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Raised Bed Gardening


By Paul James

I’ve grown vegetables in raised beds since 1979, the year I created my first garden, and I’ve never looked back. At the time, it was considered a new approach to gardening, but in fact it has ancient roots, dating back to pre-Hispanic Inca and Aztec civilizations. Basically, it’s a method of growing plants within a framed bed, and it has numerous advantages.

Warmer Soil in Spring and Fall

Because raised beds warm up much faster in spring and remain warmer longer in the fall, you can get a jump start on planting in the spring and extend the growing season in the fall.

Improved Drainage

Raised beds filled with loose, fluffy soil (more on that in a moment) naturally drain better, and poor drainage is one of the leading causes of crop failure. 

Fewer Weeds

Weeds are much easier to manage in raised beds, in part because they can’t creep into the beds from the sides. 

No Compaction

Compaction is bad news for plants, because it restricts root growth. But because you never walk on the soil in raised beds, compaction is basically nonexistent.

No Erosion

The frames of raised beds contain the soil, which eliminates problems with erosion.

Intelligent use of Water

If you water by hand (which I do), you need only water the plants within the beds rather than the paths between, and that saves a lot of water. Plus, you can water only the beds that need it rather than the all the beds at once. 

Aesthetic Appeal

I think raised beds look better, and give the garden a neater, tidier look. That may not be important to you, but it is to me. (Those are my raised beds in the pictures. Pretty neat, huh?)

Materials

I’ve always used cedar lumber to build my raised beds, but you can also use stone or cinder blocks. Cedar isn’t cheap, but it’s easy to work with and lasts for ten years or more even when in contact with the ground. Treated wood is my second choice. It’s much cheaper and it’s no longer made with toxic materials. However, it is more likely to warp.

What Size is Best?

Three 8’ boards (whether 6”, 8”, or 12” deep) will create a 4’ by 8’ bed, which is a great size for several reasons. You only have to cut one board in half to build the bed, the beds themselves are portable, and it’s easy to reach into the center of the bed from either side.

Adding Soil

Filling your beds with a good garden soil plus a mix of soil amendments isn’t exactly cheap, but once it’s done, you need only add a bag or two of additional amendments once a year. You can buy garden soil in bulk or you can purchase it in bags. Bagged products include topsoil, mushroom compost, and cow manure, as well as specialty mixes such as Espoma’s Raised Bed Mix or FoxFarm’s Happy Frog. Fill your beds to within an inch of the top to allow for settling.

And Finally…

Make sure you remove any existing turf grass before plopping your raised bed on the ground. And if it’s Bermuda, dig down to a depth of 4” to make sure you get rid of all the roots and rhizomes. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an excellent crop…of grass! 

By the way, I should mention that both of my boys grow vegetables in raised beds as well. I guess I raised them right.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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20 responses to “Raised Bed Gardening”

  1. Christi Bingham says:

    My wildflower raised bed planted from seed looked lovely and provided bees and butterflies with flowers.
    Thanks Paul for your great advice and humor!

  2. Theresa says:

    Is there any crop you have not had luck with in raised beds? We are going full hog this year, and I’m hoping for success to build garden confidence. Thank you

  3. jean a winton says:

    Where is a good place to buy good dirt in bulk?

  4. Wayne Kindrick says:

    Does lining the wood frame with some sort of waterproof sheet impact the health of the plants? Or is it even necessary to do so?

  5. Ron Evans says:

    Why would raised beds stay warmer than the ground in the fall? I think they will cool down more quickly since there is more surface area exposed to the cooler air. Same reason they would warm faster in spring.

  6. Greg Rosta says:

    Hi Paul,
    Great information as always! I put raised beds in last year, and am so happy I did. Question…how important is it that I rotate veggie plant type year over year in each space? Or can I plant, say, my tomatoes in the same bed as last year?
    Thank you!
    Greg

  7. Greg Rosta says:

    Hi Paul,
    I had one other totally unrelated question but I am planning a project and would appreciate your thoughts…what do you think is the best way to remove large areas of grass? Rent a sod cutter? Cardboard/paper over grass and under mulch for a few months?

    Thanks again!
    Greg

  8. Suzanne Rice says:

    Can a raised “bed” (without the boards) be used for planting flowers in a border? The soil in this area has become so dense with roots anymore that it is difficult to plant anything.

  9. David V says:

    Is it necessary to line the bottom with poultry screen to keep out rodents such as gophers and moles ?

  10. Lance says:

    I recently saw a video online about black leaf mold. Taking old leaves putting in a garbage bag with water until the leaves turn black. Then using that for an amendment in gardens. Have you heard of that and how do you feel about that.

    • Paul James says:

      Never heard of it, actually. I do shred all the fallen leaves on my property and either compost them or use them as mulch throughout my veggie and ornamental gardens.

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