A Beginner’s Guide to Raised Bed Gardening

A beautiful container garden stretching into the distance with lots of greenery

For beginners – or really about any gardener – one way to get close to the soil is to raise it up. A raised garden bed can be enclosed or not. A raised bed can even be waist-high. Think of a raised bed as a big container garden. In this guide to raised bed gardening, you’ll find many tips and recommendations to make your growing experience as uplifting as possible.

What is a raised garden bed?

In a raised bed, plants are grown in soil that is higher than ground level. Most raised beds are enclosed with lumber (natural or plastic), cinder blocks, bricks, or about anything that will keep the soil in place. A raised bed is easy to build for the DIYer and is a good choice for growing vegetables in small spaces.

Raised-bed gardening makes it easy to practice organic gardening. Because weeds rarely take hold in the garden, no weed killer (herbicide) is needed. And because there’s organic matter in the soil, drainage is not usually an issue. Monitoring plants regularly allows the beginner gardener to catch insect and disease problems early. The earlier you notice these problems, the easier they are to control.

Where should you locate a raised garden bed?

raised garden bed
Lori L. Stalteri | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Place the raised vegetable garden bed in an area that gets at least eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Most flowering plants also need full sun. Look for a flat area in your landscape. Beds that run east and west are exposed to the most sun. If drainage is an issue, look for high, flat ground. You want the raised bed to be reasonably close to a water source.

Whether the raised bed is enclosed or not, be sure to leave a pathway around the garden bed. This gives you someplace to work from.

Tips for building a raised bed

  • The raised bed can be any length but usually about 3 feet wide. At that width, you can reach in from either side without walking on the bed. Walking on the bed compacts the soil, making it difficult for roots to grow.
  • You don’t have to kill the grass or weeds. Instead, mow it, then lay several layers of newspapers or a layer of cardboard over the area. 
  • Place screen wire or a tight-grid (1/4 inch) hardware cloth on top of the paper or cardboard. The screen keeps animals from digging into the bottom of the garden.
  • Dump the planter’s mix on top of the screen and smooth it out.
  • If the raised bed is not enclosed, slope the sides of the soil slightly outward, which adds strength to the edges.
  • Make sure the enclosure is not treated with chemicals that will leach into the soil, such as treated lumber. 
  • The enclosure edges should be slightly higher than the raised soil level.

What kind of soil is best?

Look for a high-quality planter’s mix from a local landscape supplier. Planter’s mix contains topsoil, compost, rotted manures, chopped leaves, peat moss, perlite, finely chopped mulch (call fines), sand, and other amendments. This type of soil allows the plant roots to grow easily and quickly.

Each company likely has a proprietary mix of these ingredients and others. Ask if the mix is organic. Tell your supplier the dimensions of the raised bed garden, and they will tell you how many cubic yards you need.

What can you grow in a raised garden bed?

vegetable raised garden bed
Local Food Initiative | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

About anything grown at ground level can be grown in raised beds. Vegetable gardens are the most popular with flowers in second place. Veggies like tomato plants, pepper plants, cucumbers, onions, green beans, beets, radishes, root crops and more all do well in high-quality raised bed soil.

Because the soil in a raised bed warms up faster in early spring, it’s ideal for growing lettuce, spinach, peas, and other cool-season vegetables.

Although the soil temperature of a raised garden bed cools down quicker than the ground soil surface in fall, you can reduce the chill by covering plants with clean straw or by installing a row cover. The straw insulates plants. The row cover, usually a special type of cloth placed over hoops or elevated above the plants, offers protection down to 20 to 28 degrees F. This allows for harvesting well into cold temperatures.

To conserve water and help the soil retain moisture, place chopped leaves, hardwood mulch, and untreated grass clippings over the garden soil and around plants.

What are the advantages of a raised garden bed?

Aside from elevating soil so you don’t have to bend over to work, raised beds have several advantages.

  • The soil in raised beds tends to warm up earlier in spring than the soil at ground level. This allows for earlier planting.
  • Raised beds usually have good drainage because of the high-quality planter’s mix, which is rich in organic matter.
  • Weeds are almost non-existent because the planter’s mix should be weed free. If a weed or two blows in, they are within easy reach to remove.
  • The walls of the bed keep children and pets from walking on plants.
  • They are neater.
  • They are a way to garden in urban areas where the soil may be poor quality, heavily compacted, contaminated with lead, or bound with dense tree roots.
  • They can be made accessible for all abilities.
  • They give the appearance of being permanent structures. However, they can be torn out to turn the area into something else, such as a lawn or flowerbed.

What are the disadvantages of a raised garden bed?

Raised beds cost more than gardening directly in the ground because of the cost of the  planter’s mix and walls. Other disadvantages include:

  • Soil in raised beds cools off quicker in fall compared to the soil at the ground level.
  • The soil in raised beds tends to dry out faster than in-ground gardens. It  requires more watering during dry spells.
  • Installing a drip irrigation system can be complicated and difficult.

How to care for the raised bed

In winter, mulch your bed with chopped leaves, compost or a cover crop, such as hairy vetch, winter rye or clover. Open soil benefits from a mulch or cover crop to control soil erosion and to keep weeds from taking root.

In spring, replenish the soil as needed with more planter’s mix.

Other raised garden bed options

Doug Beckers | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Online retailers and some big box stores may have kits for raised beds. These kits include platforms with legs and are about waist high. Because these beds are open at the base, it’s easy for gardeners in wheelchairs or with other adaptive devices to reach the soil without bending over.

A popular alternative to traditional raised beds is a trough, similar to a livestock watering trough. These are metal and can be about any size. Be sure to punch holes in the base of the trough to allow for drainage. A trough will require more planter’s mix than a traditional raised garden bed.

Frequently asked questions

Q. Are there any vegetable plants that may not work in a raised garden bed?

A. Potatoes may not do well in a raised bed, depending on its depth. Potatoes are planted about 6 inches deep, and as the leaves emerge, they are covered with soil two or three times before harvesting. Keep a stash of topsoil or compost handy to cover the potato leaves.

Pumpkins and other large sprawling plants may not do well because the new raised bed may not be large enough to accommodate the plants.

Q. Can I make my own planter’s mix?

A. Yes, you can. Use about a 2-to-1 ratio mix of 2 parts topsoil and 1 part compost or other organic matter.

When to call a pro

Gardening can be an enjoyable task for some, but not all. If you’d prefer to leave the dirty work to a pro, connect with a local gardening professional for help.

Main Image Credit: Unsplash

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at hoosiergardener.com.