It’s easy to see why raised beds are perennially popular among vegetable gardeners. They can help correct many common garden problems, including poor soil, weeds, drainage issues and uneven slopes. These simple structures provide a defined space in which to build up concentrated areas of high-quality soil rich in organic matter.
Technically speaking, raised bed gardening includes any defined area where soil has been built up to provide a growing area for vegetables, fruits and other plants. While classic raised beds have wood sides, raised beds can be made from any garden-safe material, or even from simply piling the soil up and tamping down the sides with the back of a shovel. Here’s what you need to know to ensure raised bed gardening success.
Vegetables need lots of high-quality soil, rich in organic matter, to produce bountiful crops. Raised beds allow you to literally build the soil up. Over time, adding compost to your raised beds can transform even the poorest soil into an oasis. Because you’ll never need to step on the soil, it will remain fluffy and aerated, encouraging roots to grow and thrive.
Raised beds create a structured space for you to keep your veggie plants organized. They provide an ideal frame for attaching PVC hoops, which keep out bugs or keep in warmth using mesh or row cover material. They also provide an ideal space for square-foot gardening, a popular technique for home vegetable gardeners.
Raised beds can also save your back — or your knees. They can be built as high as table height, allowing people with mobility issues to garden from the comfort of a chair.
1. Start with the right material. While a wide variety of materials can be used to build raised beds, outdoor-friendly woods, such as untreated cedar, are the most popular. Avoid pressure-treated wood or other materials that could potentially be hazardous to edible plants. In addition to function, think about using a material that will enhance your garden’s style and work within your space.
2. Size them properly. Make sure your raised bed is proportioned so that you can access all parts of it while kneeling at the side of the bed, without ever needing to step on the soil. This will help to prevent your soil from becoming compacted. Four feet by 8 feet, or smaller, is an ideal size for most gardeners. The benefits of raised beds are really apparent when they are at least 1 foot tall. This height allows you to build up a thick layer of soil to support your plants’ roots.
Tip: If you’re building multiple beds, ensure that the pathways between them are wide enough for you to easily move a wheelbarrow through and kneel beside each bed.
3. Pick a good location. Raised beds are difficult to move once they’ve been set up, so do your best to choose a good spot. Lots of sun is ideal, but make sure that your beds are protected from extremes of heat and wind. Ease of access and protection from the pollution of busy roads are also factors to consider. If possible, place your raised beds where you can see them from your kitchen window to inspire your meals.
4. Build them to last.Raised beds should be strong and level, able to withstand years of weather. Nothing is more disappointing than needing to dismantle a flimsy garden bed. To prevent weeds, consider placing some corrugated cardboard at the bottom of your raised bed before filling it with soil. The cardboard will eventually break down, but not before smothering the weeds underneath.
5. Fill them with quality soil.Good soil is the single most important factor in the health of your garden. Start off with the best soil possible, and commit to adding organic matter, like compost, on a regular basis. In most cases, compost needs to be applied only once a year, though if you are planting year-round or having soil fertility issues, you might consider an additional application in the fall.