Raised beds are all the rage, right now, and for good reason. They look amazing, keep the garden looking neat and tidy, are easy to keep weed-free (especially if you’re starting with soil and amendments from the garden center), can be elevated, making it easier for people with back problems/disabilities, can be portable, can extend the growing season by allowing the soil to warm up faster in the spring, and can result in higher food production rates.
Out at My Happy Homestead, I have a few raised beds that I garden in.
I prefer to grow lettuce and other short-rooted veggies in my 6″ tall raised beds.
I have an orchard of semi-dwarf fruit trees that I’m growing inside of raised beds. I love the look that the beds create – the trees are actually planted in deep holes in the ground, then the boxes are built around the trees and filled in with compost, garden soil, and topped off with dry leaves. (I’m experimenting with permaculture techniques in this area, planting in other edibles and herbs underneath the canopy of the trees and inside of the boxes to add beauty and create a sustainable landscape).
Mini raised beds are used for our Harvest @ Home garden rental service.
And, here is a newly constructed, deep, raised bed that hubby just put together for me…
I’ve planted it out with melons. I love how it acts as a garden “room” divider, setting this area of the backyard off from other surrounding areas. Yes, raised garden beds add definite aesthetic value to the garden – another great benefit I forgot to mention earlier. Also, it’s physically less demanding to construct these raised beds (at least I think it is) than it is to double-dig a traditional garden bed.
However, there are a few drawbacks when it comes to growing in raised beds, too.
First of all, it can be quite costly. By the time you pay for all of the wood, garden soil, and other (in my opinion) necessities, like chicken wire (to gopher-proof the bottom) and weed barrier, you’ll need to grow quite a bit of food to re-coop your costs. To save money, look for salvaged, or scrap wood. I’ve found a lot of free wood on Craigslist, and by putting out requests to friends and family. Just make sure that the wood is untreated and free of paint or varnish if you’re going to be using it for raising food.
Also, when the temperatures heat up, it can dry out rather quickly. If you live in an area that experiences hot, dry weather in the summer, like I do, plants that are growing in raised beds may become stressed from overheating and lack of water. To remedy this, you may need to water more often (sometimes more than once per day). I’ve found that setting my raised beds in areas of the garden that get afternoon shade, mulching deeply with straw hay or dead leaves, and providing shade cloth for beds that get all-day sun helps to conserve water and keep the plants from getting quite as stressed. Choosing plants that are more drought tolerant (like canteloupe and eggplant) is also a good thing to keep in mind when planning what to grow in your raised beds, especially if you are worried about how heat will affect your fruits and vegetables. If you are curious, the Veggie Gardener has a list of 12 drought tolerant fruits and vegetables to help you make the right choice.
Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that some fruits and veggies just aren’t meant to be grown above ground. According to an Ohio University fact sheet, “since the root system is restricted by the size of the container, some plants may produce smaller fruit, and some vegetables don’t grow well in containers. Vegetables that grow well in containers are those with a confined habit of growth, such as salad greens, spinach, eggplant, Swiss chard, beets, radish, carrots, peppers, bush beans, determinate tomatoes, bush varieties of summer squash and cucumbers, green onions, and many herbs. It isn’t that other vegetables can’t be grown, but that they may not be as suitable for container culture. ” For me, the veggie that I just won’t grow in raised beds or containers is the potato. Yes, I know that growing potatoes above ground, in boxes, barrels, and bags is totally “in” right now, but I’ve had absolutely no success growing potatoes this way. Mine always seem to do much better growing in the coolness of the underground, so that’s where they’ll stay.
So, back to the question: to raise or not raise the garden bed? In the end, I believe raised beds serve a wonderful purpose in the garden, and I think everyone should have, at least, one to grow and experiment in.
Want to know more about raised bed gardening? A standard on the subject is All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew . A great article on the topic of container gardening can be found at Ohio State University online. I particularly appreciate the chart, at the end, that matches plant varieties with container sizes – perfect for helping determine the best varieties to grow in containers and the depth which each plant requires to thrive in that kind of environment.