If you are starting a new garden, method and layout are among the first considerations you will have to address. There are many approaches to gardening, largely because everyone’s needs and circumstances are slightly different.
An obvious distinction in methods is between those that rely on growing in some type of elevated bed and those that involve sowing directly in the ground at surface level. The raised bed approach has both advantages and disadvantages, but it is definitely worth consideration for many gardeners.
- Attractive appearance. A well-built raised bed looks much tidier than most row gardens. Select materials that appeal to your aesthetic sensibilities for a customized landscape.
- Opportunity to start with good soil. Do you have severe problems with your soil, such as heavy clay, skewed pH levels, low levels of NPK, or black walnut toxin? Filling a raised bed lets you purchase or mix perfect soil.
- Fewer weeds and rodents (depending on construction). Tired of fighting the weeds? Build a raised bed and line the bottom with cardboard or landscape fabric before adding soil. Are voles or gophers a problem in your area? Put hardware cloth in the bottom of the bed to fence them out.
- Early seed starting. The elevated soil in the raised bed will warm up quickly in the spring, much quicker than the soil in a conventional row garden. You should have a couple weeks’ head start on the growing season.
- No trampling. Perfect for those with high-traffic gardens. Raised beds protect soil from compaction by pets, small children, and others. Not only is the garden up and away from the walkways, but the raised bed provides a clear visual boundary that is easy to communicate to others, minimizing misunderstanding and frustration.
- Good soil drainage. Raised beds drain well, preventing waterlogging in wet weather.
- Minimal erosion. While some soil could get out through cracks in your raised bed, erosion will be fairly minimal thanks to the retaining walls. If you have no choice but to garden on a steep slope, raised beds are a particularly effective choice.
- Ergonomics. Raised beds are easier on the back, important to consider for the elderly or achy gardener.
- Extra cost of materials. You can’t just till and go—you will have to build something, and that requires parts. (Be careful not to build with materials that will leach toxins, such as some plastics and treated lumber.)
- Extra initial work. Not interested in working with wood or stone? Purchasing a kit can make the project easier, but you still have to invest some time and energy.
- Need to bring in soil. You will have to buy soil or dig it up from some other part of your property to fill the raised bed. This will cost either money or effort.
- Equipment difficulties. It can be hard to get a rototiller into a raised bed. In fact, depending on the raised bed, it may be downright impossible. To varying degrees, the same will apply to other equipment such as seeders and cultivators. These issues will probably not arise if you have a small home garden, but if you are growing on a large scale, you may want to consider using a more traditional method.
- Disappearing soil. Unless you are actively building soil, the overall soil level will drop over time as settling occurs and organic materials break down. This can happen in a ground-level garden, as well, but the effect is particularly startling in a raised bed. Attention to soil care will still be necessary.
- Summer soil baking. An elevated bed is more exposed to sun and evaporation. This means you will be watering your garden more (particularly when you are direct-sowing seeds), and you may need to start cold-season plants a little earlier to compensate for the faster rise in soil temperature. Shade cloth will probably be a good investment.
The answer to the question of whether raised bed gardening is right for you typically comes down to scale.
For the casual home gardener, raised bed gardening is an excellent way to make gardening easier on the back. Plus, the raised bed can become an attractive addition to the backyard landscape. Be forewarned, however, that raised bed gardening does not make you completely exempt from the task of soil improvement.
Large-scale gardening is another story. For those who garden for market or for self-sufficiency, raised beds can reduce the efficiency of the garden. For one thing, the tillage, planting, and cultivation equipment required to maintain a large garden in a time-effective manner can be impracticable in raised beds. For another thing, the elevated soil in the raised bed will require more frequent irrigation, thus consuming more water than an in-ground garden.
Of course, none of this is to say that small-scale gardeners should invariably used raised beds and large-scale growers should not. A weekend gardener without access to quality soil to fill a raised bed might do better growing directly in the ground, while an urban market gardener facing soil severely contaminated with heavy metals would do well to give raised beds some serious consideration.
As a general rule of thumb, however, the scale principle is a good starting point for those planning a new garden.
Improving Your Garden Soil
Learn about other gardening methods that provide alternatives for those with extremely poor soil, plus how to grow no-dig and avoid the rototiller issue. Free sample pages are available.
All New Square Foot Gardening
The All New Square Foot Gardening method could be considered an adaptation of raised bed gardening. A very low-maintenance approach for the small-scale grower. Read our full review.