Why Raised Beds are Best

(Originally posted by The Editors of Organic Life)

Crops grow better in the deep, loose, fertile soil of raised beds.

 MTREASURE/GETTY

MTREASURE/GETTY

For space efficiency and high yields, it’s hard to beat a vegetable garden grown in raised beds. Raised beds can improve production as well as save space, time, and money. They also are the perfect solution for dealing with difficult soils such as heavy clay. In addition, raised beds improve your garden’s appearance and accessibility.

Raised gardening beds are higher than ground level, and consist of soil that’s mounded or surrounded by a frame to keep it in place. The beds are separated by paths. Plants cover the entire surface of the bed areas, while gardeners work from the paths. The beds are usually 3 to 5 feet across to permit easy access from the paths, and they may be any length. You can grow any vegetable in raised beds, as well as herbs, annual or perennial flowers, berry bushes, or even roses and other shrubs.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

One reason raised beds are so effective for increasing efficiency and yields is that crops produce better because the soil in the beds is deep, loose, and fertile. Plants benefit from the improved soil drainage and aeration, and plant roots penetrate readily. Weeds are easy to pull up, too. Since gardeners stay in the pathways, the soil is never walked upon or compacted. Soil amendments and improvement efforts are concentrated in the beds and not wasted on the pathways, which are simply covered with mulch or planted with grass or a low-growing cover crop. Also, the raised bed’s rounded contour provides more actual growing area than does the same amount of flat ground.

Related: 13 Really Weird Things Organic Gardeners Do That Actually Work

Raised beds also save time and money because you need only dig, fertilize, and water the beds, not the paths. You don’t need to weed as much when crops grow close together, because weeds can’t compete as well. Gardeners with limited mobility find raised beds the perfect solution—a wide sill on a framed raised bed makes a good spot to sit while working. A high frame puts plants in reach of a gardener using a wheelchair. For best access, make beds 28 to 30 inches high, and also keep the beds narrow—no more than 4 feet wide—so it’s easy to reach to the center of the bed.

 PATRICK MONTERO

PATRICK MONTERO

Building Raised Beds

The traditional way to make a raised bed is to double-dig. This process involves removing the topsoil layer from a bed, loosening the subsoil, and replacing the topsoil, mixing in plenty of organic matter in the process. Double-digging has many benefits, but it can be time-consuming and laborious. See the Soil entry for details.

The quickest and easiest way to make a raised bed is simply to add lots of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, compost, or shredded leaves to your garden soil. In the process, mound up the planting beds as the organic content of the soil increases. Shape the soil in an unframed bed so that it is flat-topped, with sloping sides (this shape helps conserve water), or forms a long, rounded mound. The soil in an unframed bed will gradually spread out, and you’ll need to periodically hill it up with a hoe. A frame around the outside edge of the bed prevents soil from washing away and allows you to add a greater depth of improved soil. Wood, brick, rocks, or cement blocks are popular materials for framing. Choose naturally rot-resistant woods such as cedar, cypress, or locust. If you choose some other type of wood (don’t use chemically treated wood), keep in mind that you’ll need to replace it when the wood eventually wears and rots away.

If your garden soil is difficult—heavy clay, very alkaline, or full of rocks—you may want to mix your own soil from trucked-in topsoil, organic matter, and mineral amendments. Then you can build beds up from ground level, without disturbing or incorporating the native soil. You may also need to add extra materials to raised beds if you want them to be tall enough for a gardener in a wheelchair to reach easily.

How To Build A Raised Bed

 MEMENTOIMAGE/GETTY

MEMENTOIMAGE/GETTY

Lasagna Gardening

This is a no-till gardening option for building raised beds and great soil. It is similar to sheet composting and allows you to build raised beds without stripping grass or weeds off the site. You can also build a lasagna garden on top of an existing vegetable garden site.

If you are starting on a new site, first cut the grass as short as possible and/or scalp the weeds at ground level. Next cover the bed with a thick layer of newspaper (6 to 10 sheets) to smother existing vegetation. Use sheets of cardboard or flattened cardboard boxes if there are vigorous perennial weeds on the site. Either wet down the newspapers as you spread them or have a supply of soil or mulch at hand and weigh them down with handfuls as you spread. Be sure to overlap the edges of the newspaper or cardboard as you work.

GARDENING IN LAYERS

To make a lasagna garden, spread newspapers or cardboard to smother existing vegetation, then pile on layers of grass clippings, chopped leaves, kitchen scraps, finished compost, and topsoil.

After that, begin layering organic matter on top of the site. Combine materials as you would in a compost pile, by mixing “browns” and “greens.” Add layers of organic materials such as grass clippings, finished compost, chopped leaves, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, seaweed, shredded mail or newspaper, garden trimmings, used potting soil, sawdust, and weeds (don’t add ones that have gone to seed or perennials with vigorous rhizomes, which will spread and grow in the bed). You can also add topsoil, which will help speed things along. Make a pile that is 1 feet or more deep, and top it off with a layer of mulch to keep weeds from getting a foothold. Then wait several months for materials to decompose.

You can build a lasagna garden any time of year. Building one in fall to plant in spring is a good idea, and there are plenty of leaves available for chopping and adding to the mix. If you’re building in spring or summer, you can speed up the time when it will be ready to plant by adding extra compost and topsoil in the mix. Top the bed with 2 to 3 inches of topsoil and/or compost for annual crops (more for perennial plants) and then plant seedlings directly into the topsoil/compost mix.

 

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