Few gardeners are lucky enough to have perfect conditions for growing vegetables right off the bat. The most common challenge is poor soil quality, especially in urban and suburban areas where topsoil has been removed and compacted during construction. That’s why raised garden beds are such a popular solution since you’re literally rising above the natural terrain – and obstacles -- to growing healthy plants.
Depending on how high you go, tending raised garden beds can also be a lot easier on your back and can even make gardening accessible from a wheelchair. The idea is to stand or kneel in the paths when working in the raised beds
Another major advantage compared to a traditional garden plot is being able to produce in small spaces and focus your attention and resources on a more defined area. Your watering, fertilizing and pest control will be limited to the growth area instead of wasted on walkways. The soil also stays more productive because it’s not compacted by footsteps and warms up earlier in the spring.
On the downside, you’ll invest more upfront labor and budget getting a raised garden bed built and prepped. But once you’ve got the structure and soil in place, your garden will be easier to maintain for years to come. Here’s how to get your raised garden bed started.
Since vegetables are most productive when planted in full sun, your ideal spot will be free of shade. The next best choice would be a place that gets four to six hours of direct sunlight a day, with most of that in the morning hours. Try to locate your garden bed away from trees if possible so tree roots won’t compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients. You’ll also want good access to water, since raised beds will dry out more quickly, requiring more frequent watering than traditional gardens.
How much space will you need? That depends on the size of your design and ambition. Read on.
Since building and starting even a small raised bed garden involves time and expense, you can save both by thinking through each part before you buy any materials or plants. Guide the planning and design for your raised garden bed based on a combination of these factors:
Whether your soil is too sandy, full of clay, compacted, or contaminated by toxins, you can overcome any dirty problem by creating your own ideal soil conditions in your raised bed garden. It’s best to start with a soil test to find out if you need to start fresh to avoid toxins or if your soil just needs help. You can save money by just adding organic amendments such as compost and organic fertilizers to improve your soil’s texture or fix the acidity and nutrient balance. If you’re planning to purchase organic soil or other amendments be sure to look for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) certification on the product. You can make a good soil mix for raised beds with equal parts of garden soil, organic matter (compost, peat moss, composted manure), and porous material such as vermiculite or perlite, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service. If you don’t have good quality garden soil you can substitute more organic matter.
You may choose to plant in rows within the bed or simply group similar plants together by maturation time or height. Keep in mind that nature rewards plant diversity with more beneficial insects and microorganisms in the planting area. On the other hand, monoculture -- or grouping the same type of crops together – can lead to more pest and disease issues. You can increase productivity by planning and planting for multiple seasons and paying close attention to crop timing. You can also increase garden intensity by growing vertically to save space. Stake or cage tomato plants and train vine crops like cucumber and squash on a trellis.
A multi-purpose activity, mulching helps keep soil moist and roots cool in summer while controlling weeds and erosion. After you’re done planting, consider adding newspaper or cardboard for additional weed control before applying a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of bark or pine mulch around the base of the plants. Since raised beds are more prone to drying out than in-ground gardens they need at least 1 inch of rainfall or irrigation per week for healthy growth. Drip or soaker hose irrigation is best because it focuses water on the root system instead of the entire plant.
Raised bed gardens have no magical immunity to pests and disease, but the accessibility can make it easier to win the battle. Your first lines of defense are promoting healthy growth through proper mulching and watering and keeping a lookout for signs of infestation. Check under leaves for insect eggs and destroy them before they hatch. Bring in some recruits by attracting beneficial insects like lady beetles, lacewings and predatory wasps with companion plants in and around your raised beds. Good options include dill, fennel, coriander, Golden Alexanders, yarrow, sunflowers and goldenrods.
For fast action, you can choose organic products for disease and insect control -- just be sure to look for the OMRI label for organic gardening, like you'll find on many Earth’s Ally products. On the insect front, Earth’s Ally Insect Control uses a blend of rosemary, clove and peppermint oils to treat and control spider mites, whiteflies, aphids, thrips, mealy bugs, leaf rollers and scale insects. A broad-spectrum fungicide and bactericide, Earth’s Ally Disease Control extracts oils from thyme to treat and control powdery mildew, black spot, botrytis, blight, wilt, blossom end rot, damping off, leaf curl and leaf spot.
Ready to get started? Find more details and videos on raised garden beds from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service or your local extension service.