I’m going to just state this upfront - I love my raised beds! Okay, now that I’ve said it, I’ll follow that up by saying that I’m going to present unbiased pros and cons for raised bed gardening. My goal here is to give you information to help you decide whether to use them or not.
When it comes down to it, it just depends on what you want and what you have to work with in terms of yard, time, and money.
We’ll cover the 5 reasons to use raised beds first.
They can be used in places where the soil is less than ideal. Place them right on top of clay, sandy soil, invasive grass, and even concrete. The depth of the bed should be determined by what you want to grow. Many plants such as lettuces and annual flowers have shallow roots and will be fine in a 6” raised bed. Many other vegetables and flowers will want a little more depth and a taller (12”) bed will provide better growing conditions. The base of the bed (what you place under the soil) will depend on the ground underneath. Cardboard works well, but if you’re fighting invasive plants you may want to use landscape fabric.
They are great for beginner gardeners to get a garden up and going quickly. It’s easy to have a raised garden bed up and planted in an afternoon. Set up the raised bed, add soil and compost, and plant. You won’t need to till the soil, take time to make a lasagna garden (no-till method), or amend the soil to prepare it for planting.
They are easy to weed and maintain. A raised bed will still get weeds, but there will be fewer of them and they’ll be easy to pull. Most weeds won’t come from the gound below, but will come from seeds being carried by the wind and birds. Since the soil mixture is loose and not compacted, weeds are easy to pull up. And because garden beds are usually no wider than 4’ and slightly elevated, the weeds are easy to reach. (Also a benefit for harvesting.)
It’s easy to attach trellises and other plant supports to the sides of the beds. It’s easy to grow vertically in raised beds, which is great if you have a small growing area that you’re trying to maximize. Cucumbers, peas, beans, and squash all need to climb, and trellises can be attached to the beds.
You can grow more in a raised bed. When set up with the right soil mixture, depth, and bottom, raised beds are often more productive than in-ground gardens. The soil is less compact which means there is better drainage. Plants can be planted more closely together since you’ve filled the bed with a nutrient-rich soil mixture. You don’t need to plant in rows since there’s no foot traffic. In addition, they warm up quicker in the spring, giving you a little head start on the season. (They also cool down quicker in the fall.)
Now, I can still think of several other good reasons, but I’m limiting this to the top 5 that I think make the biggest difference when trying to decide if you want raised beds or in-ground beds.
Let’s move along to 5 reasons you might not want to use raised beds.
They are more expensive than planting in the ground. Although there is a big range in cost depending on what materials are used, raised beds are probably going to cost more than planting in the ground. In addition, there’s the cost of filling the raised bed. That can be minimized by using your own (or a friend’s) compost along with soil, but it’s still more expensive than planting in the ground.
They dry out quicker and need to be watered more frequently. Raised beds dry out quicker than the ground below, which means you’ll need to keep an eye on them and keep them watered. I installed drip irrigation in my beds which makes this task much easier.
The soil underneath does not get improved. Unfortunately, bad soil will remain bad soil. If you plant in the ground, you’ll be improving the soil each year and restoring it to nutrient rich ground.
It takes work to move (or remove) a bed. If you decide you want the raised bed in a different location, it takes a lot of effort to move the soil and the bed, or just remove it all together. This isn’t a big deal for in-ground beds since there’s nothing to move.
Some plants grow better in deeper soil. Tomatoes need about 18”-24” which means they aren’t ideal for shallower raised beds. There are many versions of deeper raised beds and those are great for tomatoes, but those will add to the cost.
If you’re still not sure if you want raised beds or not, a great option is to start small and do both! Here’s a doable beginner’s plan that won’t break the bank, and will give you a chance to try out both methods. If you want to expand your garden the following year, you’ll have good, solid experience to make your decisions.
Raised Bed - Make or buy one raised bed. The easiest sizes are 3’x3’, 4’x4’, and 2’x4’. For the easiest and least inexpensive approach, get one that is 6” high and plan to grow vegetables or flowers that have shallow roots. Place it in a spot that receives enough sun, where a hose can reach, and that looks aesthetically pleasing. It could be against a shed or garage, or in an open spot in your yard.
In-ground Garden - Select a spot of similar size and location to the raised bed. Work compost into the top few inches. Plant any vegetables or flowers.
At the end of the season, you may even decide you want more of both types of garden beds! You’ll have valuable, first-hand experience to know what you want to continue and what you want to do differently - which is exactly what gardeners to at the end of every season. We reflect, make notes, and determine what we want to repeat or change for the next year. (And it’s a lot of fun.)
I know that when I started gardening, I had sooo many questions (I still do). After reading this, what questions do you still have when it comes to raised bed vs in-ground gardening?
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