A Beginner’s Guide to Raised Bed Gardening

A Beginner’s Guide to Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised Bed Gardening is a way of growing plants inside beds raised above the garden’s average level in the garden. They’re typically housed inside a wooden frame, generally rectangular. The soil may be mixed in with tilled soil underneath, or it can simply be new soil placed on top of the untilled ground.

Maintaining a Raised Bed Garden article cover image with a raised garden bed done with square foot gardening

An Introduction to Raised Bed Gardening

There are many great benefits to growing plants in raised beds. One of the most significant benefits is the ability to harvest more produce from the same space. Raised bed gardens can double or even triple the amount of produce harvested from the area! This is because the square footage needed for pathways is reduced considerably, and you can devote more space to the plants.

Another great benefit to growing in raised beds is that you can improve your soil conditions more readily, and you can even grow plants in areas with extremely inhospitable soil. If your garden is typically very sandy or you have a lot of clay, it can be difficult to grow much in it. But if you create a raised bed, you can put your own purchased or created soil mix into the frame and grow your plants in that.

Weeds are also much less of a problem in the typical raised bed. Because the soil is confined, it’s much easier to spot any weeds that pop up, and the weed seeds in the existing soil are buried under far too much soil to sprout in most cases.

The frames can also be built with a bottom and placed on tables so disabled, and older adults can reach their plants to care for them more easily. This is a major benefit for people who otherwise wouldn’t properly care for a garden.

This type of gardening was made famous by Mel Bartholomew in his book and television series called Square Foot Gardening. He developed a system that requires about 80% less space than traditional types of gardening.  

Instead of being just a standard raised bed, the bed is divided into sections that house plants of various sizes. It uses a special soil mix free of weeds and is ideal for growing almost any kind of plant. It uses less water, is all organic, and uses far fewer seeds than traditional gardening. 

His system claims you can produce five times more in the same space of a traditional garden.

The system divides each square foot into a grid, based on what type of plants you wish to grow in that section. If you want to produce a large plant like broccoli or cabbage, it will take one entire square foot so that that section wouldn’t be divided at all. If you want to grow radishes, you might section that square foot into sixteen separate spaces, each housing a single radish!

Other similar systems have been brought out.  Cubed Foot Gardening is very similar to Square Foot Gardening. The creator of this particular system is Christopher O. Bird, and he credits Mel Bartholomew for creating the original design. Bartholomew even endorsed the system!

Maintaining a Raised Bed Garden introduction to raised bed gardening

You don’t have to use a grid system at all. 

You can use a raised bed to plant a wildflower garden or an herb garden with no definable organization. This works just fine. You don’t have to restrict yourself to a grid-based system if you don’t want to. Raised beds are very flexible!

Why Raised Beds Make Gardening Easier

Raised bed gardening make gardening easier in many ways. They help you solve difficult issues with your soil; they help control pests, improve the amount of produce you can harvest in an area, be great at reducing weeds, and help conserve water.

Any plants that love well-drained soil can benefit from being grown in raised beds. You don’t have to raise just vegetables. You can also quickly grow herbs, fruits, and flowers in raised beds and make your job easier.

In raised bed gardening, the soil is usually put into frames about three or four feet wide and any length. The earth is generally enriched with compost and is added to a frame made of wood or other material.

The plants in raised bed gardening are planted much closer together than the plants in a traditional garden. This allows the plants to conserve moisture and block the sun from allowing weeds to germinate and grow.

Raised beds can be used to extend the growing season, making it easier to start seeds outdoors earlier, and grow later in the season. This is a great way to get even more production out of the area in a season.

If you have soil problems in your garden, you can use raised beds and bypass your own soil altogether. 

If you start with entirely fresh soil, it doesn’t matter what type of soil you had in your garden, to begin with.

Another great benefit of raised bed gardening is that the gardener doesn’t walk on the soil where the plants are growing. This helps prevent the soil from being packed down, so the roots can grow through the ground more readily.

You don’t need to till the soil under a raised bed if you don’t want to. This is very beneficial for people who can’t afford a tiller or aren’t physically capable of handling a piece of machinery like this.

You won’t have to water raised beds as often as you would a traditional garden. The soil in raised beds is explicitly designed to hold on to water so that you can water less often and in smaller quantities. This is great for conserving water and saving money.

Frames can be built on top of plywood bases and then raised to any height. This allows disabled and older adults to reach their plants to tend to them easily. For people in wheelchairs, this could be one of the only ways they can garden well.

Diseases and pests are easier to control in raised beds. Since you’re starting with fresh soil, it’s less likely to be contaminated with diseases that could infect your plants. If your plants become infected, you can simply dispose of the soil in that bed and start again from scratch.  

And pests are easier to control because plants are in a more confined area. This makes it much easier to spot potential problems, and it also makes it easier to get rid of potential problems before they take over your entire garden.

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Creating a Raised Bed Garden

The first step in creating a raised bed garden is to decide how large you’d like it to be. It should be no wider than 4 feet, so you can reach comfortably to end to plants from both sides, but it can be as long as you’d like. Most people stick with 4×4 foot plots, and you can do many 4×4 foot plots or one 4×12 or 4×20 or whatever you want!

You can build your frame out of standard lumber. 2×6 lumber is good enough for a structure that will house shallow-root vegetables such as radishes, lettuce, and spinach. If you want to grow larger vegetables like corn or tomatoes, you’ll need 2×12 boards, so your soil can be at least 10 inches deep.

Opinion varies on whether or not you should use treated lumber. If you use untreated lumber, it will rot within a few years, and you’ll have to start your garden all over from scratch. If you use treated wood, it has a small potential to leech toxic chemicals into the soil that your plants might pick up and passed to you.

If you want to be on the safe side, you should stick with untreated wood. But treated wood is very convenient. Many scientists claim the chances of anyone being harmed by the small number of chemicals that might leech into the soil would be minuscule. This is a personal choice, so whatever you decide is right for you is just fine.

It would be best if you had your lumber cut for you when you buy it. You need the lumber ends to be perfectly even so the soil won’t leak out once you put your raised bed together. This is extremely difficult to do yourself unless you have a large saw. 

A circular saw or handsaw probably won’t cut it.  

You’ll need to use three 4-inch ribbed deck nails at each joint to put your frame together. Other types of deck nails won’t hold tightly enough to ensure your bed won’t fall apart until the pressure of all that soil and plant material.

You should assemble the frame on a flat, level surface, not directly in the garden, if you can help it. 

Your frame will be much sturdier if it’s assembled on your deck or driveway. Then you might require help moving it to the garden, as it will probably be heavy.

You should leave a minimum of two feet between boxes, preferably three feet. You need enough room to move around comfortably. Be sure to choose a good location right from the start, because once they’re filled with soil, they’d be impossible to move without emptying them!

You can dig up or till the soil underneath the frames if you wish, but it’s generally not necessary. 

Most plants will grow just fine in the 6 or 12 inches of soil inside the frame, and they should be able to push through the ground if they need to. As long as you provide very high-quality soil with plenty of organic material, your plants should never need to shoot roots down past those 12 inches.

Your soil should be the highest quality soil you can manage. You can purchase commercial potting soil, but it generally won’t be high enough quality. You should add more organic material to this soil. You can use homemade compost, composted manure, or other rich organic material to make the soil you use the best possible quality.

Choosing Plants for a Raised Bed Garden

The type of plants you choose for your raised bed will be based on things such as your zone, the availability of sun in your garden, and your personal preferences. 

But we’re going to talk about how to choose vegetables for your raised beds in a general way.

First of all, you should be sure to plant only those vegetables your family likes to eat. 

Sure, those golden beets may be beautiful, but do you eat beets? Do your kids like beets? Is your spouse going to run away screaming if you try to serve them? It would help if you only planted varieties that you believe your family will truly enjoy.

Maintaining a Raised Bed Garden picture of an older raised garden

The easiest plants to grow in raised beds include beans, Swiss chard, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and radishes. These plants are all great for beginners. Herbs are also generally straightforward to grow. You should choose some of these easier types if you’re new to raised bed gardening or gardening in general.

If you want to plant vegetables that reach maturity very quickly, you can choose better varieties for this purpose. Some of us can be very impatient. If you hate waiting around to harvest your first vegetables, you can try radishes, spinach, lettuce, beans, beets, squash, cucumbers, carrots, and peas.

If you prefer to get your plants out as early as possible in the season, you should choose varieties that are especially good for early planting outdoors. Some types you can plant four to six weeks before the last frost include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, parsley, peas, and spinach.  

You can plant beets, carrots, radishes, and Swiss chard up to four weeks before the last frost. 

You’ll be able to plan beans, corn, summer squash, and tomatoes on the date of the last frost. And you can plant cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and winter squash about two weeks after the last frost date.

If you want to extend your growing season as late in the year as you can, you should choose great fall vegetables. You can harvest beans, Swiss chard, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, squashes, and tomatoes up until the last frost.  

Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beets, carrots, lettuce, and spinach can all be planted just a few weeks before the last frost and will have time to mature before the frost hits. 

And you can plant lettuce and radishes up to a week before the first frost in many areas using raised bed gardening!

If you’re a beginning gardener, you should probably stick to those plants you can grow during the typical growing season. You won’t want to get too complex or too complicated when you’re just starting. 

You should stick with the easier varieties and plant them during the regular growing season.

Also, be sure to choose varieties that grow well in your area. You should check your USDA zone chart to ensure a particular sort of plant will grow well in your area. Don’t pick varieties that won’t grow in your area, no matter how tempting they may be.

And be sure to choose varieties that will grow under your lighting conditions. If you have a very shady yard, don’t pick vegetables or herbs that need full sun. You need to work with the conditions available to you, especially if you’re just starting out.

Maintaining a Raised Bed Garden

After you’ve built your frames, you need to mix your soil and put it into the frames. If you like, you can use about 25% soil from your garden as a base. You can then add in equal parts sand and compost and be sure to check the soil’s pH balance to be sure it’s within the range needed for your plants.

You can elevate your raised beds to provide extra protection against small animals. You can cover the bottom with chicken wire to help keep out small animals, and you can cover the tops with bird netting if you have a problem with birds eating your produce.

If you’re worried about weeds in your raised beds, you can mulch with good organic bark mulch. You can also use black plastic or weed guards, but it probably won’t be necessary. Most raised bed gardens don’t have a lot of trouble with weeds, and those few weeds that do appear are usually very easy to get rid of.

If your plants happen to be attacked by a disease from the soil, you can get rid of the soil in your beds and start all over. You wouldn’t be able to do this in a standard garden, where you’d have to wait for two years to be sure the disease had been fully eradicated.

Raised beds are typically quite simple to keep moist. You’ll only need to water the raised bed so that you can save a lot of money on your water bill. 

You can also buy drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses that will water your plants for you. This can be better for your plants than watering from overhead because it can help prevent diseases and fungus.

During the heat of the summer, your raised beds may dry out faster. This is because of the boards that make your frame get very hot and can dry up the soil. If this happens, you’ll need to water more often than usual. This can be beneficial, though. The extra heat produced by the boards can help you plant earlier and extend your season longer.

It’s effortless to maintain your raised beds. You need to add organic material to the soil in your raised beds every year in the early spring before you plant anything. This will help ensure the plants will have adequate nutrition.

When your raised beds aren’t in use in the winter, you can add a layer of crushed leaves over the soil’s top. This helps protect the soil and also helps provide a bit of organic material for the earth.

If you have a disease infestation from the soil, you should remove all of the dirt from the bed and dispose of it, starting from scratch with new soil. You’ll need to be sure to get rid of as much of that soil as you can. That is pretty much the only drawback I can think of to raised bed gardening.

You may need to add more sand or organic material occasionally to ensure proper drainage. 

If your soil is drying out too quickly or staying wet for too long, you’ll need to adjust the soil’s makeup.

Finally, it’s important to keep an eye on the material you used to build your frames. If you’ve used untreated wood, this is especially important because it can rot quickly.