By Matt Gibson
If you are just starting up a garden on a new property or just getting around to building your garden on an old property, you may be wondering about whether it would be more beneficial to build raised beds or to simply plant directly in the ground instead.
For some properties, especially those with poor, rocky or sandy soils, there are lots of benefits to DIY raised beds instead of spending the time, money, and effort to regenerate long neglected soil. For those with healthy, nutrient-rich soils with lots of microbial life, in-ground planting might be the easier route to take, as all you need to do is add small amounts of fertilizer and amend your soils between growing seasons.
As is the case with most major undertakings, the choice between raised beds and in-ground gardening is not always easy to make, and multiple factors should be considered before coming to a final decision. To help you decide, we’ve compiled a list of the pros and cons of both options, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of both raised beds and in-ground gardening. We also discuss a third option, container gardening, and make the case for why using all three mediums simultaneously can be the most beneficial choice for many gardeners.
Benefits of Raised Bed Gardening
- If a property suffers from poor quality soils, building a raised garden bed can be a simple and easy fix, as it allows gardeners the opportunity to create a new, fertile healthy soil environment that is ready for immediate use. Regenerating poor soils can take years, while bringing in new soil that is rich in organic matter and microbial life, can happen in just a few hours.
- If you have poor soil quality, whether it be rocky soil, or a clay-heavy soil, or if you live in a region with heavy rains or an elevated water table, creating raised beds is an easy way to put an end to poor drainage and bad air circulation problems.
- Raised beds create an elevated habitat that heats up quicker in the spring, allowing gardeners to get their plants into the ground faster and get a head start on the growing season.
- Just about any type of plant can be cultivated in raised beds. Vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, shrubs, and small trees all grow well in raised beds.
- Raised beds can keep certain pests and rodents away from your plants. Putting hardware cloth along the bottom of your raised beds before filling them with soil can keep gophers, and other small burrowing critters out of your garden.
- Raised beds are less likely to receive foot traffic than in-ground garden beds. By not stepping in the garden, it keeps soil from becoming too compacted. It also helps to keep damaging microscopic organisms from catching a ride to your garden soil on your footwear.
- Cultivating raised beds can be much less of a strain on your back and easier for people with mobility issues. Especially if you build your beds up 18 to 24 inches tall or install them on legs or wheels. Less hunching, kneeling, leaning, and straining can work wonders when it comes to alleviating back (and knee) pain.
- A raised bed frame, when well-constructed, can be quite aesthetically pleasing. Though raised beds do not require sides, wood, concrete, stone, or steel beds can be handsome additions to your landscape. Cedar, hemlock, juniper, and redwood siding beds can be especially attractive additions to your landscape. Raised beds made from concrete blocks, natural stone, bricks, corten steel, or even hay or straw siding can also make your garden area look more appealing.
- Raised beds are easier to manage and work in. Especially in gardens with limited space, having sectioned-off areas make it easier to cultivate and harvest your crops.
- Once raised beds are established, soil compaction is practically a non-issue, which cuts down the need for tilling between growing seasons. If your beds are well-maintained and mulched, weeding becomes a non-issue.
Drawbacks of Raised Beds
- Investing in raised beds can be a costly venture. If you decide on high quality wood or stone siding, it can be especially expensive. Starting a new garden requires purchasing compost, good soil, mulch, amendments, young plants, gardening tools, and more. These items may not be expensive on their own, but costs can add up quickly. Add in the cost of the materials needed for raised beds, and you could be looking at an expensive operation. Luckily, raised beds don’t require siding to be functional, and sides can always be added down the road.
- Raised beds are not indestructible. Eventually the construction materials that you used to construct your beds will wear down and need to be replaced or repaired.
- If the native soil on your property needs to be regenerated, building raised beds won’t help get the job done. Eventually, you will need to invest the time reinvigorating your soil. Raised-bed gardens will help you in the present, but may cause you to avoid the long-term solution.
- For plants with large root systems, like fruit trees, or artichokes, raised beds are not the best option because they are not deep enough. Shallow beds can be especially harmful to plants with large or elaborate roots.
- Creating raised beds can cut down on your overall garden space. If you plant in-ground, there is no limit, aside from property boundaries, to the space you can use for gardening.
Benefits of In-Ground Gardening
- Planting in-ground is typically much cheaper than creating raised bed garden areas.
- In-ground growing offers more gardening space, which is especially helpful when using odd-shaped areas of your outdoor space.
- If you have healthy, well-draining, rich soil, there’s no need to spend a lot of time and energy building raised beds, as planting directly in the ground is a much easier undertaking. All you need to do is add a light amount of fertilizer and soil amendments with compost between growing seasons.
- Large-scale gardeners and commercial growers usually enjoy in-ground gardening over raised beds. Using machine operated plows and tractors are impossible with raised beds.
Drawbacks of In-Ground Gardening
- In-ground gardening can be tough on the back and knees, as it takes a lot of bending over, kneeing, hunching, straining, and leaning. In-ground growing operations can also be quite dirty, so you will need to dedicate some old, unwanted clothes to the task.
- Garden pests, soil-borne diseases, rodents, and grazing animals can be much more of an issue with in-ground gardening, than with raised beds. Keeping pests, diseases, and other foragers out of your in-ground garden can present a tough challenge.
- In-ground gardening requires much more water to properly irrigate your crops, as moisture tends to drain away more quickly in larger spaces.
- Reinvigorating the soil on your property can take ages. If your soil needs to be regenerated, it will be tough to have success growing plants in the depleted soils.
- In-ground beds are typically not as aesthetically pleasing as a well-organized raised bed garden.
There’s Also Container Gardening
A third approach to home gardening is growing in containers. Containers are convenient because they can be moved around easily whenever necessary. Some plants grow better in containers than they do in the ground. Invasive plants are especially good for containers, as they are much less likely to spread into unwanted areas when contained. Containers are great for starting plants indoors and then moving them out to the garden once the weather warms up. Container gardening is versatile and empowering, giving the gardener more freedom when it comes to functionality and design.
Making a Case for the Mixed Method Approach
Fortunately, there are no rules or laws in place requiring gardeners to pick one method and one method only for their gardens. Using a mixed method approach makes sense for most gardens. Some raised beds on the sides of the house and in the backyard will be great for organizing your fruits, herbs and vegetable garden.
However, you may want to use an in-ground approach to give you more design freedom for your front yard landscape. Incorporating containers for the patio, porch, indoor, and outdoor garden areas can also be helpful, and mixing these gardening methods will give you the freedom to put together a more versatile, functional, and aesthetically brilliant garden and landscape on your property.
Whatever method you choose, don’t feel as if you have to stick with it for the foreseeable future. Your garden should be a constantly evolving and improving organism. Selecting raised beds or in-ground beds is fine, but deciding that the decision you made is permanent is just silly. There are no rigid rules when it comes to garden design, so, for a great garden, feel free to mix it up and change it up whenever you feel the urge.