Building Elevated Planter Boxes for Easier Gardening
Elevated Planters are Gardening Aids for the Elderly and Disabled
By Anita B. Stone
Building elevated planter boxes helps bring plants closer. They’re great for children, disabled gardeners, or the elderly.
Gardening can be an incredibly rewarding task, but sometimes the physical effort required (weeding, planting, and mulching) can take a toll on our bodies, especially for those of us who have to stretch in order to reach the plant beds. Excellent for all seasons, waist-high raised bed gardening can make the soil and plants you are working with more accessible because everything is located in an area where we can easily reach and tend to our plants. This popular idea is useful for young children, the elderly, and any gardeners who have difficulty kneeling or reaching far without support. And if you are a gardener who wishes to enjoy more convenience, building elevated planter boxes is for you. By simply moving the raised bed concept up off of the ground and elevating it to a table on legs, we can all grow flowers, fruits, and vegetables comfortably.
A simple hand-reaching effort without leaning and hurting our backs or having to bend our knees and stretch is becoming popular in home gardens and senior facilities. If you are a senior or adjusting to a disability, this is one of the easiest methods of gardening. Even if age or disabilities are not major issues in the gardening arena, try building elevated planter boxes and enjoy the ease and comfort it will provide for years to come.
To measure the distance between the bed and yourself, use your arm as a guide. You should be able to reach the center of the bed from the end or sides. The ideal bed offers top-notch growing in a specific space and allows room for maneuverability. When designing the bed with legs on blocks, make sure the bottom panels are strong enough to support the soil plus the water that will be placed into the bed. The rule of thumb is to use 10 inches of soil for deep-rooted crops. A bed eight to nine inches deep will accommodate herbs and some short, small vegetables. Last spring I built a raised garden using a series of bricks that sat one on top of each other, held together with mortar. I used concrete blocks to build another style of raised bed garden, which worked well. The blocks are heavy and strong enough to firmly withstand any type of spring and summer storms when etched into the ground on the lowest level. From that point, you can build a rectangular or square shape upward as high as you wish, the most popular being up to your waist. A tape measure is important to have on hand in order to get the proper measurements for your personal space. For wheelchair accessibility, a 24-inch bed is the best choice. A 36-inch bed off the ground will help avoid the bending-over-factor.
Many people use lumber for building elevated planter boxes, as opposed to bricks. Lumber comes in 8′, 10′ and 12′ lengths, so try to keep the dimensions of your beds to multiples of two or three feet to minimize waste. For example, if the dimensions are 3′ x 6′ then 12′ lumber is ideal. A 4′ x 8′ bed is most easily built with lumber. A popular bed measures 4′ wide by 20′ long because it gives you 80 square feet of growing space. A 3′ x 3′ is also a good measurement whether you stand or sit in a chair. One consideration is the type of wood used. If you decide to use recycled wood, the length determines both width and length of the bed. Because of its rot-resistant properties, many gardeners use cedar. Select boards 20-2″ x 4″ x 8′ and one 1″ x 2″ x 8″. Try to avoid treated lumber, which contains heavy metals that are potentially dangerous and environmentally hazardous. Treated railroad ties also leach dangerous chemicals into the soil. The possibility of raw wood rotting is realistic, but it takes several years and it is still better than using wood that injures the environment and puts toxins in the soil.
For higher vegetable yields, raised beds should be placed in a north-south direction for a maximum sun exposure of six to eight hours. Beds should be placed away from the drip line of trees and about 100 feet away from walnut trees. Once your location has been determined, you can lay moistened newspaper down to smother any weeds that have decided to pay you a visit. Make sure there are sufficient drainage holes in the bottom of the bed. A two- to four-inch layer of gravel can be used at the bottom of the bed prior to filling it with soil. Before you fill the beds, make sure the frame is level. When you fill the beds, it is preferable to use sphagnum peat, leaf mold, and manure. Soil should be about five percent organic and the pH should measure 6.5 for best growth. I prefer a soilless mix, which I often blend myself by using a mixture of peat, perlite, and vermiculite. The mixes are light and offer top of the line drainage. With a soilless mix, you should fertilize and water frequently.
Several months ago I located an old chest of drawers and measured one of the drawers, which turned out to be a perfect solution for my particular needs. I drilled four holes for drainage, and then hiked the drawer on top of a double layer of concrete blocks prior to filling it with soil. This makeshift innovation worked perfectly and it was simple. To figure out how much soil was needed, I simply measured the length and width of the drawer area. First, figure out the necessary depth of the soil in feet. Second, decide how deep you want it. If the measurement is less than one foot, divide the number of inches by 12 to convert it to feet. For example, three inches divided by 12 equals .25 feet. Multiply the width by the length by the depth to find the number of cubic feet of soil required. If the length is 10′, the width is 10′, and the depth is 0.25′, the result is 25 cubic feet because (10 x 10 x 0.25 = 25). Once you convert the numbers, you can fill the space. Also, if you want to measure soil from feet to yard, simply remember that 27 cubic feet is equal to one cubic yard. Use mulch to retain soil moisture. You can also use pine needles, just be careful with them because too many may burn the roots of your plants.
Many people use topsoil when building elevated planter boxes, but I try to steer clear of it because numerous tiny sprouts often find their way into the bed. So be diligent as to where you purchase the topsoil and make sure it’s a reputable place. You can also put your topsoil through a tight steel strainer to make sure any weed seeds will be caught prior to spreading into the beds. To get the best soil for crops, look for a combination of topsoil, potting soil, and compost. Keep in mind that weeding is greatly reduced in a raised bed.
You can opt to cover newly planted seedlings with bird netting or row covers. It is fun to add a low tunnel effect by simply bending two 6′ pieces of 1/2″ PVC pipe to form a hoop. This way you can fashion semi-circles and place their ends into 1″ pipe previously placed inside or fastened to the side of the bed. Then drape the bird netting or row covers over them. If you want a tiered look, use circular forms to insert inside the rectangular raised bed and plant the items in levels to give the tiered look.
The size and depth of the bed can be constructed to suit your personal requirements. For example, the outside measurements of the bed can be 4’4″ wide x 3’4″ deep x 36′ high. I have seen several raised beds, usually 18″ to 24″ high and approximately four feet wide. When figuring out the amount of fertilizer, you can use approximately one pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 10′ x 10′ area.
Water conservation is a prime ingredient for building elevated planter boxes. Soaker hoses are perfect for this type of garden because water is geared towards the roots and not wasted on unnecessary areas, which only causes pathogens to attack when leaves and flowers become saturated. You can also add a timer to control your soaker hoses. Small hand tools can be used in beds, eliminating the larger tools, which are not necessary and sometimes inconvenient to handle.
Another positive point for elevated no-bend raised beds is mobility. You always have the option to move the bed, no matter where it is located as long as you don’t set it in concrete. If you build or purchase more than one bed, make sure 12″ paths are accessible to move between the beds. Other suggestions are 18″ to 24″ paths, and for wheelchairs, a four-foot pathway is the best. Once lifted off the ground, a raised bed becomes functional and has the possibility to meet your needs in any season, with any types of flowers, vegetables or herbs and become an unlimited source of gardening for everyone.
Have you tried building elevated planter boxes for gardening ease? Tell us about it.
Originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.