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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Raised Beds Offer Many Benefits

by Marc @ GardenDesk

A month ago I shared my personal story of how I got started with organic gardening and raised beds. I was fortunate enough to be able to see a side-by-side comparison of this and traditional row gardening. The benefits were almost countless!

That was a very unique situation. I suppose without such an experience, I wouldn't have understood or believed that a new style of gardening could be so much better. That was 20 years ago and I have used intensive organic techniques with raised beds ever since.

So why do I prefer this over row gardening?

Most raised beds are contained with wood, rocks or block. Any natural building material will do but I completely stay away from treated wood to avoid any chemicals leeching into the soil. I prefer building a bed but you can attain the same results with mounds of soil.

The ground where I live is naturally heavy clay. To garden organically I have to add a lot of compost and other soil amendments. It would be very difficult to add enough to make a difference if I had to broadcast it over a whole field. With raised beds, I only have to amend to beds and not the paths. Also, since I never walk in the beds, the soil stays friable and drains well. Other gardeners I have talked to who do not have raised beds say it is impossible to garden organically. I agree that it would be much more difficult without the beds.

With traditional vegetable gardens, you typically have to roto-till at the beginning of each season. In my soil, I found this to be hard work and damaging to the soil structure. Repeated roto-tilling causes a "hard pan" to form below the surface at the depth of the blades. It also many times delays the planting because the ground is often too wet in the Spring. The initial construction of raised beds is a bit of work, but in each of the following years, I can plant at any time without tilling, damage to the soil, or much fuss at all.

Weeding is much easier with raised beds. I don't ever have to worry about hoeing the rows. I can hand pull weeds from the growing beds and once the plants get larger, they shade most of the bed space which prevents weeds from taking hold.

Raised beds make everything much more organized and tidy for me. It is easier to plan where each crop will be planted and keep better records. It is also nice to have a structure to attach things to for trellises or hoops. Here are some pictures from my Garden desk blog in the fall where I attached hoops to help extend the growing season.

The thing I like most about growing in raised beds is that it makes it much easier to implement square-foot gardening techniques, inter cropping and succession planting. I got more into inter cropping and succession planting on my GardenDesk blog. The main thing about Square Foot Gardening is that you can plant more in less space. This is not a bending of the rules. If a seed packet suggests that a plant needs 6 inches of space, that really means that it requires 6 inches on all sides. With the old row garden, people typically plant a row of beans, for instance, 6 inches apart in the row and 2 feet between rows. In a three foot by twelve foot space, they would have 48 plants. I'm using a 3x12 example because that is the dimension of some of my beds. When I plant bush beans in a raised bed with square-foot spacing, I can sow three times more plants! Maybe this diagram will explain it better:

Three times more vegetables in the same amount of space really helps the organic or small space gardener! Trying this approach without a defined bed would be much more difficult.

So to summarize what I've been writing here, The reasons that I prefer raised beds are:

  • It makes it easier to create good soil
  • The soil stays loose and drains better
  • I don't have to use a tiller
  • Weeding is much easier
  • Beds make the garden more organized
  • Easier for square foot gardening
  • Can grow more veggies in less space!
  • I'm sure I've missed many other benefits to raised bed gardening.

    If you grow in raised beds, what are your reasons? If you don't grow in beds, what are some questions you have about raised beds?

    I'd love to hear from you.

    Keep Growing!

    - Marc


    debra said...

    i use raised beds for many of the same reasons, all of them based in laziness. if i had to get out and dig in the heavy clay that makes up my yard, nothing would ever get done. weeding rows, wasting water, protecting from little visitors who want to snack on my hard work are all offputting to me. i have a limited amount of space and my raised beds allow me to increase the number of things i grow all the while leaving my former lawn attractive and off the radar of the HOA. the beds look great from the curb and only my closest neighbors know that those beautiful plants in my front garden are broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage

    Willo said...

    I am planting a garden this spring and don't even know where to start. This is really helpful, thanks!

    Mist said...

    I've been using mounded raised beds (no frames), but I really want to start using the barrier method. We had toddlers when I started gardening, but now we have active, ball-playing kids (and more toddlers ;). There was a little too much running across the gardening beds after a ball last year.

    Perhaps you could share with us how you filled your raised beds? I've heard of some soil-making formulas (similar to the lasagna gardening method), which would suit me far better than purchasing top soil to fill them with. Would double digging with added compost be enough maybe?

    tpals said...

    Where would you start if converting a traditional garden into raised beds?

    Chris said...

    In South Louisiana, with our heavy clay (so dense, I can hardly call it soil), we have no choice but to go with raised beds.

    It does give us better use of our space but there is the expense off the lumber for 4x8-foot beds.

    I have yet to find the answer for what to do with the paths between the beds.

    For years, I used wood chips and stump grinding but they composted into great soil for weeds.

    I dream of a couple inches of gravel over weed-proof landscape cloth.

    claudia said...

    I am hopefully going to start my garden close to this spring. (I say hopefully and close because we never know what is going to happen!)
    I planned on using raised beds, mainly because I can't get down to the ground as easily anymore, therefor I will be tending my garden as I should and not as the body allows.
    When I amend my soil, how far down should I do the amending? Do I need to dig down far below the bottome of the wood frames? I don't know much about these yet, but I am trying to learn! Thank you.

    Katherine said...

    I'm starting a garden this spring and planning on raised beds, but wondering how you manage to harvest in the middle of the bed? It looks awkward. Then again I see your beds are 3 feet wide - I'd seen some suggestions of 4-5 ft. What size do you think is best?

    Captain's Wife - Jennifer said...

    Thanks for writing about this. I am trying to alk my hubby into raised beds this year. I read about them in a book and thought they would be wonderful!

    Chiot's Run said...

    I used raised beds as well because my garden is in an area that used to be a gravel parking area for an RV. There was no way I was ever ammending or loosening up that stuff, so I built up!

    renee said...

    Our family built a 3x12 raised bed last year for growing greens. We live in a small Maine city and have lead contamination in our soil so if we want to grow greens and a few other crops we need to "import" soil to do. I had grand plans for this bed but getting the soil in there was more time consuming that I had planned for so not much came of it last season.

    Hopefully this year I'll be more successful because I've read so much good stuff, including what I've read here, about growing food in raised beds.

    mrsdirtyboots said...

    Ours aren't so much raised beds but double dug beds with stone edging. The edges give our dogs something to indicate they're not really allowed on the plots so maybe it will work with todlers too.

    It really is so much better to never walk on the soil. We've found each year gets better and better as the soil never really compacts like it does on a traditional plot.

    Di Hickman said...

    I have raised beds, pretty much for the reasons you did. Horrible clay soil being the main reason. So easy to create a bed and just fill it with good soil that spend lots of time (and money) ammending the soil we have. Another reason was gophers/rabbits. I put mesh under the beds, and then filled them up to stop the critters.
    Love my raised beds.
    For those wondering about the expense. Remember they can be made from anything! Wood (free pallets), bricks, cinderblocks all of which can be found through freecycle or craigslist!

    livinginalocalzone said...

    I also have raised beds by necessity (space layout, this increases the number of things I can grow) but when I learned of all its benefits, I'm glad :-) One of the biggest attractions was some of the improvements in pest control as a result of the raised beds, e.g. carrots are less vulnerable to disease/pests in raised beds (like the flies).

    One thing I wonder about though, is the next season. When I use the raised beds I got going last year again this spring, what do I do with the "old" soil? Do I till/prepare it as if it were in the ground (row garden)? Does it need new soil?

    Sadge said...

    I garden in high-desert, so I use free-form raised "waffle" beds - pulling the soil up into beds 3 feet across and maybe 5" high, then dishing out the center to create a 2" lip on the edges. The raised beds warm up faster in the spring, the lip holds water and blocks the wind a bit, allowing new seedlings a strong start.

    Dani said...

    I have started building some raised beds in my garden and I can already see the difference. We have clay based soil and it's hard work and not very effective. The raised beds, once built are so much easier to maintain and the vegetables are growing so much better than in the last remaining bed that isn't raised (but will be once tomato season is done).

    Angie said...

    Use your old (& new) phone books for a ‘Raised Bed’ & you have a built in ‘looks like wood’ place to grow stuff. Spine side goes towards the plants, rip off the hard cover & use like bricks. Can last a season.

    Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

    I'm trying to use less water, so I use the dust mulch method with wide plant spacing. It is a farming/gardening method from before the days of piped water. Steve Solomon details the method fairly well in his books, Growing Food in Hard Times or in Water-Wise Vegetables. Also his Health Library is a wealth of information.

    Anonymous said...

    I have a question for you. I have a terrible time keeping those little green worms from eating my cabbage and broccoli! What can I do??? Do you have this problem? I'm going to put in a few raised beds this summer!

    Kris in Nebraska

    Anonymous said...

    How or what do you fill your beds with? Do you buy soil or just fill the bed with amendments like peat moss and manure????
    Donna in New Mexico