I’ve always found gardening to be a creative exercise. Choosing what plants to put in the garden, which ones looks best together (or grow best together), and trying to keep them alive and thriving takes ingenuity and the ability to adapt. Over the past few years I’ve tried all sorts of different plants, both ornamental and the edible varieties, to see what works best in my environment.
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of gardening in North Florida is clay. My yard seems to be built on a large deposit of the stuff. There’s soil under the grass and bushes, but it’s only a few inches before the roots, and my shovel, hit clay.
The problem is that clay is dense, doesn’t drain water well, and doesn’t contain many nutrients. This makes it difficult to grow vegetables in a standard garden plot. In fact, most of my vegetable gardening has been done in pots on my patio.
So I decided it was time to upgrade to raised beds. One reason is that it’ll reduce the amount of grass I have to mow every week during the summer, and the other is that it’ll allow me to grow a wider variety of food.
Side note: I’ve developed an interest in a movement called ‘No Lawns‘, in which people forego their manicured and heavily-fertilized yards for more natural environments. These ‘no lawn’ yards tend to be converted to vegetable gardens or native plant environments. It’s good for the environment because it cuts down on fertilizers and pesticides that wash into our water supplies, and it’s beneficial for pollinators.
The cheap way to add raised beds to my yard is by building them myself – at least some of them – and the cheapest way is to build them out of old pallets. I was lucky enough to know someone who has access to pallets – a lot of them – and he was kind enough to drop off 10 of them at my house one afternoon.
The first thing I did was choose two pallets that were similar in size.
I then broke them down by removing all but one cross slat. This was the hardest part of the process. The problem with removing the slats is that they are nailed to the 2x4s with wood nails (nails with threads, similar to screws). Additionally, pallets, by nature, are usually beat up and the slats often broken during shipping. When that happens, someone will reconnect the broken or loose slat with more nails.
So armed with a pry bar, flathead screwdriver, and a hammer, I went to work. It took me about 90 minutes to six slats. Was it worth the effort? I think so. I’ll explain why shortly. Oh, and I was able to salvage most of the nails I removed.
Once I removed the slats, I then began to nail the slats back to the 2x4s side-by-side, getting rid of the space between the slats. I went three slats high, with is approximately 12 inches.
I did this with the two pallets, creating two sides of my raised bed. Unfortunately, a couple of the slats completely cracked when I was prying them loose, so I had to pull a few from one of the other pallets. With 12 slats total, I was able to build a nice, square raised bed.
After that, all I had to do was move it to a spot in the backyard. One other thing I did was staple some landscape fabric to the inside of the slats. They aren’t airtight, so lining with the fabric will prevent soil from leaking out through the cracks.
I’m still in the process of prepping the bed. I’ve added a few bags of soil, but I need to add more, along with some perlite (to keep the soil from compacting and to help hold moisture). It’s also autumn here in my area, so it’s kinda late to plant anything. My plan is to get the bed prepped and ready for spring.
I encourage you to try this yourself if you’re interested in raised bed gardening. However, there are several things to keep in mind and consider.
First and foremost, there’s no way to know for sure if a wooden pallet is made from treated or untreated wood. Because of this, I won’t be planting anything edible in this raised bed. The landscape fabric that lines the sides will help to prevent any toxins from seeping into the soil, but it’s not foolproof. Instead, I’ll plant wildflowers.
Second, it does take a bit of labor to break down the pallets. From breakdown to completed build, it took me nearly two and a half hours to complete this little bed. The alternative is to buy a raised bed. You can buy lumber, like cedar or redwood that is insect-resistant and will last for years, or even galvanized metal, but both alternatives are expensive. However, they are safe for growing vegetables. It all comes down to what you plan to grow.
Finally, pallets aren’t always easy to find. Don’t just pick up a stack of pallets from behind your local grocery or big-box store. Merchants tend to reuse pallets and taking them without asking can possibly lead to arrest for theft. The best bet is to ask a manager inside if they are willing to let you take a few. Or, if you’re like me, you might know someone who can give you a few to work with.
I still have a bunch of pallets stacked up next to my house, so I’ll be back to breaking them down and building a few more beds in the coming weeks. I’ll post an update once I get them up and running.
And if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.