Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chicken Wire Beds

So as many of you know, we are always trying to find new ways of making raised beds. I have already tried straw bale beds, tire beds, and the traditional wooden beds. Here's a quick rundown of everything we've tried. You can skip to the last one if you just want to find out about the chicken wire beds.

Used Tire Beds:
We've covered this in a previous post, so I'll keep this short. The advantages are that the tires are free, and don't fall apart. The disadvantages are that they don't look very good and are a fairly odd shape.Wooden beds:
This style of raised bed is the backbone to most community gardens. They are sturdy, long lasting, relatively simple to build, and don't make your garden look like a junkyard.
The big issue with these beds is that they are expensive. Very, very expensive. They are twice as expensive as any other bed.

Straw bale beds:
These beds are quick to assemble and the materials are fairly simple. Note that I did not say inexpensive. Straw bales are simple looking enough, but they are pretty expensive to obtain in a city. Additionally, none of our straw bale beds have lasted a year. The straw based beds fall apart far too quickly. They have provided great compost, but they break down too quickly to be cost and time effective.

Chicken Wire Beds:
Finally, the beds you are here to learn about.

This method was thought up by Raul, one of our most dedicated community members. We built our first bed of this style last year. We wrapped some metal mesh into a circle, linked it to itself with some hog rings. We then padded the inside with a few inches of straw, and filled the inside with dirt. It was about a foot and a half tall and 3 feet in diameter. It was a small investment in time and supplies. We assumed that it would collapse over time because it is just being held together by mesh.
The picture above is a picture of that first bed today, over a year after we first built it. As you can see, it is still standing and not even beginning to show signs of slumping. It is heavily mulched on top so it's hard to tell that it is full of dirt, but trust us there is soil in there.

Since our first experience with these mesh beds was a success, we decided to attempt a larger version. Our second bed was made out of 2.5 ft high metal mesh that was even thinner than the first bed. Also, this bed's diameter was over 4 feet. We then lined the bed with straw and filled it with fresh compost. (So fresh that we kept finding surprises in it, like banana peels)

As you can see, two months have passed and it is still standing. Plus the Early Girl tomatoes we planted are growing like weeds. Since we were once again successful, we decided to really get creative. We knew that if we made the diameter over 5 feet, we would start to have trouble reaching the inner plants, so we decided to attempt a different shape.

I would describe this as kidney bean shaped and it really looks unique. Also, it adds the challenge of a concave area. That is why we invested in some pieces of scrap wood to add a little extra support to our newest bed. So far, after a lot of test watering (and a few scientific test kicks) it feels like it is holding up quite well. We are letting the soil settle a little and then we will be putting transplants into it this Saturday.

At this stage, I am very excited about chicken wire beds. Compared to all the other beds we've built, this has been the least expensive and seems very durable.

All you need for a wire bed is:
-A length of chicken wire, old fencing, or any metal mesh. All of these are frequently seen on the sides of roads or can be bought in 100 ft. lengths (~$35) from the local hardware store.
-Part of a bale of straw. Even our biggest bed barely used a whole bale. Also, I have a feeling that other materials would work (old grass clippings? leaves? palm fronds? very coarse wood chips??).
-Something to attach your mesh to itself. Hog clamps are ideal and inexpensive (under $10), but I am sure there are lots of different ways.
-Less time than it takes to build a lot of other beds.

As you can see, most of the above are inexpensive and can frequently be acquired for free as long as you keep your eyes open. Plus, this construction style is very flexible. Did I mention we made a gigantic kidney bean?

The Downsides:
The potential downsides to this bed are durability and drainage.

Although none of our beds have fallen apart yet, we are assuming that one of two issues will occur. Eventually the straw will break down and the soil will start falling out of the bed OR the wire will corrode and the whole bed will break open. However, neither of these have occurred yet and do not look as though the beds are starting to do either. We have the advantage of the dry environment here in the desert. The straw stays dry enough to slow down decomposition and it also keeps the metal on the outside from rusting apart.

This brings us to the downside of our dry environment. These beds have very porous edges and may require a lot more water to keep moist in the Arizona summer. Only our oldest bed was in place last summer and the plants in it did not do well. However, in our defense, that is because they were strawberries. It also was the smallest bed so it had a very high surface area to volume ratio. Ideally our larger circle should hold water very well. The straw on the outside of the bed acts as a very thick layer of mulch.

Overall, this is my new favorite method for bed construction. This passes up the old wooden beds because it is much, much cheaper and durable enough to last multiple years. For a lot of communities, it is hard to start a garden because of the high start up cost. Nobody knows if they will want to make a huge investment into something that might not work out. So these beds make it much easier. You can build a group of these beds for a fairly low start up cost and I wager they will last at least 2 years. In the next two years, you can find out how much your community likes gardening. If they like it, you can invest in the more durable wood beds.

Thanks for reading and let me know how your beds turn out.


  1. Ideas for the straw in your metal mesh beds;
    old cardboard boxes
    paper from the shredder may mat well enough for this?
    the long grass clippings you get in January or February if you're cutting back ornamental grasses - though some have viable seed...
    I did do something like this in a small area with newspaper once and it lasted for a while.

  2. I like your notes on the evolution of your raised beds.
    Here's some notes from mine.

    The raised beds haven't lasted forever but they have evolved.
    As the beds and everything in them decomposes, the soil under them benefits. Over time the soil softens and become more permeable to water and shovels.

    (Unless the raised beds are on top of concrete or really nasty caliche.)

    With this improvement in soil, I moved from raised beds to dug in beds. They keep the soil cooler than raised beds do and are easier to water since gravity works with you. They hold water better than the raised beds did. Good things here in the desert.

    When I first dug them in, I put lots of compost and got some help digging the area. I keep these areas small enough to reach into and have stepping stones where needed to keep the gardens from becoming compacted.
    I add my compost on top of these beds. Earthworms abound.

    When my compost is done, sometimes I put a bed where the compost was to take advantage of the benefit the compost bin made to the soil there.

    It's tough to dig in a Bermuda grass lawn or other compacted unhealthy soil and doesn't work nearly as well as it does after some raised beds full of compost have enriched the garden area. Raised beds make it much easier to get started around here. They don't have to last forever.

    Traditional farming in these parts was done in waffle beds, basically basins dug into the soil. Mine are kind of like that. Some dug in more than others.

    One thing - soil compaction and wandering garden folk. Raised beds are less likely to get walked on. Especially in a public garden, keeping people from wandering through beds and avoiding compaction would take some care. Scavenging for bricks or other edging material may do it. Might be time to use chicken wire again and make a small fence to signal that this place shouldn't be walked on.

  3. Chicken wire is a great idea, literally "thinking outside the box"

  4. Great to come across this. For the past couple of years I have been using chicken wire circles like this for compost heaps, and for storing the feedstock for compost heaps - e.g. leaves. I note that you use hog clips. I have a suggestion. If you overlap the chicken wire, then weave a single thin bamboo pole through them to hold them together, you can easily move them if you change your mind just by pulling the bamboo out of the wire. The wire then comes away and you can move your heap more easily, reassembling the wire cage in minutes. Dave in the UK

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