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Posts Tagged ‘raised beds’

Oak Park’s Famous Small Kitchen Garden

This environmentally irresponsible yard would be legal in Oak Park, Michigan where lawn fascists seem to control the citizens. Note that the chemicals lawn owners apply to kill weeds and insects and to feed the grass, wash into sewers which empty into waterways that ultimately feed lakes and ocean bays. How can this possibly be good for the planet? How many hours of your life do you lose cutting back the grass that you’re obligated to keep healthy? In a free country, you should be able to choose NOT to waste your resources and your life this way.

In case you haven’t heard, representatives of the government of Oak Park, Michigan think that small kitchen gardens don’t belong in front yards. They site planning code that specifies homeowners may have only suitable plants in their front yards. This is news because it’s affecting a homeowner who decided that vegetables are suitable for her yard.

The Oak Park Situation

Excavation having to do with a sewer left the Basses’ yard in disarray. Being of sound mind, Julie Bass decided not to re-plant grass, but rather to build a lovely set of raised beds to hold a vegetable garden. It seems that a neighbor might have complained to the city government, and that government is insisting that the garden is a violation of city code.

Would this environmentally responsible yard be legal in Oak Park, Michigan? It contains no grass; just rocks and trees. Imagine how little time it takes to maintain this yard. Imagine how little gasoline the homeowner burns in that effort. I don’t see any food plants in the photo, so perhaps it could squeak past the lawn fascists.

The Basses have been ticketed and fined, and are now facing a trial. Apparently, the city’s entire case hinges on a misinterpretation of the word suitable. Oak Park’s Planning and Technology Director Kevin Rulkowski claims that Webster’s dictionary defines suitable as common. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and have yet to find one that agrees with Mr. Rulkowski. (It seems thousands of other folks have consulted many dictionaries; suitable is a trending word at online dictionary web sites.)

More sadly, Rulkowski invites his audience (TV interviewers) to look around the city. Every front yard, he asserts, contains grass and trees. This is his rational for prosecuting a front yard that has vegetables in it. (Can you hear Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes?)

How would Oak Park, Michigan treat the owner of this yard? There’s not a lick of grass, and many of the plants are flowers (which may be “suitable”). Still, if you look closely, you might notice a few strawberry patches and some mounds of squash scattered here and there. Honestly, I find the yard unattractive; no patterns emerge at all, and the various clumps don’t complement each other. Still, I applaud the homeowner and would be happy to live next door to – or across the street from such an environmentally responsible yard.

Crime Against the World and Ourselves

Some years ago I came to recognize that having a lawn is one of my greatest green offenses. In a nutshell: I spent about $50 from March through October and one-and-a-half hours a week “maintaining” my lawn. But what does this mean?

  • I applied chemicals to kill broadleaf weeds and to prevent crabgrass from taking root.
  • I applied chemical fertilizer so the grass would grow faster and fuller.
  • I watered to keep the grass going when it was particularly dry.
  • I tilled bare spots and planted new seed in damaged areas.
  • I mowed at least once a week—and in wet periods, twice a week.
  • I maintained the mower; when my first (10-year-old) mower burned, my wife invested in a self-propelled industrial-quality machine that must have cost a small fortune.
  • Oh, and I actually priced rental of heavy equipment: an aerator to drill holes and loosen the soil, and an overseeding machine that drills grass seed into the lawn to provide new vitality.

Then I saw the irony: I was spending money and time to grow something so I could cut it down and throw it away. My lawn’s only contribution is to keep the soil in my yard from washing away; we rarely spend time on the lawn except to walk to our flower and vegetable beds or to do lawn care!

If that’s not enough, mowing was blowing acrid, toxic smoke into the air, burning non-renewable petroleum products, and making a horrible racket. I noticed that there is almost never a time I can be in my yard without hearing a mower running in the neighborhood.

Seriously: if you need a lawn on which to play croquet, soccer, or other outdoor games, it makes so much more sense to go to a park or a playground than to maintain your own lawn for the rare recreation.

I can’t help wondering: are there any houses in Oak Park, Michigan that are so close to the street you might not consider the area in front to be a yard? Does the homeowner need to buy a lawnmower to handle the six foot strip of grass? Would a flower garden like the one in this photo be legal as an alternative? I suspect it would pass as long as the town council doesn’t recognize Echinacea… some people consume it for alleged medicinal value.

Oak Park Idiocy

So, a lawn keeps soil from washing away. Apparently, the government of Oak Park sees another amazing benefit to growing grass: It conforms. And, by golly, if your yard doesn’t conform, the city will pursue every legal means to make it conform.

It’s hard for me not to exercise the word fascism. Please say it with me: lawn fascist. Reason tells us that replacing your grass with vegetable gardens actually improves the planet, and if it’s your food, it improves the quality of what you eat. It saddens me to think that a lawn fascism ideology could even exist, much less have power to suppress positive inclinations of citizens in a free country.

I’ve signed a petition in support of Julie Bass and her raised bed vegetable garden, and I hope you’ll sign it too. Also, you might enjoy Julie’s blog and the television news reports about the situation. The aspect of this story that amazes me most of all is that Julie’s raised bed gardens are very tidy and attractive. I would love to see such well-kept gardens in every front yard in my town; even a poorly-kept vegetable garden would have way more curb appeal to me than yet another homogeneous spread of useless, environmentally-damaging grass.

Here’s another tricky call: would Oak Park, Michigan allow this yard? Trees and flowers must certainly be suitable in a no vegetables allowed city. But wait! The petals of day lilies go great in salads. Who knows what other fine foods might lurk in this seditious yardscape?

I had to include this disgraceful display in my post. I don’t believe this corner house has a lawn; every inch of the yard is a vegetable and flower garden. While snapping photos, I noticed that there are even botanical-garden-quality signs among the plantings so pedestrians can easily identify them. Oak Park, Michigan would send a squat team to remove the offending plants and bring the owners to justice.

A final tricky one: would this be legal in Oak Park, Michigan? There’s lawn, but there’s also a big honking vegetable garden. What’s missing is a house! Yes, this is a vegetable garden on an empty building lot—a corner lot, no less. I suspect the management of Oak Park would deem this an eyesore when what’s really wrong is that the kitchen garden doesn’t fill the lot. Someone still must tend the useless lawn whose only purpose is to fill space.

I’m willing to bet that Oak Park, Michigan officials could find a whole lot of trees in their city that look like this one; it has a mound of mulch that reaches well up its trunk. Even being a low-life ugly-vegetable-growing scofflaw sympathizer, I know it’s a crime to heap mulch against a tree’s bark. Oak Park could do its citizens a true service by finding such abused trees and raking the mulch away from them. Certainly no government agency could deem this horrid treatment of a tree as suitable.

Places to visit for more on this story

  • The petition – Please tell the City of Oak Park to let Julie Bass grow vegetables in her front yard. It’s time the city’s government adopt a responsible attitude about air polution, noise polution, conservation on non-renewable petroleum resources, and lawn fascism.

  • Julie Bass’s blog – Read what Julie has to say about her situation.

  • If Oak Park Hates Veggies, They Can Bite Me – Commentary by Ivette Soler whose book, The Edible Front Yard encourages you to grow food in your front yard.

  • WXYZ News – Hear a local news station’s coverage of the Oak Park situation.

  • Fox News, Detroit – More local news coverage of the Oak Park situation.

  • Plantgasm Blog – Another blog post about the Oak Park idiocy along with many links to other web pages of interest.


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Lumber for a Raised Bed in a Small Kitchen Garden

While this post is part of a series that explains how to build your own raised planting bed, you could save much aggravation by assembling a planting bed from a kit. As you might expect, a kit costs more than twice what you pay for materials to build it yourself. Still, if you have absolutely no woodworking skills (or tools), seriously consider getting a kit. Follow this link for more information.

There are few limits to how you design a small kitchen garden. Once you’ve decided on location, you face the considerable challenge of designing and creating planting beds. So far, this blog has shown how to cut a planting bed into an existing lawn, and how to build retaining walls using landscaping timbers for a raised bed that sits five inches above an existing lawn—or another area with soil that can become part of the planting bed.

What if the soil in your future garden area simply isn’t usable? Or, what if there is no soil, but you happen to have a concrete pad left over from a demolished barn, house, garage or carport? Or, what if you just don’t want to bend down so far to reach the plants and weeds in your planting beds? These are all reasons to build deep raised bed gardens. This post explains how to use lumber other than landscaping timbers to build deep raised beds.

Small Kitchen Garden Raised Beds

In an earlier post on building raised beds, I suggested that at the very least, your planting beds should have soil to a depth of one foot. Were I to build on a surface through which roots couldn’t grow, I’d make my raised beds 14 inches deep. This way, I know that if I need to dig with a shovel, I won’t likely strike bottom when I push the shovel down with my foot.

Construction-grade lumber is typically milled from white pine trees. The wood is light-colored and light-weight, and it rots easily. If you build retaining walls for a raised bed garden from white pine, you’ll likely need to replace them in four-to-six years. Find a leech-proof, non-toxic sealant, and apply several coats before installing your raised bed.

You need to create a retaining wall to hold that much soil in a pile. Typically, people use lumber to build retaining walls, but there are many other fine alternatives. The downside of using lumber is that it has a tendency to rot; a wooden retaining wall in contact with soil can lose integrity in three or four years. Worse: in many climates, putting wood in contact with soil is like putting up a welcome sign for termites. If your planting bed will be close to your house—or snuggled up against it—take extreme caution not to provide a bridge for termites to get from the soil in your yard to the wood frame of your house.

Lumber for your Raised Beds

Termites and other agents that destroy wood have preferences. The most affordable lumber, for example, is pine, a very soft wood. Pine absorbs and holds water easily which leads to cracking and deterioration especially where the wet wood freezes, thaws, and dries out over the course of a year. Boring insects can make holes in pine easily, and microorganisms that cause rot find pine an easy target.

Hardwoods resist rot far better than pine does, but they are also considerably more expensive. To boot, hardwoods aren’t as easy to find in the same variety of dimensions as pine… and the very most rot-resistant hardwoods may simply not be available at all.

There are several varieties of cedar. You often see red cedar lining linnen chests and saunas, and white cedar used to build outdoor furniture and fences.

Cedar is a popular choice for building raised bed retaining walls. As it’s also popular for building decks and outdoor furniture, it may be available in a local store… but it is expensive.

Because it’s inexpensive and abundant, many people use pine to build raised bed retaining walls. But if you use pine, you’ll need to replace it every three-to-five years unless you treat it with something to protect it from rot. This is where the worlds of evil corporations, government regulation, an overzealous legal system, and fearful consumer gardeners intersect.

Pressure-Treated Lumber for Raised Beds?

From pre-history, people have turned to chemicals to protect wood from rotting. Creosote has proven extremely successful—it’s on telephone poles and railroad ties all over the United States. For many years, you could buy creosote-soaked railroad ties to build retaining walls in your own yard… but this has fallen out of practice: creosote protects wood effectively because it has stuff in it that’s really bad for biology. We have a lot of biology going on in us, so we shouldn’t be getting into creosote.

Pressure-treated lumber typically has a green tinge to it. If you use it in your garden, wear a dust mask when cutting it. Thoroughly clean up any sawdust you create and put it out with the trash. Don’t burn or compost unused pressure-treated lumber.

The lumber industry has found alternatives to creosote, and in most places you can find pressure-treated lumber that is extremely resistant to rot. In the United States, until recently pressure-treated lumber had arsenic in it, and experts have argued the danger of coming into contact with such lumber. About 20 years ago, I read a discussion in which an expert explained that if you collected the soil around a piece of pressure-treated lumber and ate it, you might consume a dangerous amount of arsenic after twenty or thirty years of daily consumption; even within an inch of pressure treated lumber in the ground, there was no detectable arsenic.

Despite these types of findings, all do-it-yourself gurus warned people not to use pressure-treated lumber where humans might come in contact with it. You certainly wouldn’t use it in a produce garden. And, because of lawsuits and finger-pointing, the industry agreed to stop putting arsenic in pressure-treated lumber destined for home use. In the US, a ban went into effect five-or-six years ago.

Does this mean you can use today’s pressure-treated lumber to build raised planting beds in a small kitchen garden? There’s still a lot of paranoia; but, living in the United States, I’d do it. To address any discomfort you might feel about it, there are two precautions you can take:

  1. After assembling the retaining wall, line the inside of the wall with heavy plastic before you fill the frame with soil.
  2. Stain or paint the surfaces of the retaining wall that face out or up; if you’re going to come in contact with the wood, paint it to lock in whatever chemicals are in it.

Here’s a terrific article about pressure-treated lumber, in case you want a thorough understanding about what was wrong with pressure treated lumber when it was made with arsenic: Does Pressure-Treated Wood Belong in Your Garden?

Plastic for a Small Kitchen Garden?

With the near necessity that every new house includes a deck, the building industry has introduced several materials to replace and out-last wood. Composite materials are waste wood—sawdust, for example—mixed with synthetics such as plastic and then formed into boards. These boards have the same dimensions as certain standard cuts of lumber and they have similar woodworking characteristics. That is: you can cut them with a saw, drill holes, and hold them together with screws. They’ll also take paint, though they don’t require any. Best of all: they’ll last for 40 or more years with no maintenance.

I’ve also read about “plastic lumber” which I can only guess is not a composite, but is plastic shaped and textured to resemble boards. If you don’t object to surrounding your garden with plastic, then composite decking is the most maintenance-free material for building a classic “wood-frame” raised planting bed.


I visited a home improvement store so I could estimate the costs of materials for raised planting beds using different materials. Here’s a summary:

Retaining Walls Cost of Materials for 4′ x 10′ Bed
  Treated Untreated Composite Cedar
  $58.67 $48.36 $118.77 $111.37

These estimates assume a 4 foot by 10 foot bed with 14 inch sides (technically, they’ll be 13 inches when assembled)… except in the case of the composite materials. The dollar amount in that column will build a 12-inch-deep raised bed.

One other caveat: I haven’t included costs for paint or sealer or plastic sheeting. If you build with untreated pine boards, figure to spend another $15 to $25 for sealant to protect the wood against moisture. I’d apply several coats of marine spar varnish to all the wood before assembling the retaining wall. That should extend the life of the walls for a few seasons.

Enough about Lumber

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of the materials you might use to make a traditional raised bed for a small kitchen garden. In an upcoming post, we’ll list materials to buy and the tools you’ll need to do the work. We’ll also explain how to assemble a frame and set it in place.

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