We all imagine that our gardens will be beautiful, thriving oases of green, springing right out of the ground, but it’s not always possible without a great deal of hard work and manipulation of native soils that may be full of clay, rocks or sand. Enter the raised bed garden! Whether you need to raise your beds just above the ground and start with fresh soil, or bring your garden up to a height where bending is no longer necessary, raised beds may be the perfect solution to your gardening problems.
Benefits to Raised Bed Gardening
Raised beds are great in areas where the soil is difficult to work, or when you want to add an elevated feature to your landscape – kits are available to build complicated garden shapes that can be useful to segregate herbs in gardens or aggressive plants that may escape a traditional garden and run wild. When you build a raised bed, you have a unique opportunity to tailor the soil conditions to the plants you intend to grow, rather than having to force those conditions onto soil that may be resistant.
Many gardeners prefer to use raised beds for vegetables and small fruits, since they can be caged with strong wire to protect seedlings and young transplants from wild animals. Sometimes, gardeners build custom-fit plastic hoop houses for their raised beds – when properly designed, these additions allow gardeners to get a jump on planting, since they act like tiny greenhouses.
Raised Bed Gardening Challenges
Unfortunately, raised gardens don’t function exactly the same as plowed garden plots, and may sometimes require a great deal of manual care, especially when the time comes to clean up dead plants after harvest. Instead of plowing plants back into the soil, it’s often less disruptive to pull them out of the bed, leading to significant time investments. Of course, if you only have a few beds, or your raised bed plants are perennials, this isn’t a concern.
The size of a raised bed is limited by your ability to reach across it, and, in the case of a raised garden on legs, the weight of wet soil. This is why raised beds are rarely more than four feet across – most people can reach two feet into the bed from either side. You must be careful to prevent soil compaction caused by walking or leaning on the soil in the bed, or plant roots may have trouble penetrating. In addition, a bed that’s only four feet wide shouldn’t be expected to accommodate anything bigger than a four or five foot wide bush, limiting your planting options.
Setting Up Your Raised Beds
Planning and setting up your raised beds is a precision task, though one easy enough for a homeowner with a few simple tools. The most important part of planning is choosing your bed’s location – after all, they’re not exactly easy to move once constructed and filled with soil. For example, you would place a raised bed intended for vegetables in a location that gets at least eight hours of bright sunlight each day, instead of in a spot that suddenly becomes shady when the trees leaf out.
Many people start their first raised beds with commercial kits containing cedar or composite boards and specially designed joints that ensure their garden comes out perfect. You can prolong the life of your garden by placing the frame on top of a geotextile fabric that will prevent perennial weeds from working their way up through the soil. Never use black plastic, as this material can cause drainage problems under raised bed gardens.
Once in place, you need only fill your bed with lots of rich, well-draining soil and pop your plants into their new homes. You can even build trellises over the beds to allow vining plants to climb unhindered, or train them into a central arch that runs between two beds. Raised gardens allow nearly endless possibilities for a gardener with a creative streak.