Beginner’s Guide to Raised Garden Beds
Would you like to start a new garden this year? Do you wish you could, but think your location won’t allow it? Raised bed gardening could be your answer! Whether you’re a beginner gardener or a seasoned pro, or a vegetable and flower lover, raised garden beds offer many advantages over in-ground gardens.
Here are six reasons to grow above ground.
1. You’re Short on Space
Traditional garden rows were made for wide-open country farms. In today’s home environment, most of us don’t have the space or need for mass planting. With raised bed gardening, apartment dwellers and renters alike can enjoy the bounty from their gardens. Depending on their construction, raised bed structures can be temporary, permanent, or even mobile!
2. Your Native Soil is Lousy
Many urban and suburban lots are plagued by poor drainage, weedy conditions, compacted soil, or worse – toxic contaminants. Gardening in a raised bed gives you control over your soil. You can choose the right blend of ingredients suited to your plantings and avoid any problems caused by native soil.
3. You Want to Garden Sooner in Spring
The soil in raised beds naturally warms up faster than in-ground gardens. Warmer soil in the spring means earlier planting and a potentially earlier harvest! Savvy gardeners can use different strategies to extend their seasons and grow crops virtually all year-round.
4. You Want to Select Your Site
Above-ground planting means you can site your garden where it’s most accessible and convenient for you. Or, if your yard is normally shady, you can place a raised bed in a side yard, on a deck, or even atop a driveway.
5. You Have Critters
Burrowing and digging animals can be a real nuisance in the garden. Growing your plants up high puts them safely out the line of attack.
Get to know your local wildlife population and what additional protection you may need to offer. You don’t want your raised beds to become an elevated buffet for deer! Fencing, netting, or simply relocating the bed are all simple ways to share your space but not your plants.
6. You Want Instant Gratification
Breaking ground on a new garden can be exhausting and time-consuming. Gardens are best established in spring or fall and take time to prepare, especially when it comes to adjusting the soil conditions.
But not raised beds! You can set these systems up almost any time of year on your schedule for whatever crop is in season.
What Are Raised Beds?
Raised beds are the glorious offspring of in-ground gardens and container planters. They provide the opportunities of a large garden with the space-saving benefits of a container. And you can customize them as much as you wish. Raised beds can be free-form DIY-built plans or pre-fab modern designs in any size, shape, and material imaginable.
While creativity abounds, there are still a few practices to follow.
Where to Site Your Garden
Your first consideration is proximity. Place your raised bed in a spot you see or pass by each day. Keeping your garden close by allows you to enjoy its progress and serves as a gentle reminder to tend it regularly and keep it thriving.
The second essential factor is sunlight. Unless you’re specifically planning to grow shade-loving plants, it’s best to choose a location that receives 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. This is doubly important if you’re growing fruiting crops (like tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.).
The final thing to consider is access to water. Every garden requires watering at some point, and raised beds can dry out quicker than in-ground gardens. Minimize your hose reach by placing your bed within easy reach of a water spigot or rain barrel.
What Size Should a Raised Bed Be?
If you’re building your own bed, then the sky’s the limit. But it’s best to keep the width under 36” so you can easily reach the middle of the bed.
If you’re planning to add multiple beds (now or later), be sure to space them far enough apart so that you can easily walk and maneuver garden carts or wheelbarrows through the aisles.
The ideal height of your raised bed depends on your needs. Most are at least 12-18” tall, but some can be waist-level to serve older gardeners or those with limited mobility.
If you’re purchasing a premade raised bed kit, there’s a lot to choose from! Your options are only slightly more limited, but your considerations are the same. Select a size and location that will give you the best chance for success and enjoyment. Raised garden beds are usually available in wood, metal, and even concrete. They all function equally well, so choose what design suits your tastes.
How to Fill a Raised Bed
If your new garden bed is a bottomless box that will sit atop existing vegetation (like grass), you’ll want to put down a weed barrier and potentially a pest barrier too. A layer of chicken wire followed by landscape fabric, cardboard, or newspaper will prevent your lovely new soil from being colonized by unwelcome weeds and creatures.
To fill your bed, choose a premixed garden soil blend – or you can make your own! A good blend of topsoil and quality compost is a great place to start, but everyone develops their own perfect soil recipe – adding worm castings, vermiculite, micronutrients, and other amendments to improve drainage and fertility.
Soil mixes are available in bags but can also be delivered in bulk from a local landscaping or garden center. If you’re filling multiple beds, bulk delivery is usually less expensive.
How to Calculate How Much Soil You Need to Fill a Raised Bed
Calculate your soil needs by:
- Determining your raised bed’s volume. Multiply the length, width, and height for each raised bed (usually in inches).
- Converting your bed volume (cubic inches) to the units soil is sold in (most pre-bagged soil mixes come in cubic foot measurements).
- Dividing by the quantity soil is sold in. (Most soil bags are 2-3 cubic feet).
Here’s an example. If your bed is 36”w x 48”l x 18”h:
- 36” x 48” x 16” = 27,648 in3 total volume
- 27,648 in3/1,728 in3/ft3 = 16 ft3 of soil needed
- 16ft3/ 2ft3 per bag = 8 bags of soil needed (2 cubic ft bags)
Notice all measurements are in inches!
You don’t want to fill to the full bed height when you start. Your soil will settle over time, and you may need to add more to fill the space. Overfilling the soil will risk surface water running off.
It’s handy to keep an extra bag or two of soil to top off and refill as plants are removed. Round up the number of bags you purchase to save yourself a future trip.
What to Grow in a Raised Bed
The quick version is – whatever suits you! Raised beds are extremely flexible and allow you to grow almost anything. But it’s best to select plantings that maximize your space. Plant things you enjoy, that are expensive to buy, or that taste better when eaten fresh.
Once you’ve settled on what to grow, look for varieties suited for small space gardening, often labeled as ‘bush’ or ‘compact.’ While it’s possible to grow large crops like berry bushes or corn in raised beds, decide if this is the best use of your space compared to high output plantings of herbs, lettuces, or tomatoes.
An excellent approach to maximize your garden space is to follow the Square Foot Gardening method, created by Mel Bartholomew. This garden planning technique calculates planting density based on a grid of 12” squares (compared to garden rows). This way, you can plan exactly how many plants will fit in a single raised bed. The Square Foot method will save you time and space, increasing your garden’s productivity, especially if you’re new to vegetable gardening.
Tending a Raised Bed
Raised bed gardening already gives you an advantage over weeds. But win the war for good by covering the exposed soil around your plants with a thick layer of organic mulch. Shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings, and shredded bark are all good options. A thick 4-6” layer will keep the soil from drying out and reduce weeding chores.
Irrigation is essential to plants, particularly in a raised bed. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are both smart choices. You install them once, and they’ll reduce water usage, directing moisture to plant roots. But even the trusty watering can is effective when used frequently!
If you opt for drip or soaker hoses, make your job even easier by adding a timer. This will ensure regular and sufficient watering. It’s not a replacement for a gardener’s attention but it makes for a handy delegation of chores!
How to Take a Break
Sometimes we all need a vacation, even from gardening. But do yourself a favor and don’t abandon your garden. No one wants to return home to an overgrown eyesore that has succumbed to weeds or drought. If your holiday is short, consider inviting a neighbor to tend your garden and enjoy the harvests while you’re gone.
If you need to press pause on your garden for a longer period, remove most (or all) of the plants, particularly annuals. Then cover your garden soil with landscape fabric, cardboard, or a thick layer of mulch (at least 12”). This will protect your soil from weeds and avoid erosion or leaching from wind and weather. The garden will be ready again when you are.
Gardening is a rewarding hobby that anyone can enjoy. It provides physical and mental benefits of being outdoors and personal satisfaction of watching a flower or vegetable crop grow and produce. Whatever your skill level, raised bed gardening will increase your productivity and enjoyment no matter where you live. Skip the shovel this year and get growing above ground.