The wood is cheap, but the screws are expensive

In a previous post, I discussed why I opted to build raised beds for my new garden at our new house.  The explanation included cataclysmic floods (sans ark), and subsequent soil that was not capable of supporting much of anything.  While browsing on Craigslist (you might have heard of this site, according to my dad, it is the place to go if you are a pervert, want to get abducted, or desire a partner with similar or at least compatible fetishes), I found some wood that seemed like it might fit my purposes.

Remember to used discretion in category choice and to be specific and keep an open mind when you search for “wood” on Craigslist.

The last time I looked for wood on Craigslist, I didn’t get what I was expecting.  But this time, the wood was more appropriate for my needs – western redcedar mill ends.  Mill ends are scrap pieces of wood left over from lumber sawing.  Some people refer to slab, or the D-shaped pieces of log left over along the bark surface as mill ends – these mill ends were actual 24-inch end trimmings from 2×4 lumber.  The guy wanted 15 cents a piece.  With run-of-the-mill 8-foot 2×4 cedar going for $5+, this seemed like a good option…8 cents a foot instead of 63 cents plus a foot.  Cedar is a good choice for raised beds because it is rot-resistant without being treated, it is attractive when weathered, and it is local (to me).  So I bought several hundred of them, loaded them in the front seat and the back and the dashboard and under the seat and in my lap in the trusty 1994 Explorer, and stacked them in the backyard.  I wasn’t even abducted in the process.

Obviously, I set myself up to do an awful lot of work. fastening these pieces of wood together to make a sturdy, attractive, and efficient raised bed.  But, if you can find mill ends or some other short product, I think there are a few potential benefits:

  • Price.  It is often much cheaper to buy scraps or smaller pieces of lumber.
  • Replacement.  If one board rots or breaks, it is much simpler to replace a short section than a long one.
  • Sustainability.  If you are using something that is potentially a waste product, you are conserving natural resources.
  • Appearance.  I think the smaller pieces of wood look pretty cool together.

My homemade jig for accurate screw placement. Above is a countersink drill bit, an essential tool for many basic construction projects.

The first step in construction was building a jig to accurately place screws for sturdy construction and consistent appearance.  I modified a galvanized 2×4 bracket for this purpose and drilled holes about 1 inch in from the end and one inch down from each side.  I placed this jig on the end of each piece of lumber (of course choosing the more attractive side to face out) and used a hammer and punch to mark my holes for countersinking and screwing.  A countersinking drill bit is a must for much wood work, drilling a pilot hole so the wood doesn’t split and a recess for the screw head, allowing the screw head to sit flush or beneath the surface of the wood.  Invest in a quality countersink drill bit set if you don’t have one already…most are made of three parts – the larger cutting bit that cuts the recess, a drill bit that cuts the pilot hole, and a tiny allen screw that holds the bits together.  Cheap ones like to break.  And buy extra drill bits for the pilot holes.  They will break.

My plan was to build four raised beds that were 12 feet by 4 feet, and from 12 to 16 inches deep.

The first wall of a raised bed. I later decided to go only four boards high.

To assemble the walls for the raised beds, I decided to stagger the boards, so they looked kind of like mortared bricks, and so there was more strength in my design.  I went four boards high, giving me a total height of 14 inches (remember that 2×4 lumber is not actually 2×4 but 1.5×3.5).  Not every piece was exactly 2 feet long, so I had to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle.  I used additional cedar 2×4 pieces every foot behind the face board to have something to screw into.  Obviously, with the staggered design, two pieces on each end had to be cut into one foot sections.  Once I got into a rhythm, these went together pretty quickly.  Usually with these kinds of projects, I find it most efficient to stick to a step a time – i.e. mark all the wood with the jig, drill all the necessary countersinks, then construct at least one entire side of a raised bed.

I used self-tapping, Torx-headed, coated, exterior-grade screws for this project.  These things are expensive, but I think the cost is justified because:

  • The Torx head is efficient.  It has a very positive connection with the driver bit.  It never cams out, and it is difficult to strip.
  • The self-tapping point provides double insurance against splitting when combined with pilot holes.  Wood like pine and cedar loves to split.  It rarely happens with these self-tapping points, even without pilot holes.
  • Cedar and redwood contain enzymes and other substances that can react with most kinds of screws to create streaking and staining and corrosion.  Whatever cancer goop they spray on pressure treated wood does the same.  Coated screws most often used for decks make the project look nicer, and last longer.
  • I can’t buy a Lamborghini, but I can buy the Lamborghini of screws.  It is very rare in my life that I decide to buy the “best” of anything, because I am cheap was instilled with a Strong and Sometimes Crippling Protestant Work Ethic with Catholic Guilt.  These things seem to be at odds.  They are.

The raised beds, unfilled, looking a bit crooked.

When it came time to put them together, I attached the sides to pressure-treated 4x4s that were sunk into the ground.  Of course, I placed the posts perfectly the first time.  Of course, I didn’t have to move all of them when I realized I had measured incorrectly.  Of course, the consumption of a couple imperial IPAs had nothing to do with the errors.

Regarding pressure-treated wood…you probably shouldn’t use it.  It’s not treated with nearly the nasty stuff that it used to be, but I don’t think it’s very good for you.  Even if it isn’t that bad for you, the point of this whole gardening exercise (for most of us) is to create delicious food that is free of the general corporate-industrial chemical smegma that Monsanto et. al. want us to believe is OK for us to ingest.  That being said, I used pressure-treated wood for my corner posts.  I covered them with plastic below the soil surface.  I’m not sure that the plastic helps.  Maybe the plastic is even worse.  I used the materials that were on hand.  My earlier pontificating might lead me to replace them with some more environmentally friendly alternative, like some beam constructed entirely from kale, organic patchouli incense ash, and recycled hemp clothing.

Topsoil and garden mix, delivered the easy way.

When the 2-foot cedar pieces were used not only for face boards, but also for backing supports, I was left with 10 inches of board sticking up every foot.  I had thought this might be useful for attaching trellises or other supports, but really, it just looked stupid.  I did want to put boards along the top of the beds for a nice little rail for sitting.  Rather than measuring each support and cutting it carefully, I wanted a more reckless and sloppy method.  Chainsaw, chainsaw, chainsaw (right now, I might be yelling these words just like the guy on TV that yells “MONSTER TRUCK, MONSTER TRUCK, MONSTER TRUCK!”, advertising one of those events where some guy in an American flag jumpsuit shotguns a Keystone Light, and drives a pickup with 300-inch super swamper tires over a bunch of old Subarus and Hondas and Toyotas)… … …

The final product, ready for planting.
That digression got way out of hand.  I used a chainsaw to cut the supports off.  Then I covered the lawn poking up inside the raised beds with cardboard, hopefully smothering it.  This left me with decisions about dirt.  I’ve discussed in earlier posts my dislike of Franken-soil ala the square foot gardening technique.  I opted for 3 yards of topsoil and 6 yards of garden mix (compost, sand, sawdust, topsoil).  I found what I needed on Craigslist, at a very reasonable price (Craigslist – a place for perverts and miscreants, but I haven’t found any ball-gags or anything in the soil or lumber yet…). I mixed this soil with a pickup load of well-composted horse manure.  The soil was tilled with a Mantis tiller.  I added a bit of vermiculite (from Craigslist, the guy did have some other interesting things to sell out of the back of his Suburban when I met him in the Home Depot parking lot, I respectfully abstained).

I’ve added my drip irrigation system to the mix, and am very pleased with the results so far.  I’ll discuss easy drip irrigation layouts and designs in another post.

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