I remember my first few gardens in the corner of the backyard. The fruit was small, but the experience was so much fun. It was the first hobby where I got to eat my final result. And I’ll be honest, I love food. I was hooked from the start. But, anyone else looking at my small, nutrient deficient garden may have wondered what all the excitement was about. While I still had a child-like wonder when I played in my garden, I learned after a short period of time what my garden was lacking, and how it could be improved. What it really came down to was soil quality. And that’s when I started learning the benefits of raised bed gardening.
What is Raised Bed Gardening?
Raised bed gardening is a method of gardening that raises your soil to a higher level. This can be anywhere from 4 inches tall by using a 2″x4″ plank of wood to a yard tall so that no bending is required. Sometimes referred to as garden boxes, raised beds can have a frame built out of wood, bricks, concrete blocks, or other recycled materials. These raised bed gardens are above ground, great for small-scale gardening, and allow for intensive gardening that you wouldn’t typically get from in-ground planting.
Raised Bed Gardening is Above Ground
Raised bed gardening is like a giant, bottomless planter. You can have a raised bed of any height, but what makes it unique is that you are able to control the quality of the soil so much more than regular, in-ground planting. You can build your own, which we’ll discuss a bit later, or you can purchase a kit. Kits will be more expensive, but they can save you some time with building them, and take the guesswork out of it.
Here is a link to a raised bed garden kit. I personally have never used this, so I’m just proving an example of what one would look like. I can’t speak to the quality of this particular kit, but it can give you an idea of what is included in a raised bed gardening kit if you want to go that route. There are a lot of pictures from reviewers – one of which has a raised bed on an apartment balcony. I personally might stick with a few pots on a balcony, but I am impressed.
Raised Bed Gardening is Small Scale
If you had five acres to plow, you probably wouldn’t want to fill it all with raised beds. But, if you have a small area where you’d like to have a vegetable garden, then raised bed gardening is an excellent way to garden. Raised bed gardening is great for small backyards and urban homesteads. It’s great if you want to have a vegetable garden to feed your family or give your children the opportunity to discover where food comes from. The small scale of raised bed gardening also gives the gardener the opportunity to be as creative or simplistic as they would like. You can get creative and make your raised beds in different shapes or sizes, and add trellises and flowers around the beds.
Raised Bed Gardening is Intensive Gardening
The size of a raised bed can only reasonably be so big. you probably won’t find a 12’x12′ foot raised bed. The reason being is that you don’t want to be stepping on the soil and compacting it. Raised beds don’t lend themselves to include walking paths within them. For this reason, raised beds are generally kept 3-4 feet wide. But despite the limited size, they make up for it in the yield they produce. Raised bed gardening allows you to plant your crops at much closer distances than regular, in-ground planting. In-ground planting generally uses rows, with walking path. Raised bed gardening can use something called square foot planting where you can plant a certain number of vegetables within each square foot. I typically use a garden planner to figure out when and where I’ll plant everything in my garden beds.
What are the Benefits of Raised Bed Gardening?
There are a lot of benefits of raised bed gardening. My garden showed a huge improvement after I built my first raised bed. The improved soil quality provided my plants with the proper aeration, drainage, and nutrients that they needed. This then increased my harvests by allowing me to grow food more intensively and give me a larger yield from the limited space that I have. Raised bed gardening also provides easier maintenance. If you have had any sort of injuries, the elevation of a raised bed can help when it comes to maintaining your garden. It can also help to keep pests at bay. I also like the look of raised bed gardens and like to plant a few flowers around them.
Starting With Better Soil
The number one reason why I have a raised bed instead of an in-ground garden is for soil quality. One of the benefits of raised bed gardening is soil quality. I live where the soil is very claylike here in Florida. I also have friends who have sandy soil in Florida. Soil quality can vary quite a bit. It can take years to improve your soil’s quality. Adding compost over time can improve your soil quality. I personally didn’t want to wait to have good quality soil to grow my garden. I tried a small in-ground garden. It got waterlogged during the summer. The claylike soil was very compact and didn’t have enough drainage, aeration, or nutrients for my vegetable plants. If you’re growing small scale, then a raised bed garden is a great way to improve the growing conditions of your garden practically overnight.
Harvests Can Be More Prolific
Because the quality of the soil is generally better when you start with raised beds, including proper drainage, aeration, and nutrients, you can have more prolific harvests. The amount of food I am able to grow in one 4’x8′ raised bed is amazing. I have two 4’x’8′ raised beds for vegetables, and one 4’x4′ raised bed for berries and herbs. You can use them for flowers as well if you’d like. One of the benefits of raised bed gardening is the amount of food you can grow in such small spaces compared to in-ground gardening. I use square foot gardening along with my raised beds and I really love the results.
Maintenance Is Easier
There’s a lot that raised bed gardening can help with when it comes to maintaining your garden. One of the benefits of raised bed gardening is that it can prevent grass and weeds from really taking over your garden beds. Now don’t get too excited, I didn’t say it would eliminate them. 🙂 But I have yet to have any deep runners. I’ve never struggled to yank a weed out of one of my raised garden beds like I do my in-ground flower garden. In addition to preventing weeds, garden beds can also deter pests.
Probably the best part of raised bed gardening when it comes to maintenance is how much easier it can be on your body. Gardening can be an intensive activity where you end up using all sorts of yoga poses to sow, weed, and harvest. Gardening can be hard on the knees and back. I personally have had both back and knee issues so it’s something that I am more aware of in my day-to-day activities. If you have had any injuries or want to prevent them, then a raised bed garden may be right for you. You can also build a ledge on your raised beds so that you can sit on the edge, or build a bottom and some legs to lift your raised bed to a level where you can stand and work on your garden. My beds don’t have this feature, but I’ve seen it done before.
How To Start Your Own Raised Bed Garden
When you start your own raised bed garden there’s going to be some initial work at the beginning. The nice thing is that once you have everything set up you’ll be ready to start growing. The collage of pictures below shows a few of the steps involved with making one of my raised beds (cat not required). I recommend removing any grass first. When I get my bags of compost and dirt I lay them on the spot I want to build my raised bed for a couple weeks. This kills the grass and makes it so much easier to pull up. Trust me. And don’t ask how I know. 🙂 When starting a raised bed garden you’ll want to figure out what material you’re going to use, the size you want, and where you want to have it.
There are a few different materials you can choose from when making your own raised bed garden. Wood, stone, cinderblock, and brick are common materials that I have seen used. Stone, cinderblock, and brick hold up over time, unlike wood. However, they can be heavy, absorb heat, cost a decent amount, and weeds can grow between the blocks.
There are many different types of wood that you can use. A common question comes up in the raised bed gardening world – is pressure-treated lumber safe? In 2003, the EPA banned the sale of lumber for residential use that is treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). This was a mix of chromium, copper, and arsenic. You really don’t want arsenic leaching into your soil. Luckily, that’s no longer an issue, but there are still concerns about how wood is currently treated. Two popular compounds now used for pressure-treated lumber are alkaline copper quat (ACQ) and copper azole (CA-B). Both include copper and fungicide. Copper deters insects, and the fungicide prevents soil fungus from attacking the wood. Still, when it comes to certified organic food, pressure-treated wood is not allowed.
To play it safe, or if you’re growing organically, I recommend using non-treated wood. I use pine because it’s cheap and easy to find, but it does come with a caveat. Pine does not hold up well untreated. Especially in rainy areas like Florida. But it does hold up for a period of time. My non-treated pine holds up about 3 years. Other woods that hold up longer because they’re naturally rot resistant (but cost a bit more) include redwood, black locust, and cedar. If I could do it all again, I’d probably use cedar.
Raised Bed Wood Options:
- Redwood and Black Locust can last up to 20 years
- Cedar can hold up 10-15 years
- SPF (Spruce, Pine, Fir) can last 3-5 years
When it comes to the size of your raised bed, the options are endless. You can create your raised bed to suit your needs. You’ll want to consider the length, width, and height. When selecting your size you’ll want to take a few things into consideration.
When it comes to the height you’ll want to consider the roots of what you’ll be growing as well as how far down you want to be bending. I have wood boards that make my raised beds 12 inches tall. While this depth has been more than enough for the vegetables I grow, you can make your raised beds deeper or shallower. You can also add a bottom to your raised beds by placing them on legs so that no bending is necessary.
Length and width should be determined by the space you have and how far you’ll be able to reach. You’ll also want to consider your material weight and how you’ll be transporting it home, etc. Common raised bed sizes include 4’x8′ and 4’x4′. A width of more than 4 feet isn’t recommended because it starts to become a challenge to reach the center. I personally wouldn’t want to go past 8 feet in length. The longer you go, the less support those sides will have, and you may need to add a crossbar for support.
Location, location, location. When it comes to any garden, whether your garden is in a raised bed, pot, or in-ground, location matters. But, unlike pots and in-ground gardens, a raised bed is more of a commitment. A pot can be moved. An in-ground garden can be tilled and replaced with sod. A raised bed takes a little bit more effort to build and tear down. So it’s important to know where you want to plant your garden. The biggest factor for me is shadows. I am very much aware now of wintertime shadows. I try to keep my garden beds away from any south facing fences, trees, walls, etc. Anything to the south of your garden bed could potentially cast a shadow during 6 months of the year (see example below ). You’ll want your garden to get 6-8 hours of sun a day.
While I believe there are many benefits of raised bed gardening, at the end of the day you should choose the gardening method that you enjoy the most. Raised bed gardening is one way. There are a lot of in-ground methods that work. Growing in containers and pots is another way. For me, raised bed gardening is what I fell in love with, and I have loved the success I’ve experienced with it.
What’s your preferred method of gardening? Comment below!