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August 30, 2013

leach field_1When I first began planning my Serenity Garden, I was inspired by a secluded woodland-edge area, dominated by two large white pine trees (Pinus strobus), that sat at the back of a mossy clearing behind my house. The clearing was surrounded on three sides by woods, and I had begun to enclose the fourth side by planting a line of shrubs to separate the quiet mossy clearing from my clothesline area. By the time I was ready to make the Serenity Garden a reality, however, the nature of my clearing had changed dramatically. The septic system leaching field beneath the clearing failed, and the whole area had to be excavated for the installation of a new leaching field. When the new septic system was completed, my line of shrubs had been removed and the secluded mossy clearing had been transformed into a wide open grassy swath. (See My Not-So-Secret Garden.) The problem that then presented itself was how to recreate a sense of seclusion without plantings that would send roots down into the leaching field.

serenity july 2013

The new woodland garden (the Serenity Garden) has been in place for two years now. After looking into possibilities and considering the suggestions from my wonderful garden blogging community, I decided to recreate the sense of enclosure I originally envisioned by using a large raised bed (essentially a 4’ x 12’ planter) to close off the fourth side of the (now larger and grassy) clearing and to separate it both physically and visually from the clothesline area.

In order to create the raised bed, I used raised bed corner brackets from Gardener’s Supply Company and 5/4” x 6” white cedar decking planks. The corner brackets are designed to hold 2 x 6 boards, but I did not want to use pressure-treated lumber and rot-resistant white cedar dimensional lumber is not readily available in my area and is prohibitively expensive. Instead, I used pieces of exterior vinyl trim to shim the 5/4” planks so that they fit snugly in the corner brackets. Gardener’s Supply does not recommend using their corner brackets to connect boards longer than 8’ and I was using 12’ planks on the long sides, so I cut a couple of lengths of 1/2” diameter PVC pipe, sunk them a few inches into the ground and strapped them to the center of the cedar planks to stabilize them. Here you can see the progress of the raised bed as it was constructed:

raised bed step1 raised bed step2

raised bed step3

Once the raised bed frame was finished, I covered the bottom with cardboard to smother the sod and then filled it with a mixture of loam left over from the leaching field project, inexpensive bagged topsoil, compost, and composted cow manure.

raised bed with cardboard raised bed with part dirt

raised bed with filled dirt

serenity garden entranceThis raised bed is intended to create both a physical and a visual barrier between the Serenity Garden and the clothesline area (and the driveway beyond). The physical 4’ x 12’ cedar structure creates an effective physical barrier; although it is possible to squeeze by it, the only obvious entrance into the quiet clearing is now through this narrow neck between the Blue and Yellow Border and the Fence Border, which effectively creates a strong sense of entering a separate garden “room.”

The raised bed structure is not large enough, however, to provide a visual barrier; for that, it needs architectural plants that have visual mass and will call attention to themselves. At the same time, though, I don’t want large flashy blooms for this planting; it needs to share the Serenity Garden’s emphasis on foliage. With these considerations in mind, I decided on a combination of amsonia  (blue star flower) and hardy geraniums.

raised bed

The focal center is three Amsonia hubrichtii. If these behave like the amsonia that I planted in the Blue and Yellow Border 10 years ago, they will grow to a height of about 3 1/2’ (4 1/2 – 5’ once you add the height of the raised bed) and a diameter of more than 4’ at their crowns, and they will provide a mass of attractive foliage from spring through fall. The smaller Amsonia x ‘Blue Ice’ plants provide lower-growing foliage for the edges of the planting and prominent blue flowers in early summer when the raised bed will be in bloom. The plants of Geranium x oxonianum will provide a contrasting foliage shape and texture, and its pink flowers will drape themselves over the foliage of the large plants behind them in a charming way. On the back side of the raised bed (facing the clothesline and driveway), Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ is a low-growing groundcover that will fill in the spaces between other plants, spill over the sides of the planter, add a mass of quietly lovely flowers to the mix in early summer, provide attractive foliage throughout the garden season, and visually tie this planting to other nearby flower beds (the Deck Border, the Fence Border, and the Serenity Garden) that also have Geranium x cantabrigiense growing along their front edges.

Right now, the newly planted raised bed looks a bit sparse and scraggly. My hope is that, within a few years, it will fulfill my vision of lovely closure for the Serenity Garden project.

raised bed planted

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2013 8:47 am

    let it do the sleep, creap, leap thing – and you will have gracious enclosure. I love to look back at garden photos a few years old, and think, did we do that?!

    • September 4, 2013 10:46 pm

      Diana, I’m hoping it will do its sleeping this fall and winter, be ready to creep next spring and summer, and leap into a mature look the year after that.
      I have that same feeling of amazement when I look at my back garden, and I regret not having any photos of what it looked like before I made the garden there. I’m being very careful to document the “before” conditions of my new front garden.

  2. August 31, 2013 9:02 am

    A lot of work, but it will definitely be worth it. I love the plantings you’ve included. I’ve been avoiding building raised beds because they seem like so much work, but they would solve so many of my garden problems. You’ve inspired me.

    • September 4, 2013 10:48 pm

      Sarah, The raised bed corner brackets make the job so much easier, because you don’t have to worry about getting the corners square. Once I had cut the boards, the only equipment I needed to put it together was a battery-powered drill and screw driver.

  3. August 31, 2013 3:48 pm

    I remember when you were first starting the Serenity Garden. It has come a long way. Before you know it, the raised bed plants will be giving that sense of enclosure you desire. But, oh, we gardeners must be patient!

    • September 11, 2013 8:51 pm

      Deb, I’m not always good at the patience thing 😐 I like to plant new areas at the end of summer because they get settled in over the winter and come back looking much bigger and more established the following year. I know it will take a year or two more than that, though, before it really fills in.

  4. September 1, 2013 8:32 am

    Sparse to some, filled with promise to others! I like the height of your raised bed.

    • September 11, 2013 8:55 pm

      Jayne, the height was dictated by the fact that roots are not supposed to go down more than 4″ into the soil over the leaching field. I wanted to allow plenty of room for the Amsonia, which I think has fairly deep roots, and I decided that 11″ high (2 planks) might not be enough; it seemed safer to go with 3 planks (about 16 1/2″ high). Another benefit is that the extra height increases the visual barrier.

  5. September 2, 2013 8:38 pm

    Jean what a great idea and you are so handy. I like the plantings you chose too. By next spring it will be growing like crazy.

    • September 11, 2013 8:57 pm

      Donna, The raised bed corner brackets made this a much easier project because I didn’t have to hassle with getting the box squared; the brackets guaranteed proper 90 degree angles. It will be fun to see how far along these plants are when they emerge next spring.

  6. September 6, 2013 4:12 am

    You have put your best efforts for your Serenity Garden….you are going good and you will definitely fulfill you vision of lovely closure for the Serenity Garden project. Everything looks perfect..good luck!

    • September 13, 2013 9:36 pm

      Thanks for your kind words. I hope it will fulfill my vision in a few years.

  7. September 8, 2013 5:12 pm


    This will be a wonderful bed. Our raised vegetable bed looked just as sparse this spring, but is full, full, full now!
    Were you surprised about the amount of soil it took to fill it? We originally had 2 tons delivered for ours – but it needed 4!

    • September 13, 2013 9:42 pm

      Sue, I had calculated how much soil I would need ahead of time because I was trying to figure out whether I should have it delivered (which can cost a lot because of my out-of-the-way rural location) or buy it by the bag and haul it home in the trunk of my car. 4′ x 12′ x 1.25′ = 60 cubic feet or a little more than 2 cubic yards. Since I had 1 cubic yard of compost I was planning to put into this project, and another 1/4 – 1/2 cubic yard of loam left over from my leaching field, I figured I could just get bagged topsoil and a couple bags of manure for the rest. It took me about 3 trips with the car, but it was still quicker and less expensive than having soil delivered.

  8. September 8, 2013 8:24 pm

    Reading your garden blog gives me huge hints on why I’ve been a failure as a gardener. I never planned anything! I just bought plants I liked at the nursery and just put them where ever. Some did good, some not. I’m transplanting some lilies along my sidewalk soon to the edge of my field and am putting succulents in between my sidewalk and the garage. The space is 1 foot wide by 24 feet long and the lilies got crowed really fast but I can’t bear to throw them out. My nephew says I treat plants like furniture, the way I’m always moving them around. LOL

    • September 13, 2013 9:47 pm

      Jean, This is a familiar story. I also started out by just sticking plants in the ground and hoping for the best (which I usually didn’t get). Eventually I learned to pay attention to what plants needed to thrive. (In Second Nature, Michael Pollan talks about this as “learning to think like a plant.”) I also learned to grow more of the plants that were thriving despite my ignorance. Since the average perennial grows to a diameter of 2′, 1′ wide planting spaces definitely make it hard to give them the conditions they need. 🙂

  9. September 10, 2013 9:15 am

    It looks great, Jean. A lot of work that will pay off now and in your future.

    • September 13, 2013 9:48 pm

      Thanks, Joene. I’m happy to have this project done. Now I just have to hope that the plants will do well.

  10. September 10, 2013 8:44 pm

    oh my goodness. I’ve been away from blogging for a bit only to discover the Serenity Garden is no more! drats. Good for you not getting too shook up and coming up with a new brilliant plan. Isn’t change what gardening is about after all?

    • September 13, 2013 9:50 pm

      Hi Marguerite, The Serenity Garden lives! The loss of enclosure created by the new septic system actually happened before I started designing and planting the Serenity Garden, so figuring out how to close off that fourth side was always part of this project. It just took me a couple of years to actually get it done. 😐

  11. September 14, 2013 2:33 pm

    Hi Jean, I hope your planting design works out. I can’t count the number of times I’ve drawn out planting plans to create the perfect harmonious border, only for reality to completely diverge from the plan within moments of setting out the first pots. I just can’t manage it, I don’t know what goes wrong but it always ends up being completely different to how I pictured it. It goes a long way to explaining why my garden looks as it looks. I hope your new large raised bed fills out beautifully and I look forward to see it develop and mature.

    • September 22, 2013 11:22 am

      Sunil, I always ended up modifying my designs both as I actually spot the plants out in the new planting area and then again as I see how they actually grow. I agree that the living plantings are never exactly what we envisioned as we were imagining them. I cheated a bit here as the diagram I’ve included in this post is not the one I started out with but the planting as it was actually put in. For me, part of the fun of seeing a new bed grow is redesigning it by moving plants around, removing plants that are just aren’t happy growing there, and adding new plants that were not part of the original plan. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops and matures, too. I’m home for the first time in over a month this weekend, and I’m happy to see that all these plants are looking settled in and happy.

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