants me the right to practice my husbandry on a whole goddamned farm. I can have chickens and goats and ducks and probably other stuff I should never, ever be allowed to know about. Can you imagine?? GOATS??? I fucking love goats. I guess let’s see how the veggies go first, though. Then we can discuss urban homesteading the shit outta this joint.
Between the asphalt-covered backyard, and the fence-building, and the front-garden-creating, and then the side-garden-planting, and the great dirt-moving effort, and SO MUCH WORK on the house, and also several other houses, it took a few years for the vegetable garden to start to become a reality.
Originally the idea was something like this. I wrote about it back in 2015. Outside of the new french doors on the garage there would be a fire pit/chill zone, and beyond that 4 large raised beds. As often happens, I’ll throw out an underdeveloped idea, and you guys help to develop it! Primary concerns were a) the location of the fire pit/chill zone is sad and b) those beds are too big to easily tend and c) pea gravel is apparently the work of the devil.
So the plan changed in subtle ways. I put the chill zone in the middle of the beds, and made the raised beds a foot narrower—bringing them down to 3 feet instead of 4 feet wide to make them easier to manage—and aligning them with the structure of the garage and the placement of the new doors. Pea gravel got replaced with reclaimed brick for improved walkability and weed prevention, and this plan felt solid enough to at least get started.
During the autumn that followed the great dirt-moving effort, I managed to build one of my raised beds and even get a coat of stain on it! I was so antsy to just get something done other than filling up the yard with soil, and wanted to see even a small part of my plan enacted just to make sure I even liked it, and that the height and length were right, that kind of thing.
In the spring, I promptly and efficiently picked up where I left off, finished the beds, got them all filled with great soil, and by mid-summer had a booming garden!
HAHAHAHA. I KID. IT DID NOT HAPPEN LIKE THAT AT ALL.
First thing’s first: Marimekko did that line of stuff for Target, so I got myself some cute chairs. I ordered a fire pit on Amazon. It was smaller than I’d imagined and arrived damaged but I was SO DETERMINED TO GET THIS PARTY STARTED that I just decided to use it rather than deal with a return.
Then I set about building the rest of the raised beds. I don’t think it’s especially useful for me to walk you through my process because I wouldn’t do it like this again if I were building these today. Basically the structure is just 1×6 pressure-treated boards attached to 4×4 pressure-treated posts, and I did most of the fastening with shanked siding nails because I was working alone and a nail gun is way easier than a drill and screws if you’re trying to hold things up at the same time.
To keep the middle from bowing out once the box was filled with dirt, I fastened these 2×2 pressure-treated stake things to the posts. They do the job.
I don’t especially know why I chose the wood I chose, but I wish I hadn’t. Pressure treated wood ALWAYS breaks my heart. I don’t know why I keep giving it the benefit of the doubt. It’s like, if you let the boards dry out before using them, they crack and warp and split. If you use them and then let them dry out, they crack and warp and split.
Unsurprisingly, my planter boxes have cracked and warped and split. Not in a way that makes them non-functional, and it’s not even that noticeable, but it is just…annoying.
If you’re interested in building similar but better raised beds, my pals Kim and Scott (sometimes we live parallel lives, I think) tackled pretty much the same project but with a few adjustments, including using 5/4″ decking boards (which are actually 1″ thick) instead of 1-by boards that are actually 3/4″ thick. They also capped off the top perimeters with a board, which looks much better and has the added benefit of obscuring the 4×4 posts.
I’d also strongly consider using cedar rather than pressure-treated, which—again—I have no idea why I didn’t do the first time around, but I didn’t. Cedar should last a comparable amount of time, and is naturally rot-resistant rather than needing to be treated. It should be noted that pressure-treated wood is made very differently than it was years ago, and seems to be now generally accepted as safe for growing edibles, but even just from a functional/aesthetic standpoint I’d prefer the cedar.
Ah well. That’s why this is not a step-by-step tutorial post. The raised beds are 3′ x 10′, and I used Cabot’s solid-color acrylic siding stain in black just on the parts that are visible with the planters filled to avoid unnecessary exposure to the soil.
If this WERE a step-by-step tutorial post, this picture PROBABLY wouldn’t make the cut. Any fledgling vegetation you think you see is just weeds. I built my raised beds in the spring with big ambitions, and then I went and tore the entire side of my house apart, which then meant wrapping up an ENORMOUS exterior project while also trying to reclaim my house as a place fit for living, attempting to pick up the tattered pieces of my kitchen, laundry room, pantry, 1/2 bath, bedroom, office, and den. So some chaos ensued. That was two years ago and I’m honestly only STARTING to feel like the house has recovered. Suffice to say there have been some decisions I would revise if given the opportunity but, of course, that’s not how life works! Lolz. *bursts into tears.*
So I built these raised beds, and then I didn’t plant a single solitary thing. Instead of filling them with soil and plants I filled them with mayhem and foolishness. That was it.
Over the course of that exterior renovation project that summer, I remember one day it felt COMPLETELY logical to spend the afternoon going to get a couple yards of stone dust, so I could begin whatever paving situation I was planning for around the beds. It’s not like there were at LEAST one thousand more pressing things to take care of.
I think by this point I’d actually calculated how many bricks I’d need, and it was almost 2,500 bricks. Which is just simply too many fucking bricks. So then I had this whole idea of using my impressive stock of bluestone slabs to do kind of a flagstone thing between and around the planter boxes.
So we spread landscape fabric and a few inches of stone dust, and then I got to work!
On other stuff. I worked on other stuff. Not my paving solution. Did I mention I wrecked the whole house at once? So my stone dust sat in these weird almost-paths with landscape fabric elegantly bordering them.
Adding insult to injury, one day I was innocently burning off-cuts of framing lumber and whatnot in the fire pit, and the fire department came. They shut that shit down. Apparently there is NO OPEN BURNING in the city of Kingston, which I kind of knew but thought a) was clearly not at all enforced, because fire pits are totally commonplace here and b) didn’t apply to manufactured fire pits, only to, ya know, that guy who wants to arrange some rocks in a circle and burn stuff in it.
Evidently I was mistaken. No open burning. No fire pit. Nobody can seem to give me a straight answer on whether this also applies to things like chimineas, which don’t exactly seem open so I’m maintaining that as an option until I inevitably buy one only to be told I just wasted hundreds of dollars, and to please keep my pyro tendencies in check.
I love burning things. I have a constant and steady supply of things to burn. Everyone back off.
By early the next spring, the situation had devolved into THIS. Feel free to note that the defunct fire pit has not moved. Also feel free to note the extreme chaos and disorder that would be…impossible not to note.
I share stuff like this not because I think embarrassing myself online is THAT fun (it’s a little fun), or because I think this is anything worth emulating, but you know what?
THIS. SHIT. IS. HARD. ALL OF IT. IT IS REALLY HARD. I AM ONE PERSON. TRYING TO DO THESE THINGS. AND THESE THINGS ARE TAKING ME YEARS. BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY BIG THINGS. AND THAT IS JUST HOW IT IS. SOMETIMES LIFE LOOKS LIKE THIS AND IT DOESN’T FEEL GOOD.
So. That’s what I have to say about that.
Like a fucking cherry on top of this shit sundae, also the tree fell. There are three other trees in the opposite corner of the backyard, but seeing as this was the ONLY remaining bit of intentional vegetation within 50 feet or so, this felt like a real slap in the face. On the bright side it was a Rose of Sharon, which I don’t actually like, so. No big loss but I was hoping to have some other stuff going on before removing it.
It wasn’t until early that summer that the beds finally got a little more attention! It was getting late in the season and I didn’t want to delay things further by worrying about giving the raised beds another coat of stain, so I just went ahead and filled them with enough soil, amended with compost, and planted stuff!
After this prolonged process, you can imagine how exciting this felt. Growing things to eat! In my very own backyard! At long last!
This was taken a few weeks after planting and before things really took off, but that summer I planted tomatoes, brussels sprouts, japanese eggplants, parsley, basil, cucumbers, and broccoli! AND IT ALL DID WELL! Like, REALLY well. TOO well. At a certain point, nobody wants your weird homegrown tomatoes anymore. Nobody is interested in your buckets of cucumbers. You can take your multiple kinds of basil and shove it all where the sun don’t shine.
NATURALLY, this coincided with the summer where I really didn’t have a kitchen. Even the makeshift kitchen wasn’t nearly as equipped for actual cooking as it ended up being as the months went on and a new kitchen didn’t magically materialize. The only functioning sink in the entire house was the original bathroom sink upstairs, a shallow double-tapped roughly 130-year-old porcelain little number that is really not ideal for washing dishes or, say, vegetables in.
This is a roundabout way of saying that a lot of those vegetables ended up making really nice compost for this year’s vegetables, and I still feel lousy about it.
ALSO. AS WE CAN ALL PLAINLY SEE. I was delusional about the amount of stone I thought I had. It’s so hard to tell when things are in piles. Then you spread them all around and it becomes painfully obvious that you have miscalculated. Maybe you spread a little more, because denial. And then you’re like, why did I spend hours spreading all these individually heavy objects out that now I have to put back? So perhaps you don’t put them back. Perhaps you decide that by seeing them all splayed about, inspiration will come. Perhaps while the inspiration is coming, you allow the spaces between them to fill with weeds that seem to overnight become as tall as you, turning your compost-from-the-dump garbage dustbowl yard into a kind of weed resort-spa.
Also you may notice I built 4 planters but have planted 2. On one hand, due to the truly insane amount of produce for someone with no easy means to cook it, I’m glad for this. On the other hand, it’s just because they were still in a state that was not good for planting, i.e. full of mayhem and foolishness rather than dirt and mulch.
WHICH brings us to this summer, where things are still nuts but not as nuts. This summer I got 3 of the 4 beds planted, this time with tomatoes, collard greens, romaine, chard, japanese eggplants, basil, parsley, cilantro, cucumbers, kale, broccoli, lavender and tarragon!
Every year you learn something about what to do next year, so now I know I definitely need to do tomato cages next year (I really like Joe Gardener’s approach!), definitely don’t need this many collard greens, strawberries are still kind of a waste of time, and I really don’t eat as much parsley as I thought I did.
Oh also! You can see where I decided to put the stone to use—walls! I’ve been chipping away at building these dry-stacked stone walls to kind of separate this area from the rest of the yard. It’s slow work but each stone that gets placed represents just a littttttle bit of progress, and there’s something kind of nice and meditative about that. Isn’t THIS ENTIRE ENDEAVOR basically just…that? Stone by stone until it starts to be something.
Look at those little tiny bottom teef! Look at the size of those weeds! The weed situation is sometimes under control and other times intense and not under control. This is in large part because there’s no weed barrier around and between most of the planter boxes or anything else to discourage weeds from growing.
Which leads us: back to the original plan for pea gravel! I cannot be talked down this time for various reasons. It is practical, it is affordable, it is beautiful, it is classic, and I have loved it forever. I believe I have a healthy understanding of the pros and cons and I have decided that the pros outweigh the cons and so IT IS SETTLED.
Except for the part where all summer now I have been talking about the enormous amount of pea gravel imminently arriving in my yard, but have not actually ordered or bought any pea gravel. Like every other summer, the demands of the house renovation and other projects have forced the backyard down the list of priorities, so while I WISH this area looked a whole lot better by now—and honestly expected it to—it’s not like the tomatoes really care whether they’re surrounded by pea gravel paths or bare landscape fabric or dirt. I’m still dying to get at least some of the gravel down while the weather’s still nice, since I’m excited for it and SO TIRED of looking at this mess.
ANYWAY. Now that I have more than sufficiently whined and moaned about stuff being difficult and time-consuming and disappointingly slow, I’d like to circle back to the part at the beginning—you know, about how this is fun and satisfying. I LOVE growing food in my backyard. I LOVE puttering around the beds, pulling weeds and cutting things back, yanking out spent plants to make way for new ones, thinking about what I’ll do the same and differently next year. It’s a fucking lovely experience, and someday it’ll be beautiful, too. Stone by stone.