In winter, gardeners look through seed catalogs and splurge on the latest hybrids and the oldest heirlooms – but when it’s time to plant, even veteran green thumbs may lie awake at night. How will they find enough time to weed, fertilize, and water all those plants? And beginner gardeners sleeplessly wonder how they can provide each vegetable and flower with the optimum conditions.
The answer, like the wakeful gardener, lies in bed – a raised bed, to be specific. Gardeners have used raised beds to reduce workload and increase harvests for millennia, and the concept has stood the test of time. It’s a nearly foolproof way to garden – a little work up front, and you’re set for years.
In fact, raised beds beat out in-ground plantings on several fronts – they reduce weed and pest issues, make it possible to plant earlier (the raised earth warms up faster), the beds drain well, and even the lower versions are easier on your back.
A quick spin through Pinterest will prove that your raised garden bed can be as primitive as an old tractor tire filled with dirt that you’ve raided from another part of your property. Or as captivating as a Martha-Stewart-worthy brick complex, complete with paths and trellises.
Most gardeners aim for something in between, relying on space, budget, and their garden “must-haves” to guide them. We’ve consulted the experts and have come up with a beginner’s guide to raised garden beds through trial and error. Follow these simple tips, and you’re well on your way to an easier season and a happier harvest!
The lay of the land
Whether you have an existing garden or not, your first raised bed chore is to figure out the best spot on your property. You’ll want eight or more hours of sun for most vegetables and flowers. Once you’ve scoped out the sunniest location, decide on the size of your bed – but be warned, the larger you go, the more expensive it will be to fill (more on that later).
Many raised bed gardeners start with a bed that’s eight by four feet, ideally with the long side facing south, so plants don’t cast shade on one another. The four-foot width is especially important if your garden bed backs up to a fence or property line. You’ll want to avoid compacting your soil by stepping into the bed, and four feet is just about arm’s length for most people.
An eight-foot length is more arbitrary. Many gardeners use eight-foot pine or cedar planks for their bed walls, leaving the length intact to save time and trouble. If you’re using another material to build your raised bed, feel free to go longer or shorter or break away from a rectangular shape.
While you’re inspecting the potential plot, remember that you’ll need to ensure a level bed; if the ground is hilly, you’ll have to shore up the lower side of the structure to make sure that the soil doesn’t wash away in the next heavy rainfall. With that in mind, you may want to aim for the most level patch of sunny ground you’ve got.
Funding your frame – raised beds on a budget
Once you’ve picked out the spot and have a rough idea of how big you’d like your raised bed to be, it’s time to crunch the numbers. It may be tempting to use reclaimed wood for your bed frame – it has a rustic appeal – but there are serious drawbacks. Before 2004, pressure-treated lumber contained arsenic, which can leach into your soil.
Other old wood may have traces of lead paint. If you’re looking to use wood, your safest bet is to buy either untreated or new pressure-treated. Many gardeners find that untreated pine planks last for years, but if you can afford it, splurge on cedar – they hold up better and longer. We like the following technique for building a wooden box because you can replace a side without having to detach hardware:
You’ll need three 8x2x12 planks, 12 two-foot metal stakes, a saw, and a mallet. Cut one of the planks in half to create your two short bed walls, then lay out the four planks with their inner corners touching. Raise one long side and hammer in two stakes to hold it upright. Continue around the other sides until all four are raised. Use the remaining stakes to reinforce the structure. Once you’re satisfied that the sides are even, hammer in the stakes until they’re flush with the planks.
For a raised bed taller than a foot, look to cedar for sturdy good looks. The higher your walls, the more they become part of your landscape – it’s worth it to invest in better wood. Stick with cedar planks that are two inches thick and reinforce at the corners and every few feet.
Beyond wood, other budget-friendly frame options include cinderblocks, which offer an unexpected bonus that we love: you can plant herbs in their holes to maximize your garden space. Sure, the cinderblocks aren’t the prettiest option, but they’re sturdy, cheap, and effective.
If you or a neighbor recently trimmed a tree, check out the timber – you may have enough to build a log-cabin style wall. You can also check around to see if friends or family have old bricks or patio pavers that are free for the hauling. You may be able to salvage or scrounge enough materials to construct your bed for free – and that’ll allow you to dedicate more of your budget to getting the soil right.
Beauty and the Bed – make a raised garden the showpiece of your property
Are you looking to create a landscape point of interest as well as a raised bed? You can build up walls with patio pavers – this is a wonderful option for fashioning curved, circular, and even tiered beds. Use a garden hose to try out different shapes and sizes, and then go for it. You can always rework the design before you fill it.
We particularly like this investment for hilly terrain, but if your plan is substantial, you may want to consult a landscaper to make sure that the beds and property around them will drain properly. Use construction adhesive to ensure your pavers stay in place, and bear in mind that you may want to expand the design in the coming years, so pick a classic paver style, not some trend of the year that’ll be discontinued by next spring.
Bricks also up the charm quotient of a raised border garden, but you’ll be committing – make sure you’re comfortable with the bed’s footprint before you begin to apply the mortar. Again, choose a brick style and color that both blends with your property and is offered perennially, in case you want to build an expansion down the line.
A gorgeous, one-of-a-kind rustic raised garden bed can be made by weaving branches into wooden stakes that you hammer into the ground. You’ll need two-foot stakes at about three-foot intervals. Pound these about a foot into the ground all along the perimeter of your bed shape. Then use a basketweave to build up the sides with branches. Soak them in water first to make them more pliable. It’s a bit of an undertaking, but the results are super picturesque, and you can’t beat the price!
Galvanized, corrugated metal can be combined with wood to create a long-lasting frame. You can find these metal sheets (usually in lengths of eight feet) in the roofing department of home improvement centers. We especially like the look of these style beds with cedar trim, and they hold up well (and hold their shapes!) in regions with harsh winters.
If you’ve decided to create more than one raised bed, determine whether you want to run the mower along the path between the two frames. Would you rather skip the task? You can mulch, gravel, or even pave the path. When dealing with more than two beds, we prefer to skip the grass; it’s a pain to mow, and the paths can become part of the raised garden’s charm.
Some more complicated raised bed schemes include raised gravel paths, which can lend a zen garden feel to your property – and who couldn’t use a little more zen in their lives? Other gardeners take advantage of multi-level raised garden beds. They plant durable ground covers that can handle foot traffic. Sedum, thyme, and scotch moss are options that look lovely and are sturdy enough to spring back step after step. Bonus: it smells great when you walk on it.
Once you’ve built your frame, you’ll need to figure out how much soil it’ll take to fill it. Multiply the length by the width and then by the depth to get the cubic-foot total. And remember: no matter how much money you’re willing to invest in your raised garden project, the absolute most expensive way to fill your bed is by purchasing bags of topsoil from your garden center.
It’s an option that quickly becomes cost-prohibitive (not to mention back-breaking!). Before you resort to this expense, look for other sources: there are ways to get dirt-cheap dirt. First, put out feelers around recent construction projects – you may get lucky, although you’ll likely need a way to haul it yourself. If you’ve scratched that off your list, then explore businesses that will deliver topsoil in bulk. This can add up, but it still may be less expensive than hauling bags home yourself. Plus, it’ll be much less effort on your part.
Many gardeners get creative to fill all that empty space, using rotting wood, brush, and other debris that will compost over time. If you layer the ground with this type of debris and then purchase good topsoil to finish the bed off, you’ll save money and ultimately create nutrient-rich dirt that your plants will love.
Specimens for success
What plants grow best in raised beds? Luckily, most of them will thrive in the aerated soil, virtually free of weeds and pests. As long as you remember to water frequently (raised beds drain very efficiently), you’ll find that most flowers, herbs, and veggies appreciate the nearly ideal conditions you’ve created.
For the best results, install an irrigation system or use soaker hoses, especially in the heat of summer. Crops like pole beans and peas will need a trellis or tripod, which gives you the chance to add vertical interest to your raised garden. We also like plants that cascade out over the bed walls. Try low-growing herbs and flowers to create a lush, overflowing look that leaves enough breathing room between plants.
No matter what style of raised bed you choose, you’ll elevate both your green thumb skills and the look of your property – and that’s what we call a victory garden.