How to Build a Tiered Garden Planter Box

May 9, 2017

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This Spring has been such a tease. Every time it felt like we were turning a corner, BOOM, more snow. Or just cold rain. And don’t get me wrong, we live in a major potato farming community (classic Idaho, amirite?) and I’m happy that the farmers will have plenty of water this year, but sometimes I just need to see that sun and feel its warmth on my skin! Which I guess is when you take a trip to HawaiiBut! This past week has been exquisite. A little rain here and there but mostly sunny, warm, and perfect for buildin’ stuff! And what better Spring project is there than making some planter boxes?

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Some of our long, long time readers may recall our planter boxes from our last house. They were great and all, but they also were going to take up a large portion of the yard and an even larger portion of our time to keep weeded and tended to. I mean, I have plans of one day being this master gardener with the north side of our backyard filled with organically grown fruits and vegetables, but for now I have a hard enough time remembering to water my basil plant in our kitchen. And it sits next to the sink. Where all the water comes out. So we wanted to ease ourselves into the world of horticulture with a few tiered garden boxes for the back deck.

A tiered garden box presents a few challenges. In essence, we decided to build 3 separate garden boxes where each is structurally designed to support the other. You also need to plan for drainage, to prevent mold and fungus, and make the planting areas deep enough to allow space for the plants you plan to plant (yeesh, that’s a mouthful) to catch root. Here’s a little rudimentary drawing we did:

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

One minor change – the boxes (we built two) ended up being about 39in tall instead of 36. The rest of it stayed pretty close, though not exact and I’ll explain why in a bit.

Materials Needed – Total Cost: $170
Redwood 2x2x12 Deck Baluster – 9
Cedar 5.5×6 dog ear pickets – 25
1lb box of 2.5in decking screws – 2 boxes
1.5inx.25in finishing pneumatic staples – 1 box

Tools Needed
• Measuring Tape & Pencil
Impact Driver w/bit set
Miter Saw
Table Saw or Circular Saw
Pneumatic Stapler
Air Compressor w/hose

You may also want to have a pry bar, hammer and some needle nose pliers handy.

First let’s talk choice of wood. Cedar is pretty common for garden planters because it’s naturally weather and bug resistant, and develops beautiful patina and weathering over time. Unfortunately, cedar can be pretty expensive. For a standard 1x6x8 cedar board you’re looking at $14 each, and that’s if you get a good deal. With how much cedar we’d need, that would be nearly $300 just to have enough cedar for one planter. For that reason, we used cedar pickets.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Now I want to set proper expectations on this. Cedar pickets are not some miraculously versatile yet untapped product that is just as good as the milled stuff. There are compromises you make when you use cedar pickets, and if you aren’t ok with a finished product that has a bit of… we’ll call it “character,” then you should plan on spending a bit more money. You’ll often find boards that are bowed two or three different ways, and getting that to look uniform can be tricky. The edges can be uneven and even the width of the planks themselves can vary by up to a quarter inch. This makes for an interesting project, BUT it saves a lot of money, it stays put once it’s stapled in place, and Jules and I both love the way it looks when finished. I don’t want you to think that using this product will yield a garden box that looks like a 3rd grade child’s sculpting project, but it is something to be aware of. Just take your time picking through the lumber pile and get as many flat boards as you can.

For the actual frame of the planter box, you want to keep the whole thing pretty light weight, so a 2×2 works best. Unfortunately, pine 2×2 studs are notoriously prone to warping and aren’t very weather resistant. So I suggest splurging a little and getting redwood deck balusters. They warp much less, and redwood is also weather resistant. But, since it’s a 2×2 you end up with a much lighter planter box that is still sturdy. So, let’s take this step by step. Your measurements may vary, depending on how wide you want your planter box to be. Adjust as needed for your situation.

Base Tier Construction
Note – all framing is done with screws, all planks are added with pneumatic staples. When screwing the frame together, always predrill with a 1/8in drill bit to prevent the wood from splitting.

To find the dimensions of the frame, take the desired size of the finished box and subtract the thickness of the cedar planks x2 for each axis. For example, we want our finished box to be 56in wide. The thickness of the cedar planks is 9/16, and since there will be planking on each side, you double that to 1 1/8in. Subtracted from 56 you end up with a frame that is 54 7/8in. We do the same for the depth, coming up with 26 7/8, giving us a frame of 54 7/8×26 7/8.

Cut two pieces of the redwood 2×2 to 54 7/8 for the front and back base frame pieces. Now for the side frame pieces – subtract the combined width of the front and back 2x2s from 26 7/8. the 2x2s are actually only 1 3/8in thick (2×2 is predried dimensions), so that leaves us with 24 1/8in. Cut those two pieces and screw everything together in a box (remember to predrill).

How to Build a Tiered Garden Planter

Now build the top frame of this bottom section, which will match the dimensions of the bottom of the second tier. This is the same width as the bottom frame, with a finished depth of 18 7/8 (20in subtract 1 1/8). Set the top frame on top of the bottom, with the back sides aligned.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Mark on the bottom frame where the front of the top frame ends. Measure and cut a 2×2 to fit inside the bottom frame, and position it so the back of it lines up with the front of the top frame (where you drew the lines).

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Now you need to calculate the height of the bottom section and cut the studs. Again with the math – the cedar planks are 5.5in wide. Our bottom section will have three (3) cedar planks, giving us a height of 16 1/2in. Subtract 2 3/4 (the combined width of the top and bottom frame) and you’re left with 13 3/4. Cut ten lengths of 2×2 to 13 3/4in. Set four pieces aside for now. Attach four of the remaining six to the bottom frame, where the four corners of the top frame line up.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Cut two additional 2×2 lengths to 15 1/8 in (the total height of the bottom segment, minus the thickness of the top frame) and screw these, evenly spaced, to the bottom of the front piece of the top frame (got all that?) and the back side of the middle support of the bottom frame. Then attach the two 13 3/4 pieces, evenly spaced, along the back of the frame.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Measure the width of the area from the front of the bottom frame to the back of the middle support of the bottom frame. Cut 10 lengths of cedar planking to that length and attach, leaving about 1/8 of an inch between each to allow for drainage. The last plank will need to be trimmed down on your table saw or with a circular saw.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Add planking to the sides and back of the bottom segment. Measure the sides to extend all the way to the front of the bottom frame. Mitering the corners is more difficult with cedar pickets, but looks nicer when finished if done correctly. If you’d rather not miter the corners, simple cut the sides to the exact depth of the frame, and allow the front and back planks to overlap the sides so the seam is not visible from the front.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Plank the current front side of the bottom frame before adding the rest of the front frame. This is important, because the pneumatic stapler won’t fit into the space once the front is on, so that’s why we wait to put that on last. The bottom plank will need to be run through the table saw or cut with a circular saw so its top lines up with the tops of the two bottom side planks. This will keep your spacing even.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

We don’t want 2×2 sticking out of the dirt, so we’re going to miter cut our front 2×2 supports (the four 13 3/4 pieces we set aside earlier) at a 55 degree angle.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Predrill and attach these to the front of the frame, with two in each corner and the other two spaced evenly in the middle.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Once in place, use the stapler to attach the side panels into the newly added supports. Then finish paneling the front.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

You still with me? Whew, that was a process, huh? But now look what we have! The back section is of course the base of the second tier, and we have our front portion for planting. The inside of the planter area of each tier will be lined with landscaping fabric, and we’ll pour about an inch or so of gravel in the bottom to allow draining while keeping the soil from being washed out over time.

Ok, back to it.

Second Verse (tier), Same as the First (except smaller)

Rinse repeat, only adjust the measurements. so this time, your base frame will be the same size as the top from of the previous segment we made. Also, this tier is shorter – only 11 inches tall, the combined width of two cedar planks.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Attach the 2nd tier to the bottom tier with screws around the perimeter, including the front in the bottom of the planter area.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

The Top Tier

This is the easiest one, since there’s no supportive section. It’s just a planter box. Build the base, which has the same dimensions as the top frame of the 2nd tier, and add the cedar plank bottom.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Attach the angled supports, evenly spaced.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Once those are in place, simply add your planks and attach to the top of the planter box.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

And you’re done! Well, unless you’re like me and you need to make two of these. Then you’re only halfway done. But still, yay! Good job! Of course once they were finished we had to move them in place.

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

Jules and I went directly to the nursery after finishing these and picked up a bunch of plants. That’s what we’ll be working on today and we hope to show you what they look like, all greened up, on Thursday. My guess is, they’ll look awesome.

Now if only we can get the rest of the trees to finish filling in and finally get our privacy back. ;)

How to Build a Tiered Garden Bed

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What do you think?

  1. Dominique says:

    Hi guys! These look great and I am thinking of building one myself. Can you let me know how you attached the 2×2 posts and what exactly they are screwed into (the ones in the middle)? For some reason that step is unclear to me.


  2. Yvonne says:

    I’m getting ready to build two of these 3-tiered boxes to use for a vegetable garden. Now that you’ve had them a while, is there anything you’d change or wish you’d known sooner? Example, should I line them with plastic? Or is that a bad idea for vegetables? Did the cedar planks hold up well so far? I’ll send you a pic when I’m done. Thanks for your time.

    • Chris says:

      You want the water in them to be able to drain downward so the soil doesn’t rot, so I wouldn’t do plastic. The cedar has held up, but definitely looked aged by the time we sold them.

  3. Anna says:

    I love these planters and just got my husband on board to make one this week, before it’s too late for planting this year! Quick question – is your materials list for both planters that you built or just one?

  4. angie says:

    I love these! I wish I could replicate your house and put it in Minnesota! My husband is going to make these for me this weekend. Did you put any top coat on the boards?

  5. Trish says:

    Hey there! LOVE this design – great tutorial! I used to have a container gardening business in Chicago. Here are a few more tips:
    – Insulate your boxes with those foam insulation boards from Home Depot. This will help your planters and your plants!
    – Think about planting the top level with evergreen arborvitaes – even just 2 or 3 footers.
    – Every year you will need to add compost to the soil to keep it vital for the plants. Do it in spring and fall. Also, you will need to fertilize at least every month.
    – Think about adding drip irrigation with a timer. You guys are super handy so I know you can do it yourselves.
    Can’t wait to see what plants you choose. Just LOVE the outdoor space in your house!

  6. Jessica says:

    I love these and can’t wait to add them to my small outdoor space. It is tiny so I think I will look to make the bottom tier a seat to give the planter box two roles. Great project!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s been that long since your other planters! It seems like it was yesterday!! It’s lookin good!

  8. Angie says:

    Oops!! Your bottom boards are spaced to allow for drainage — awesome!! Even better than ugly holes. :)

  9. Angie says:

    Awesome design! And I love how perfectly they plank your outdoor fireplace. I’m not an expert either but I do know that you should drill some drainage holes in the bottoms of each box. My husband made me a window box for our front window and it really helps keep plants healthy and happy. Can’t wait to see what you plant in yours!

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