I love gardening, but I am not at all partial to the flat, even, monotonous surfaces in my garden. I love to add some dimension and depth to my garden, and planting plants of variable heights seemed not enough to satisfy my craving for a different look. Raised bed gardening is a great way to add that depth.
What is Raised Bed Gardening, Anyway?
Yup, I asked the same question when I first heard it. Am I to raise my garden by adding soil until it’s almost at the level of my window? But even if I am to do that crazy idea, that would mean I will still have that one-dimensional garden, right? Lucky for me, having a raised garden does not require that extensive remodeling of my garden. Simply put, raised bed gardening is growing your garden inside a structure so that your plants will be above ground level. You can additionally just raise the level of the soil without a structure, however this is not as easy to accomplish.
Isn’t that much like container gardening? Well, in a sense, yes. But the difference is that the area is larger and the structure for raising the soil level is heavy, durable, and stationary. Aside from that, raised bed planters can accommodate a larger number of plants compared to large containers that can only accommodate about 2-5 small plants or shrubs.
Advantages of Raised Bed Gardening
Raised bed gardening has a lot of advantages that both you and your plants can enjoy because of freedom it gives you to work around certain limitations that you commonly face with conventional gardening.
Better and improved soil conditions
Gardening can be frustrating if you live in an area that has excessive rainfall, or if you have garden soil that is thick and drains poorly. According to the Missouri Extension Resource, a raised bed can help you add in any soil amendment such as compost or sand to improve soil drainage. The raised structure allows gravity to draw out moisture from the soil down to the ground level away from the raised bed, which is why even just a scant 8 inches of height can do wonders for your plants.
Root Freedom above Ground Level
Raised garden beds can also prevent the soil from getting dense and compact due to frequent walking. Instead of tilling the soil every 2-3 days due to constant human activity, raised beds need only to be tilled every 4-5 days, and with minimal effort to boot. That would mean sweet mercy on your hands as tilling can be grueling work.
And because the soil is loose and light, plant roots will have the freedom to expand and develop at will. As an added bonus, the lightness of the soil will allow air and water to circulate through the soil for better root health.
Water and Soil Conservation
Did you notice your water bill going up ever since you put up your garden? Yes, it is only natural since plants need water to grow and develop. But with raised bed gardening, you can cut down your water consumption to a certain percent. Why? Because the raised bed structure confines water within the bed, preventing water from running off in areas that don’t need to get wet to begin with. The closed proximity and coverage of the leaves of your plants also provide shade, slowing down water evaporation during hot days.
And because water will not flow over on different directions, precious top soil that is rich in organic matter and nutrients will not be washed off. All the side dressings of fertilizers and compost tea that you apply will go straight to the plants that you wish to maintain.
Now, collect all those benefits into your plants and you will get a harvest that is even better than what you normally would have from conventional gardening. Another thing is, because the growing area is raised for better root development, you can plant even more crops inside your garden bed. You can utilize almost all the available area within the bed without having to compromise plant health and development.
Freedom to Enjoy
Raised bed gardening are most popular among people with mobility problems, such as those who cannot stoop down, bend over, crouch, or kneel on ground level to tend to their plants. By raising the bed at a certain height and keeping the raised bed two feet wide, you can work in all areas of your raised garden even while you’re sitting on your wheelchair.
If you don’t need a wheelchair, a 4×4 raised bed will be more than sufficient for you to give water, apply fertilizer, and remove weeds and pests with ease.
Prolonged Growing Season
The thing that I enjoy the most with raised bed gardening is the prolonged growing season. There are times when you just have to wait for the best season to come in order to plant your favorite crops. But with raised beds, you can plant your crops without having to wait for the coldness of spring to pass. The improved drainage plus the confined space will speed up the warming process of the soil, providing a good environment for seed germination and plant development.
Types of Raised Beds
There are two types of raised beds that you can use for backyard or garden: temporary and permanent.
Temporary raised beds are made by digging beneath the soil until it is loose and “raised” above ground level or other surrounding structures. You can increase the height of the bed by adding other organic materials such as compost and peat to improve soil conditions. You can keep this type of bed raised and loose by keeping the area off limits from human foot activity. It is very easy to do, does not involve a lot of costing, and you can almost immediately start with your gardening. The thing that I don’t like about it is that the whole structure is somewhat unstable, so to speak. You still have to contend with soil erosion and structure breakage during heavy rainfall, or if the water pressure on your hose is too much. Building a trench around the bed can contain the water, but only to a certain degree. Another disadvantage is that you can only increase the height to mere inches, which totally eliminates the sole purpose of raised beds entirely.
If you don’t want the hassle of constantly checking the structure of your raised bed, you can go for a more permanent fixture. You can create berms by putting filler underneath clay and top soil to serve as visual interest, noise buffer, and even as something that can partially shield you from prying neighbor’s eyes. But how can you prevent the soil from sliding down the slope of the berm? The roots of your established vegetation will hold in the soil firmly on top of your filler, so no need to worry about losing precious top soil.
If you prefer a more structured, secure, and highly versatile raised bed for your back yard, you can use raise bed planters instead.
Types of Raised Bed Planters
Raised bed planters can be created using different materials as long as they are capable of holding in dirt, moisture, and heat well. Planters are often made out of wood such as black locust, red cedar, and redwood for many reasons. Naturally resistant these woods are, they can last for years in your garden even when exposed to different elements. They are easy to construct and take apart in case you wish to remodel your garden.
What about treated wood? As much as the idea is tempting, I suggest you sit one out. There is still an on-going debate about the safety of treated lumber on plants as some lumber companies use chromate copper arsenate or ammoniacal copper arsenate to preserve wood. Modern companies are now using alkaline copper quaternary for wood treatment, a compound that is high in copper but free of any arsenic. As long as the safety of these compounds are not yet established, it is best that you order raised bed planters made out of untreated wood. Also, gardening is not considered organic if pressure-treated wood touches the soil where your plants and crops grow.
If you prefer to have a modern garden look, you can use masonry materials such as bricks or concrete blocks to match the layout of your garden. You can create a more aged, worn out look buy using recycled bricks and materials.
One of the common materials I see people use for raised bed gardening are old railroad ties. Old, discarded ones are good provided that they are not black and oozing with Creosote. Creosote is a chemical used for treating railroad ties, and they often cause injury and even death to plants on direct contact. If you are not sure about the safety of your treated wood, you might want to wrap it carefully in some protective plastic. This will keep the chemicals from touching the soil, provided that the plastic cover is thick and free of any puncture marks. Still, I would rather that you don’t risk the safety of your garden and yourself with this method.
Designs of Raised Planters
Planters come in different designs to make your raised bed gardening both easy and attractive. The most basic raised planter design is a box-type planter that is either 4’ x 4’, 3’ x 4’, or 4’ x 8’. The usual dimensions for raised bed planters are 4’ x 4’, and a planter that is longer than four feet is usually made by adding an additional piece of wood or extension that is kept in place using a peg and aluminum framing. This is to prevent the center of your planter from yawning open when you add in soil later.
What I like most about wooden raised beds is that some designs give you freedom over how tall or how small your planters can be. You can put two slabs of wood on top of each other, or you can go to as high as your hips if need be. You can also adjust the height later to your comfort if you are not feeling too comfortable with it.
Some planters come with their own irrigation system, lessening the worry over how much water you should give to your plants. Having an irrigation system is best if you are doing raised bed vegetable gardening for you and your family. If you prefer to have an irrigation system, consider one that will supply water either on top of the soil or deep into the bed to prevent the leaves from getting wet.
Want to grow climbers or crops with vines? You can get wooden raised beds that have a trellis attached to them. The trellis is made at just the right height so that you can monitor the how aggressively your vines are growing. It makes harvesting easier and fun, too, for kids.
For a more eye-catching design, you can get planters that are hexagonal in shape. They can serve as a center piece for your garden, or an accent or focal point as a tower. Planters like this can really save the look of a lush yard. How? Well, a friend of mine wanted to plant a small tree at her yard, but she does not like the “dead space” beneath the tree. By dead space, she meant this brown, barren area you commonly see beneath a growing tree because of lack of sunlight. What she did was she got one of those hexagonal raised planters and planted her tree in it. She then made that dead space a point of contrast in her garden instead of an eyesore because of her raised planter.
Patio, Deck or Balcony Raised Bed Planters
Can you still do raised bed gardening even if you don’t have a lawn or landscape area for your planters? Of course you can! Raised planters are specifically designed for people who wish to do gardening at a small area that such as their patio, balcony, or even a small deck. Think: raised bed gardening on legs.
Raised planters with legs are great if you have a small area to work with. You don’t have to hammer down pegs on your beloved patio or balcony, and you have the freedom to adjust the height accordingly depending on your needs. I immediately fell in love with one of these planters because I can pull up a chair and just sit while I tend to my beloved plants.
If you want to keep things neat, then a raised garden center can be just the thing. It’s just like your raised planter on legs, but it’s longer and has a shelf underneath to store your gardening tools such as pots, shovels, fertilizers, and garden sprays.
But how do these planters keep it soil and let water drain out of them? The bottom of these planters is hollow, with slim pieces of wood arranged at the bottom to keep a heavy-duty liner in place. The liner is strong enough to hold in as much as 8 cubic feet of potting soil, yet is porous to allow excess water to drain through. These planters are good for flowers and herbs, but they are also great if you wish to have raised beds for vegetables.
Potting Mix for Raised Planters
Now that you’ve chosen your planter design, next step will be filling it up with soil. Now, don’t get that shovel yet and start digging out dirt from your backyard. That would be just like digging the grave of your plants even before you get to begin planting. Not a good idea, I tell you. I cannot stress enough about the perils your garden soil will give to your plants. Poor drainage, lots of harmful microorganisms, parasites; the list just goes on and on.
So, what can you do? First off is to get the dimensions of your raised planter to help you calculate how much soil you need to prepare your raised beds. A 4’ x 8’ x 1’ planter dimension will need about 32 cubic feet of potting soil to fill it up. For those who are wondering, I came up with 32 cubic feet by multiplying 4, 8, and 1 together. Your computation will be accurate as long as you use the same measure of units (i.e. feet, inches, centimeter, and meter).
Now that you know how much soil you need for raised beds, prepare your soil by mixing top soil with 1/3 each of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. You can also get soil mixes that already come premixed in garden stores or from where you ordered your raised planters. Adjust the ph of your soil depending on the needs of the plants that you wish to cultivate. You can get pH testers in your local garden centers and use sulfur and lime to lower and raise the pH of the soil respectively. It may be a tedious process, but the right pH can do wonders to your plants.
How will you know if your mix is good? Get a handful of wet potting mix and then squeeze it. If it forms a ball and crumbles easily, your mix is just perfect for raised bed gardening. If it doesn’t hold together, then needs more absorbent material. But if it sticks together like clay and does not crumble, then you might need to add something like peat, a bit of sand, or egg shells, and even used coffee grounds to improve drainage.
Maintaining your Raised Bed Planters
Raised bed gardening also requires a little bit of care for maintenance. I have mentioned that the soil in raised beds dry faster compared to other surrounding soil, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. Fast-drying soil can keep soil temperatures in raised beds warm during spring and fall, so you don’t have to worry about your plants getting waterlogged. But summer temperatures can speed up water evaporation and can put a strain on meager water resources. Your best solution is to apply mulch on top of your garden bed to serve as insulation and lessen the rate of water evaporation. What can you use as mulch? Straw or hay are perfect mulching materials, as well as shredded newspaper, wood chips, and grass clippings. Don’t use plastics, cans, and bottles as they do little in protecting your garden.
If you have several raised beds, be sure to monitor the soil between each bed. Weeds can breed between them and spread their spores on neighboring planters. Apply mulch between the planters if you have extra to control the amount and speed of growth of weeds. Rule of weeding: weed early and often to suppress and totally stop weed growth.
Maintain the healthy condition of the soil by regularly adding compost every 2-3 weeks as needed. You can also add in some fish emulsion or alfalfa meal in between applications to give your plants other nutrients like calcium and magnesium for better crop production.
The good thing about raised vegetable beds is that you can incorporate what’s left of the season into the soil. This will help increase the content of organic material into the soil and, in time, help improve soil conditions for future planting.
Do practice crop rotation. Planting the same crops over and over again in raised bed gardening makes the soil high at risk in getting harmful microorganisms that can harm what could be a hardy breed of crops. If you planted carrots in the first season, try planting other crops such as legumes and egg plants the next.
Raised bed gardening gives you a totally different gardening experience. It’s easy to set up, maintain, and gives your garden a totally different perspective. There are different planters available to suit your needs, so feel free to browse through my links to see which type of raised planter is perfect for you.