Raised beds solve a number of gardening problems. Where soil is poor raised beds circumvent the arduous task of improving the soil. Instead of planting directly in the too sandy, too compacted, too depleted, or too heavy soil, you can elevate your garden and grow plants in good soil above the ground. Another advantage–the soil in raised beds warms up more quickly than the ground. For people who have limited mobility, who can’t bend or reach, or who use wheelchairs, beds raised to a convenient height make it possible for them to enjoy gardening. No matter what your reason for gardening in raised beds, you will get more crop per square foot because you don’t have to leave paths for walking between plants.
You have many choices when it comes to constructing a raised bed. Let’s look at the different approaches three gardeners took to raised bed gardening.
Mary wanted to plant a vegetable garden at her new home in South Florida. The soil in her yard was basically sand, so she decided to build up the soil on top of the ground rather than trying to improve the soil. She had loam brought in and mixed it with cow manure and sand, then mounded her nutrient-rich, well-drained soil and created a series of raised beds three feet wide. (Four feet is the maximum width for raised beds because you need to be able to reach all parts of the bed without stepping into it.) If the soil in Mary’s yard had more promise, Mary might have dug it up, added organic matter and amendments, and mounded it up to make her raised beds.
Susan is a carpenter so when it came to creating raised beds she used her skills to craft wood frames for her vegetables. Her frames were two and one-half feet high and three feet wide, making it easy to reach all areas of the bed without bending or reaching. Susan filled her raised beds with commercial organic soil mix. While Susan built her own raised bed frame, other gardeners use kits to build frames or make frames from cinderblocks, boards, bales of hay—you get the picture.
Harvey used sheet composting (also called passive composting or lasagna gardening) to create his raised beds. Sheet composting is a way to improve the soil without digging. The first step is to cut down existing plants. Then cover the area with corrugated cardboard or layers of newspaper. Cover the paper with manure or compost, then layer plant material, food scraps, leaves, and grass clippings—like you are making a compost pile. Use a mix of brown materials like dead leaves, which are rich in carbon, and green materials like fresh leaves, which are nitrogen-rich, being sure not to use grass clippings or other plant matter that has been treated with herbicides. Build the layers at least a foot high (the pile will reduce as the materials decompose). Cover the mound with straw if you’d like a more uniform appearance. Within months your garden will have a rich, balanced, and well-drained soil.
Want to learn more about raised bed gardening?
Mary, Susan, and Harvey used different methods for raised bed gardening, and theirs aren’t the only methods. To learn more about gardening in raised beds, check out the following websites:
Learn how to build a Raised Bed Garden from Texas A & M System.
Get the facts on raised bed gardening from Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet: Raised Bed Gardening.
How to Build and Install Raised Garden Beds, Popular Mechanics magazine.
Lynne Lamstein gardens in Maine and Florida and is currently working on a sustainable landscape. She has a degree in ornamental horticulture from Temple University.