Raised bed gardens are so beautiful and you may even be considering installing them in your own garden. Do raised beds make sense for your set up? What are the benefits of having raised beds and what are the drawbacks?
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Our Experience with a Raised Bed Garden
We’ve had our raised bed garden area for a year now. I can’t believe it’s only been a year though because it seems so much longer than that. Our first year here we started in a small section of our yard and put in an in-ground garden, which did considerably well. The next year we decided to expand our garden, except in that area, the soil wasn’t as good. Last year we decided to install raised beds that we built ourselves, and we’ve been successfully growing in them since. The soil is composed of a large amount of clay which retains a lot of moisture. As it begins to dry, it becomes hard on the top while staying wet when you dry further down. Not only that but it has a lot of small rocks in it. We’re not sure why all of those rocks are under the soil – whether they’ve just always been there, or they were purposely put there by the previous owners. This would’ve required a lot of digging up of the area, and most likely bringing in new soil to be able to really grow anything. Instead we opted to build raised beds and bring in soil to fill them.
Since installing our raised beds, I learned about a different way to fill them, known as hugelkultur. Hugelkultur is a great way to use what you may already have on hand to create a lasagna-like layering of material that breaks down slowly over time. It’s then topped with compost and soil. Such a method can cut down on the cost of installing raised beds.
One thing we learned from our experience is to thoroughly research the soil that you’re using to fill the raised beds with. We opted for soil from one of the local nurseries in our area. I love supporting local businesses for a number of reasons. Although they were upfront that the soil had to be amended, we didn’t realize that the soil we were getting was almost the same soil we have on our property (minus all the rocks!). In spite of this hiccup, the raised beds have been considerably easier to amend in comparison to our in-ground garden.
As with container gardening, I’m going to be discussing the pros and cons of raised bed gardening to help you decide whether this is the right type of garden for you.
What is a Raised Bed Garden?
A raised bed is a constructed above-ground garden bed. There are a number of different materials that can be used to build raised beds, from wood or logs, to metal and bricks (just to name a few). It’s also the perfect opportunity to re-use material that’s not currently in use. Use care though with the materials you select to build them. Be sure to check that the materials are safe to use with food. For example, treated lumber shouldn’t be used to build raised beds. Home building materials are usually treated with chemicals such as flame retardants.
Should I build raised beds? What to take into consideration
If you’re on the fence about growing in raised beds, here are some considerations to help make your decision:
- What type of soil do you have? Is it primarily made of sand or clay? What’s the structure of your soil?
- Does your soil have a lot of rock in it?
- How much soil do you need to fill the raised beds?
- How much rainfall do you get annually?
Pros of Raised Bed Gardening
- Control of growing conditions
Controlling growing conditions is so beneficial, especially if the soil in your garden isn’t ideal. You’ll have control over the quality, texture, and condition. As mentioned previously we have a lot of small rocks in our gardening area. It would take a lot of work to dig it all out and then we’d most likely have to bring in new soil. It’s a lot easier to amend the soil, and put row covers over the raised beds. Plus you can avoid soil that may be contaminated. Since there’s a smaller area to cover, it’s simple to put up row covers to keep crops warmer.
- Help to prevent soil compaction
There’s less soil compaction in raised beds since you won’t have to worry about people walking in your garden beds. Be sure to use the right types of soil for raised beds. Soil in raised beds can become compacted if it’s left uncovered. Keep the soil layer covered in mulch to keep the soil from compacting.
- Easier to weed
Raised beds aren’t a weedless solution. You’ll still get weeds, but nowhere near the rate of an in-ground garden bed. By putting plants closer together in a raised bed, it reduces competition from weeds.
I opted for taller raised beds. Depending on the depth of the bed, if it’s shallow, there’s a chance for weeds to sprout up. With taller beds, weeds aren’t able to grow through all that soil.
For shallow beds, you may want to consider putting in a weed barrier, like cardboard. However, weed barriers will not allow earthworms to freely move in and out of the raised beds. Keep in mind that cardboard does degrade so it won’t be a permanent part of the raised bed.
Good mulching also helps to suppress weeds. In my raised beds, I use straw as a mulch, which has worked very well to reduce soil compaction and weeds.
- It can be easier to monitor for pests and control
The height of the raised bed alone can be a deterrent from pests. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any pests, but raised beds can reduce the amount of pests in comparison to in-ground beds. Although you can use row covers in an in-ground garden, it can be easier in a raised bed to do so since there may be less area to cover. Burrowing pests can be blocked off from the bottom.
- Raised beds provide great drainage
If the correct soil is used in the raised beds, there’s great drainage for plants. Having proper drainage for your plants is crucial for their health. Without proper drainage, plants can be at risk for health issues like root rot.
- Soil warms up sooner than in-ground gardens
The soil in raised beds warms up sooner than in-ground gardens. Thus, you can have a longer growing season because of the warmer soil. It’s easier to warm up a bed even more by installing garden hoops and creating mini growing tunnels. This year I installed them in March/early April, and it worked out great to get some of our plants outside sooner. On the flip side, they also cool down faster as winter approaches giving a reprieve to your plants and possibly extending the growing season. Of course, this is all dependent on how cold it gets!
- Screened bottoms keep out little critters
Raised beds give you the option to keep out critters like moles, voles, and chipmunks. We put hardwire cloth at the bottom of each bed before we put in the soil. They won’t be able to get through the hardwire cloth since the holes are too small. I wouldn’t use chicken wire since the holes are too big. Chipmunks can easily get through.
An improvement that we’re making to our raised beds is a removable top with hardwire cloth. It’ll be much easier to keep critters out. We used netting this year, but the holes were too big so chipmunks still got in. Pollinators should still be able to get in and out to access flowers so a mesh cover wouldn’t be appropriate.
- Access to raised beds may be easier ergonomically
In-ground gardening can be inaccessible to those who either have limited mobility issues. They’re customizable to meet not only your growing needs, but also your ergonomic needs. Raised beds are above the ground which requires less bending. Consider building beds that aren’t too wide. Wide beds will result in not only bending, but reaching across. You’ll want to be able to access both sides so narrow beds may be a good option if you’re not able to directly access one side. For instance, if the raised bed is built along the outer wall of a house, you may only be able to access it from one side.
We placed our raised beds so that we can easily access both sides without having to reach across. Our beds are two feet wide. The maximum width should be 4 feet wide.
- Better for root growth
Depending on how deep your beds are (mine are 24 inches tall), raised beds provide better root growth. Deeper beds are better at maintaining soil moisture in comparison to shallow beds. They also help prevent flooding which can be an issue for in-ground gardening if too much rain accumulates. There is less of a chance of compact soil (if you use the right type of soil in your beds) and you can avoid rocks. Deeper roots help the overall health of the plant to become luscious.
- Higher yields
Raised beds traditionally have higher yields. Raised beds are traditionally planted with higher densities. The key is to get the spacing correct so as not to overcrowd in a variety of issues. There is a bigger yield per square footage. (Look into square foot gardening if you need some ideas on spacing)
Cons of Raised Bed Gardening
- Building raised beds can be costly
Installing raised beds can be quite costly for a number of reasons. The following are food for thought when considering cost:
- Type of materials used (wood, brick, logs, etc)
- How many raised beds will you install
- What size will the raised beds be
- Tools are required to assemble them
- Soil will be needed to fill the raised beds
These are just a few considerations to keep in mind. Another factor is that this applies to the initial installation as you won’t be installing raised beds every year if they’re well built and you use the right materials.
- Soil dries out faster in warmer temperatures compared to in-ground garden
Raised beds may require more frequent water than in-ground. The soil composition may not be perfect when you first install the beds and fill them. Just as you amend an in-ground garden, you’ll have to amend the soil in your raised beds. However, it’ll be much easier to amend the soil. Choose good quality soils that retain moisture well and always cover your soil.
A good rule of thumb is to always think about the following: do you often see dirt/soil that’s not covered in nature? The answer is usually no. Mother Nature will find a way to cover it up. In our raised beds, we cover the soil with straw.
Deeper raised beds retain moisture better than shallow beds.
- May not be suitable for dry, arid climates
If you’re opting for shallow beds, take your climate into consideration. Dry, arid climates face many challenges for growing food. Shallow beds will dry out quicker than deeper raised beds since the water drains out quicker. Opt for deeper raised beds if you must put them in because of poor soil conditions. As mentioned above, choose a good quality soil that will help with water retention. Focus on keeping the soil fertile and always keep the soil covered to further help with moisture.
- Require more frequent watering
Since the soil dries out faster, you’ll have more frequent waterings. Depending on your climate, it may be costly to keep up with the watering expenses. We have deep raised beds that are 24 inches tall. They do tend to dry out quicker than our in-ground garden, but the soil is protected with mulch and compost. During this time of year (June), we’ve been consistently having heavy rain once a week. It works out perfectly for our garden as we’ve only had to water the garden once. As the summer progresses our circumstances will probably change as July and August tend to be drier months.
- Soil gets colder in the winter compared to ground soil
The soil gets colder in the winter compared to the ground soil. The cold air drives the warm air out of the raised bed. Different materials used to build raised beds have different thermal properties. For example, wooden raised beds have higher thermal properties in comparison to ones made out of metal. In spite of that, you can still successfully grow in raised beds during the fall and winter, depending on your climate. Use row covers to create a mini greenhouse.
- Growing in a smaller footprint
You’ll have a smaller footprint to grow in your raised beds. You may have to get creative with the ways you grow in them. For instance, you can have cascading vines from vining squash, but to save room, you can vertically grow squash.
- Layout of the garden may not be easily changed
Raised beds can be built in a number of locations – on flat ground, on slopes by creating a terraced garden. The options can be endless depending on the geography of your garden space. Raised beds are a bit more permanent in comparison to a container garden. They’re not easily moved. Our raised beds, even when they’re not filled, are very heavy. With any raised bed, you’d have to empty all the contents, move the bed, and then put the soil back in. It’s definitely not an easy task.
- They won’t last forever
Depending on the materials used, the raised beds won’t last forever. Boards may have to be replaced, or the entire bed.