The concept of raised bed gardening is nothing new, but it’s making a resurgence as more homesteaders and backyard farmers alike look to make the most out of what they already have. For us, large raised garden beds have been a godsend more than once in our gardening history.
When we lived right in town and were renting our house from somebody else, we wanted to garden – badly. But we knew that tilling up the lawn to do so probably wouldn’t be a wise choice in the eyes of our landlord. As a compromise, we asked if we could build raised beds. We could take them down when we prepared to move, or leave them there if he so preferred. He agreed.
When we moved to our new home, we were excited to have dozens of acres with which to work…but alas, most of them were not tillable. Raised beds offered the perfect solution to our poor soil. Over time, we’ve been able to build the soil to where it needs to be, using composting and organic matter to turn our thick, poorly draining clay sludge into a light, airy substance perfect for gardening. But back then, raised beds allowed us to start our gardening with very little resources.
Inexpensive alternatives to traditional gardens, raised garden beds are a great way to get gardening no matter where you may be.
The Benefits of Raised Plant Beds
The benefits of using raised plant beds cannot be overstated! First, they can be built to whatever size or dimension you need them to be. They can be placed on the lawn, along the side of a house, on a balcony, or even on the corner of a deck. They provide a neat, tidy appearance to a garden, making it more accessible to weed and plant.
You also get to control the soil quality, making it easier to plant in an area that might be covered in poor soil or even no soil at all. Raising your garden up higher makes sure your plants reach only the healthy soil that you’ve chosen to include. The soil also tends to warm up more quickly, allowing you to extend your season. You can even build cold frames or hoop houses over your raised beds if you want to stretch the growing time even further.
Raised beds help you to increase your yield and rotate your crops with minimal inconvenience. They allow you to garden in spots that typically may have been off-limits and even to keep plants that like to sprawl in check, as they will be restricted to the confines of the beds. You’ll also see fewer weeds and greater productivity, as the plants will be able to root and drain more efficiently.
Considerations When Installing Raised Beds
Raised beds are usually about three to four feet wide by six to eight feet in length. This will allow you to reach your plants from all sides without having to step into the garden and compact your soil. While your DIY raised beds can be virtually any size, remember that you want it to be deep enough for plants to root and not so large that you need to stand on the soil to reach your plants.
Think about the plants you intend to grow before you construct your raised beds. If you are planting shade-loving plants, make sure you don’t place your raised bed in full sun – and of course, the opposite is also true. While you can build a raised bed on a slope, there will be slightly more engineering involved in construction than if you were building it on level ground.
If you are building a raised bed where there is already grass, know that it can be a daunting task to cut out and lift sod. Instead, get rid of grass a few months before planting by laying down a layer of cardboard and then a layer of soil. The cardboard will eventually decompose into the soil, while at the same time suffocating the grass. If you do this in the fall, the site of your future raised beds will be ready to go come spring.
You also need to decide whether you want to install midpoint stakes to prevent the beds from shifting over time. The same goes for posts. While these will be more susceptible to rot (if you are using wood as building material), they can also help prevent problems down the road.
When thinking about the best soil for raised beds, a good rule of thumb is to always buy the best quality that you can afford. You can purchase soil from a local supplier, check with farms for composted manure, or even scrounge around for free sources of soil. One year, we were lucky enough to find out about a potato research facility that was disposing of soil – we got a truckload of light, fertile soil for absolutely nothing.
Whatever you choose to use for soil, make sure it is light and free of any dense areas of compaction. You want your plants’ roots to be able to travel through the soil without much difficulty. Try to use soil that has not been used before, so that you reduce your risk of spreading diseases and pests to your plants.
Finally, add a thick layer of compost before you get ready to plant. You can do this the autumn before planting so that it has time to break down, or used an aged compost or tea to help introduce nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to the soil in the beds.
What Material Should I Use for Making Raised Beds?
Wood is, without a doubt, one of the best and most common materials for building raised beds. It is one of the least expensive choices, and while the best wood for raised gardening beds will vary depending on where you live and what resources you have available to you, there are some top recommendations for the best wood for raised beds.
Rot-resistant woods like cedar or redwood are good options for raised beds. We were lucky in that my father owns a sawmill that specializes in cedar, so we got our wood for next to nothing. In most cases, the wood for a single bed will cost somewhere between $100 and $150, but this, of course, varies depending on where you live.
Some people use pressure treated wood to build their raised beds. Be careful doing this, as they are treated with alkaline copper quaternary. The EPA claims that this is safe for food crops, but lining your beds with a weed barrier isn’t a bad idea, as this will prevent the soil from touching the wood. Pressure treated wood will last longer than untreated wood, but I’ve always been nervous about using it anywhere I want to use wood.
That being said, wood of any kind is an easy to use building material, and works well for traditional raised beds, particularly if you are looking to DIY your raised beds. Consider using thicker boards, as this can help the wood last longer without treatment.
Concrete is another option, and while it lasts virtually forever, it is expensive and not really designed for a DIY-er. While the materials aren’t super expensive, you’ll spend more on prep work and labor. They also cannot be moved and while they can be dyed or otherwise styled to match your landscaping, a sloped yard can make concrete almost impossible to work with. Cinderblocks are another option; though expensive, they can last indefinitely.
A masonry raised bed is the compromise between wood and concrete. It is also permanent, and you can find masonry supplies just about anywhere. They can be quite attractive and blend in with your home’s exterior. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, masonry can be tough to work with.
You can also use rock to build your raised beds. This is a super easy DIY project that you can complete in just a few hours by using small boulders or cobbles. You don’t necessarily need to mortar the rocks in place – just keep in mind that they can easily be knocked over. They aren’t ideal for holding in tons of soil, but if you have lots of rock on your property already, they can be a cheap (read: free) solution to finding building materials.
A final option is to repurpose materials you might find lying around. For example, many people use galvanized culverts or stock tanks that are being disposed of. Because they are relatively inexpensive, you might also consider purchasing a brand-new stock tank. Just remember to drill drainage holes into the bottom so your plants don’t develop root rot.
Last year, we were lucky enough to get our hands on two old skidder tires. Apparently, these kinds of tires are not only very heavy and large, but they are also extremely expensive to dispose of at local landfills (and some landfills won’t even take them). So we scored them for free. We ended up using them to plant potatoes in, and had the best results we’ve ever had out of all of our expeirence with raised beds.
The bottom line in finding materials for your raised beds is that you need to consider three main questions: how durable do you want the material to be, how much work are you willing to put in to build the beds, and how much money are you willing to spend. Once you’ve decided on those factors, it’s simply a matter of gathering your materials.
Ideal Crops for Raised Beds
You can grow just about any kind of crop in a raised bed, but there are some options that far surpass the rest. Root vegetables, for example, are ones that we always plant in raised beds. Why? Raised beds allow you to have complete control over the soil, making it easier to grow root crops that are often affected by rocks, clay, and other materials that can hinder the growth of these plants. Potatoes, carrots, radishes, beets, and onions all are good candidates for a raised bed.
Leafy greens are also strong contenders for raised bed growth. They can be planted (and should be planted) as soon as the weather has warmed up enough for you to dig in the soil. They prefer cooler growing weather and often become stunted once the summer heats up. Getting them in the ground as early as possible is easier when you are using raised beds, in which the soil heats up much more quickly than the rest of the garden.
Tomatoes are another good option. They are heavy-feeders, preferring soil that is nutrient-dense and rich. You can add extra compost to your raised beds to make them the perfect planting site for tomatoes. Just keep in mind you’ll need to leave a little bit of extra space for tomato cages and stakes.
What to Watch Out For
Like any other method of gardening, there are some missteps to watch out for when you are planning your raised bed garden. For example, make sure you select the size and location of your raised beds with care. Placing your beds up against a fence or the side of your house might look attractive, but if the beds are four or more feet in width, you’re going to have a hard time reaching the back of the planters.
You also need to plan for irrigation. Make sure you locate your beds near a source of water or install soaker hoses or drip lines. This way, you won’t be stuck watering your beds with an old-fashioned watering can
Make sure you are using the highest quality materials for your raised beds. Don’t use soil that contains potential contaminants (if you are getting free soil or fill, this is something to watch out for). Again, the jury is still out on the safety of using pressure treated wood in a bed, but I’d avoid it whenever possible.
And remember, your raised bed is merely an extension of your garden and needs to be treated as such. It will still need to be fertilized, mulched, weeded, and treated for pests. While you can certainly do all of these things in an organic, natural way (which we do), a raised bed garden doesn’t eliminate all the work from gardening – just a few of the tasks involved.
DIY Raised Garden Beds
There are so many styles and template you can choose to follow when building your raised beds. You can find layouts on Pinterest or build your own design. Here’s a how-to video I found that you might find helpful. We are planning to build a few more raised beds this spring, too, so when we do I will be sure to update this post with videos to give you all a better idea of how to build a wooden bed.
There are so many styles you can incorporate when building your raised beds. Currently, we have three wooden beds and two rock beds. My favorite rock bed is this herb garden I made using a spiral, a popular permaculture technique. This design allows you to increase your planting area without taking up more ground space. I used a combination of cinder blocks and rocks to create the bed, and I add to it every year to increase my yield.
There are some more cool ideas here – make sure you explore your options because really, your raised beds should be a method of landscaping and styling up your lawn – and don’t have to be solely for growing food.
Keep in mind that if you aren’t willing to build your own raised beds, you can also purchase them for a nominal fee from various retailers. Your local farm and garden supply store will have a good selection of beds from which to choose. I personally love this style. It’s raised off the ground, so you don’t need to bend down to weed it. It’s designed for planting on a patio, too, which would be nice for providing a nearby supply of leafy greens in the summertime.
Raised bed gardening doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Consider these tips for a fruitful harvest and an enjoyable season of gardening. What other recommendations have I missed? Be sure to chime in with a comment, and follow us on Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) and Instagram (@ jrpiercefamilyfarm). Happy gardening!