First let's be clear here, when I refer to conventional garden methods, I’m not talking about organic vs. non-organic growing. I’m referring to traditional row gardens, in which people till a section of earth, amend the soil, and plant their gardens in rows, with paths to walk on in between. This is how most American farmers have traditionally grown their vegetables, at least in part because they can space their rows to allow tractors, plows, and other machinery access to the crops.
There is some confusion over the term “raised beds” because many gardeners grow their vegetables in raised mounds of soil in between paths. Others, like me, build containers or frames to hold soil and grow in those. For the sake of simplicity — and because it’s what I know best — the focus of this discussion is on the latter.
Don't be confused here, I do grow things anywhere and everywhere I can and 9.9 times out of 10, my veggies get on better in the raised beds. Although, there are a few places in my yard where I've been planting year after year and the soil has been so well amended that it might as well be a raised bed.
But if your natural soil hasn't reached that point yet, go for the raised beds. You can start with nice soil such as Miracle Grow or Sta-Green brand Garden Soil or better yet use your own composted soil. Also, there is no need to build your beds to an extreme depth either, I've grown all sorts of veggies in just six inches of soil and they do extremely well!
The only time you'll need to take pause is if you'd like to plant some especially long carrots or if you're growing potatoes. In fact, I recommend containers like buckets for growing potatoes! (I'll post a blog about that soon)
Some of the benefits of raised bed gardening are:
- · Less Weeds
- · Better water retention in areas that have super-sandy soil
- · Better drainage in areas with clay soils
- · More growing space
- · No soil compaction from human feet
- · Warmer soil earlier in the season
- · Warmer soil for a longer season
- · Soil that has a neutral pH unless you add something to change it (because you're filling it)
- · Less soil erosion (especially, if the bed is framed)
The back yard gardeners usually start their preparation by digging two feet down into the soil to break up soil compaction, improve drainage, and provide aeration.
Have you ever tried to dig a two-foot-deep hole, let alone one 30 inches wide by 12 feet long? Call me lazy, but that’s way too much work for me. The Shovel and I have never really been on the best of terms!
Building raised beds requires some initial investment (primarily in wood, screws, and the soil to fill the beds) and in the time it takes to build. But once you’ve done that, you’re finished with the hard part. Raised beds like the ones I build last for years. I can just plunk them down right on top of grass or bark dust or whatever happens to be on the ground, no digging needs be involved.
I use weed-blocking fabric (or cardboard, newspaper or even old phone books) underneath, so weeds are rarely an issue. Those that do make their way in (airborne, or perhaps some volunteer tomatoes from last year’s crop) are easy to spot and pull out while they’re still tiny. By contrast, weeds are a never-ending battle in conventional row gardens, especially aggressively spreading weeds such as crabgrass.
I fill my frames and containers with a very light, organic soil mix that retains water well, never gets soggy, and is very easy to work with. Compare that to digging in heavy clay and rocky soil!
Yes, bringing in soil costs more than just planting “right in the ground,” but the results are superior and the process is considerably less frustrating and takes much less time and effort. With regular additions of small amounts of compost at planting or harvest time, soil like this lasts for years, requires no additional fertilizer or other amendments, and is suitable for growing nearly any vegetable or herb. Moreover, because I never walk on it, the soil never gets compacted and requires no tilling whatsoever.
Finally, raised-bed gardens are considerably more efficient than row gardens, taking up as little as 20 percent of the space to grow the same amount of produce. Because of that and well-thought-out succession planting and design, I'm able to install incredibly efficient and productive gardens for myself, my family and my clients, even for those who have very small yards or just sunny patios to work with. (Yes! You can put a raised bed garden right on a concrete patio or even a deck or balcony landing!!)
Just some of the benefits of the Raised Bed Garden:
1. Increased Productivity According to Ohio State University, I quote, “In a traditional home garden, good management may yield about .6 pounds of vegetables per square foot. Records of production over three years in a raised bed at Dawes Arboretum near Newark, Ohio, indicate an average of 1.24 pounds per square foot, more than double the conventional yield. "Raised beds are more productive per square foot because plants can be spaced more closely together. This is because you don’t need to leave spaces to walk through, because you don’t need to ever step on the garden bed, ever. Having a higher density planting also has the advantage that the plants growing there will shade out bare soil, making it harder for weeds to grow there. There most important benefit of raised garden beds is productivity. Raised garden beds are at least twice as productive as a conventional garden.
2. Better Soil Conditions Since there is no soil compaction, there is no need to plow, till, fork or dig the soil to loosen it up, traditional practices which destroy the soil structure and do more harm than good. Therefore, raised bed designs also lend themselves very well to the gardening technique of “no-dig gardening". You can use raised garden beds to overcome issues of poor drainage, poor soil, or even no soil, such as gardening on top of straight concrete or asphalt, because you create the garden bed and fill it with the type of soil you require, and build it by adding organic matter. You could even create a number of beds with different soil blends for a variety of different growing environments. By not having to step on the soil, you avoid soil compaction. When soil is compacted, water and air do not move as easily through the soil to the roots of plants. Even the plant roots themselves have trouble growing through compacted soil, limiting the plant’s access to water and nutrients. It has been suggested that soil compaction can lead to a 50% loss in productivity.
3. Increased Flexibility You can also attach trellises, supports, fences or shade cloth over/around the bed much more easily, or permanently as part of the structure. For people with physical limitations, such as those unable to bend over, or who are confined to a wheelchair, waist high raised beds are the answer.
4. More Efficient Irrigation Additionally, raised beds can support very thick layers of mulch above the soil, which will not slide off, or be blown or washed away. This not only aids in water conservation, but allows you to enrich and build the soil through the constant addition of organic matter. The dimensions of raised beds lend themselves to the installation of drip irrigation, which is an efficient way to water the garden, minimizing loss by evaporation, and reducing disease by not wetting the plant’s leaves.
So in the end the benefits of raised bed gardening are so numerous as to render traditional gardening a thing of the past. At least for me!
If you've never planted vegetables in raised beds before, I promise that once you do, you'll be spoiled for the rest of your gardening life. But that is okay because it just might be a risk you'll be willing to take.
In the photos below you can see that both the traditional garden on the left and the raised beds on the right are beautiful and productive. The question remains, "How much work do you want to have to put into it?"