Burning Thanksgiving calories by building a new garden bed

And we’re back with a bang! Yes, we’ve been away since October, but our sweet baby girl (oh, and life in general) has been keeping us so busy that we’ve barely managed to do any projects around the house worth blogging about. But I just had almost a full week off work, so here comes a few posts!

Once again this year Rachel’s family drove up from Athens/Atlanta and spent the entire Thanksgiving week with us here in DC. I worked Monday and then took the rest of the week off, and my father-in-law (the best!) and I started the 25-foot-long raised beds along the north side of the backyard. Interestingly, last year at Thanksgiving, my brother-, father-in-law and I were in the backyard starting to break up concrete, removing more old fencing and digging out old roots and concrete balls from old chain-link fence posts.


My, we’ve come a long way since then, though it sure has moved along at a glacial pace considering where we were a year ago. As a refresher, here’s the initial plan for the backyard that I put together after I completed the new back retaining wall.

The new fence was started a few weeks ago by a good contractor/architect friend who beat all the fence companies I got estimates from in price, awesomeness and general midwestern charm. The fence will be complete at some point, but the big thing I wanted done before Thanksgiving was the north fence — so I could build the raised beds over the Thanksgiving week with all of the free time and extra help.

Opting for stone/concrete is less expensive and a much better long-term solution for the raised beds than good cedar — and that’s before considering the fact that even cedar beds would have to be rebuilt in 10-15 years. A well-crafted stone bed is much more permanent and aesthetically pleasing than wood; more like a bona fide landscaping element than merely a functional raised garden bed. The bonus is that the beds can become extra seating for the patio closest to the house — if we get to that.

I ordered the stacking concrete blocks and some full-sized cinder blocks from Lowe’s for delivery. The plan was to use the stacking blocks for 3 sides and to use normal (cheaper) concrete block against the fence for the side hidden in the back. (The idea is to protect the fence from dirt and moisture to lengthen its lifespan.)

My plan had been for a 36-inch bed in the back. The gate starts about 36 inches from the NW corner, but I failed to think about the fact that the blocks are 8 inches deep, and the concrete blocks for the back were WAY too big at a full 8 inches deep. That’s 16 inches lost from a 36-inch bed. So I went to Galliher and Huguely last minute on Tuesday and bought 4-inch cinder blocks like these at right. To maximize the size of the beds, I decided to make the bed a little wider than the space between the corner and the gate, so it overlaps the gate posts by 6 inches or so. (Picture at the bottom) This is also the reason I scrapped the curve and taper in the bed seen in the sketch above, keeping them the same width all the way back. This sacrificed some eventual patio space, but it’s worth it for the extra gardening room.

I used these Fulton stacking blocks and a much nicer capstone that goes with Lowe’s signature Allen + Roth line of stone products. They look tan in that photo, but it’s a “charcoal and tan blend” that really looks more grey with some brown highlights in it. The other caps were not nearly as smooth on the top, and with the plan to use this wall for extra seating, the higher quality caps were the way to go.

Building the beds

Once again, I was too busy working and forgot to take photos of the process, but it was pretty simple. (This how-to I found awhile back is immensely helpful, btw.)

  1. Run a straight line with string to align for aligning the front and back, and dig a trench a little wider than the blocks (or as wide as your tamper.)
  2. On the low end of the yard, I planned to have almost none of the bottom block buried, but for the rest of the bed where the yard is highest, we planned for about two inches to be buried. That, combined with 1-2 inches for gravel or sand to fill and level out the trench, meant that we dug about 3-5 inches down. The goal is a level trench, though an inch or so of slope across a 25-foot bed isn’t too bad and barely noticeable.
  3. After digging the trench we tamped everything down really good and poured in an inch or two of gravel. More tamping, and more checking to see if the trench was level with the four-foot level (and a line level on the string, measuring down to the bottom of the trench to check heights.)
  4. When placing the stones, only the bottom run takes a lot of time, but it’s the most important. We would place a stone, check the level front to back, side to side, and over the previous few stones, and then move the gravel or sand around below it to level it out and re-place. It took us about an hour and a half to set the entire bottom course of stones.
  5. After finishing the bottom run it’s as simple as stacking the blocks on top and making sure they’re properly centered on each gap. We used masonry adhesive just for the caps on the top. (Dad and I trying to get the caps installed before dinner on Wednesday below.)
  6. On the back cinder blocks, we drove 2-foot rebar spikes through the holes and into the ground to keep the cinder blocks from moving, though they’ll likely just lean against the fence once the dirt goes in. Two cinder blocks on top of each other (8″ each) is the same height as four stacking blocks (4″ each), so that made digging the trench easy since it was the same on all sides.

Voila! A half finished wall.

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Half finished, because Lowe’s shorted me 17 stacking blocks. So on Wednesday, we had to drive down to Alexandria on Tuesday to pick those up, and I proposed a deal to the very helpful customer service person: come back and pick up the pallet of too-larger cinder blocks without charging me the $75 delivery fee, and I’ll take the 17 blocks that you shorted me right now. Deal!

We couldn’t get the (heavy!!!) 30 caps that we needed in our Honda Accord along with the 17 blocks without breaking the suspension, so we bought what we could and made a second trip to Lowe’s in New Carrolton (much closer) on Wednesday afternoon to get those.

For the caps on the corners and the curves, these blocks do not break well with a hammer chisel and sledgehammer — I’ve broken two already trying to cut them that way, but I did buy extra figuring that might happen at the hands of this masonry ignoramus. So I’m going to have to borrow an angle grinder or something for cutting stone.

On Friday, we went to DPW at Ft. Totten to get a full truckload of the amazing black compost that the city provides for free (and burn off as many turkey calories as possible.) After an hour and four tired arms later, we had the truck unloaded into the bed, and things were looking finished.

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On the way back from Lowe’s in Maryland, we stopped by Community Forklift and found these great matching brick-sized pavers to put on top of the cinder blocks in the back. They just sit on the top of the cinder blocks turned on their side, and the dirt will push them against the fence. This gives a nice finished top to the back edge without having to split the fancy (and expensive) caps in half, and even give a little extra two inches of height on the back edge of the bed.

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Total price for this entire raised bed project? Give or take (these aren’t all the exact amounts, some I estimated from memory), about $530. Not bad.

120 Pavestone retaining wall blocks $217.20
35 Pavestone caps $104.30
38 cinder blocks $60.04
39 Community Forklift Bricks $19.50
Bags ‘o gravel and sand $63.00
Stone delivery $75.00
Compost $0.00
Total $539.04

Tomorrow, I’ll show more of the fence work, along with the steps in the back and the new paver areas for the trash and recycling cans — finished one of those late Sunday night!

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an enormous shout-out to my father-in-law Paul, whom I love and without whom I never would have finished this before going back to work after Thanksgiving. He endured my maniacal focus on getting this done and driving all over DC to get materials so we could make that happen. Here’s to you, dad!

As always, we close with some before and afters:

Backyard from roof 22012-11-26 08.40.39

Looking north, no hedges
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