Why We Recommend Raised Bed Gardens
Plus tips on constructing them for paid subscribers.
With food prices being what they are, and everyone warning of food shortages, a lot of people are asking us about how to start a garden. My standard answer, assuming I don’t know anything about your experience or locale: raised beds.
And by raised beds, I mean a box of soil, usually sitting on the ground. You can use your own native soil or — what most people do — buy bagged soil or compost to fill the bed.
Maybe that’s a disappointing answer since the raised bed is the flat white of gardens. It seems like every suburban home has them these days, but there’s a good reason for that: they work.
Reasons We Recommend Raised Beds
Here are some of the reasons we recommend raised beds to new gardeners.
Your Soil Probably Sucks
There are many types of soil, but your soil probably falls into one of three categories:
Clay, which is thick, heavy soil that’s hard to work but holds moisture and nutrients well
Sand, which is loose, but dries up quickly and doesn’t retain nutrients
Loam, which is loose enough to work, but still retains water and nutrients
Loam is ideal, but probably isn’t what you’re working with. If your land had good soil, somebody would have built a farm there. And the truth is, most soil isn’t great without a lot of amendments like minerals and fertilizers.
While building and filling a raised bed can be expensive, so can amending your native soil. Here’s an example: When I started the first garden at my current house, we tilled in an entire 4x4x4 foot compost bin, along with lime, blood meal, and all sorts of other amendments. I probably spent about $200 on amendments, not counting how long it took to produce that much compost. By the end of the season, you couldn’t even tell anything had been added! If I had used that compost to fill a couple of raised beds I’d still be growing in it.
I learned later, after studying a USDA soil map, that bedrock was only inches below the surface of my garden, so amending it was probably a waste of time anyway. Plant roots can run several feet deep, so they need a nice, deep bed to be healthy. When your soil is that thin, building up soil above the surface is the only solution.
Raised Beds Work Pretty Much Anywhere
What’s great about a raised bed is that it doesn’t matter what your soil conditions are or what part of the country you’re in, a raised bed will probably work.
The one possible exception is in arid areas like deserts. One of the advantages of raised beds is that they drain really well, which is not something you want in a desert. But even then, I have at least one friend who uses raised beds in New Mexico, so it works there too. What you may consider for such areas is what’s called a sunken bed, where you dig out a pit and fill it with soil. It’s like a raised bed, only in the ground. You could even put a frame around it like a raised bed.
They’re a Great Return on Your Labor Investment
When we think of investments, we usually think of money. But your time and hard work are valuable too, and it’s all too easy to waste a day digging or tilling a garden and have little to show for it.
For instance, look at my attempt at a double-dug bed. Despite waiting until just the right time and thoroughly working the bed with a shovel and fork, I ended up with rock-like clods that nothing would grow in.
On the other hand, if you get the materials to make and fill a raised bed, you will have a functional garden bed in a couple of hours. You may still be tired and sore, but you will have something to show for it.
I ended up scooping out all those clods, dumping them in my compost bin to break down, and I then built a wooden frame around the ditch and filled it with compost. That bed produces very well, despite only being six inches high, because the ground underneath it is so loose from digging.
No Heavy Machinery Required
Raised bed gardeners don’t need tractors or tillers to work their garden, which means you reduce your crude oil dependency loop. Some gardeners with super long beds use a tiller anyway, but if you fill the bed with a good, loose soil mix in the first place, it should never be necessary. All you need to get started is a transfer shovel, a rake, and maybe a wheelbarrow, and you can refresh your garden with a stirrup hoe to eliminate weeds and smooth the soil and compost you can make yourself. If you choose good materials, the beds will last a long time and not need much maintenance.
They’re Great for Accessibility
If you have a bad back or other mobility issues, you can install tall raised beds that you can reach without stooping down. Many folks who use wheelchairs garden in raised beds that work with their chair height.
Raised Beds Help You Plant Sooner
My neighbor plants a huge garden every year using a tractor and conventional methods. But he has to wait until early May to plant since that’s when it’ll be both warm and dry enough to use the tractor. You never want to work soil wet, especially the heavy clay we have around here because it’ll compact the soil into a giant brick that nothing can grow in. If you’ve watched Clarkson’s Farm, you may recall how Jeremy Clarkson had to wait for the rain to stop before he could work his fields.
I don’t grow as large of a garden, but I can start planting in early spring or even late winter because I don’t have to worry as much about soil compaction or tilling. Plus, since the soil is elevated, it warms up faster than the earth.
Walls Protect Your Investment
I tried really hard to have garden beds where I didn’t have to build anything. But last year, I was finally convinced. I was having my workshop wired for electricity and the contractor ran over my unbordered no-till bed with his backhoe. I was convinced right there on the spot that I had to start framing my beds.
I have found that even a short frame around your beds — six inches or so — is enough to discourage animals, children, and even you from stepping on your beds and compacting the soil. A taller frame — one foot high or so — is even better. It clearly delineates that the bed is not a place to step in.
It’s Easy to Add Attachments
Raised bed frames, especially wooden ones, make it super easy to add attachments. Want to put a hoop house over your bed? Simply screw on some pipe brackets that you can slide the tubing into.
Want to lay out a square foot gardening grid? Put screws on the top and tie on some string. Or you can be really clever like one of my old gardens and put a PVC grid over top with holes in it, that divides the bed and automatically waters your garden bed.
Lots of Great Gardeners Use Them
I resisted raised bed gardening when we first moved to our farm because buying soil and putting it in a box didn’t feel like “real” gardening.
But after fighting with our thin, rocky, heavy clay soil, I tried a no-till lasagna bed, and after that was run over with a backhoe, I finally swallowed the raised bed pill. But there’s no shame in growing in raised beds because lots of great gardeners use them, like:
Mark from Self Sufficient Me
Mel Bartholomew (inventor of square foot gardening)
All of them are (or were — RIP Mel) great gardeners and they use raised beds because they work. And many gardeners use the same principles behind raised bed gardening. For instance, when Steve Solomon (author of Gardening When it Counts and The Intelligent Gardener) moved to Australia, he paid to have several tons of topsoil dumped on top of his garden spot. What’s the difference between that and putting the topsoil in a box?
Reasons to Skip Raised Beds
However, raised beds aren’t for everyone. There are some very good reasons to choose other methods:
You have a lot of land. Raised beds only make sense up to about half an acre at most. Beyond that, building frames for each individual bed becomes cost-prohibitive.
Fear of soil contamination. Whenever you import materials from outside your own property, you run the risk of contaminating your soil with aminopyralid, a particularly nasty herbicide that causes any plant that isn’t a grass to twist and curl. It takes years to work its way out of your soil and makes gardening impossible until the contamination is gone. It’s sold under the brand name Grazeon.
They can be expensive. Materials like lumber are especially expensive these days, and buying enough soil to fill a large raised bed isn’t cheap. But as we outlined above, amending a traditional garden bed can also be expensive, and the frame protects the investment in your soil.
Frames are limiting. Planting in raised beds forces you to closely space plants together, which works great for many crops, but others demand wider spacing, like field corn. But for sprawling plants like pole beans and winter squash, you can attach a trellis to the north side of the bed and train the vines to climb up.
Frames can be annoying. It can be hard to weed square corners of raised beds, and if weeds infiltrate the very edge of a bed near the frame, they can get wedged in and be very hard to remove. A flame weeder comes in handy there.