As the weather warms and spring turns to summer, many people are discovering—or rediscovering—the joys of gardening. Among other considerations such as which types of flowers and vegetables to grow, home gardeners must also decide whether to plant directly into the soil in their yards or follow the increasingly popular trend of installing raised garden beds.
Below, we’ll look at the defining characteristics of raised garden beds and consider their advantages and disadvantages to help you decide if they’re the best choice for your garden.
What is a Raised Garden Bed?
Sometimes called garden boxes or planter boxes, raised garden beds are simply standalone containers filled with soil for cultivating flowers, vegetables and other plants. Instead of tilling and planting in the existing soil on one’s property, some gardeners opt to use beds made from wood, stone, brick, concrete, metal or other materials.
While these raised beds may incorporate some of the native soil, they are frequently supplemented with high-quality soil enriched with compost, topsoil and other beneficial nutrients and materials.
What are the Pros of Raised Garden Beds?
Raised garden beds offer a long list of advantages over traditional in-ground gardens, including:
Enhanced soil quality
Perhaps the biggest advantage of raised garden beds is the control they provide over the type and quality of soil in which you grow your plants. Instead of being stuck with the soil common to the region where you live—which may be rocky, silty or marbled with clay—raised garden beds allow you to precisely customize the soil for your crops and give them the best possible opportunity to thrive.
Ideally, the soil in your raised garden beds will be rich and fertile, maintaining essential moisture while providing adequate drainage and aeration for sensitive root systems. When filling your raised garden beds, you’ll want to create a mixture of roughly 40 percent bagged garden soil (available at home improvement and garden stores), 40 percent compost or other organic matter and 20 percent aerating material such as lava rock, pumice or perlite. Several times a year, you should also add fertilizer to raised garden beds to replace the nutrients your plans remove from the soil.
Avoid filling raised garden beds with dirt dug straight from your yard, as it may contain pesticides and other contaminants that prevent your plants from thriving.
Depth for healthy root systems
Unlike your average in-ground backyard garden, raised garden beds can be constructed to provide a deep, spacious environment for your plants to establish their roots, which ultimately leads to larger, healthier plants and crops. At minimum, your raised beds should be at least 12 inches deep; 18 to 24 inches is ideal, especially for common backyard crops like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and leafy greens.
Deeper beds also retain moisture more effectively than shallow beds, and if your area is prone to frequent summer storms, your plants will be largely protected from flooding that would likely destroy an in-ground garden.
Improved defense against pests
Most home gardeners spend significant effort defending their plants from hungry creatures like slugs, snails, squirrels, rabbits, moles and deer (just to name a few). While raised garden beds can’t completely protect crops against these invaders, they can at least make it less convenient for them to use your garden as a salad bar.
Raised garden beds can be lined with galvanized hardware cloth to keep burrowing pests like moles, voles and gophers from tunneling through your garden, and the height of raised beds can be sufficient to deter rabbits.
It’s also relatively easy to install hoops, chicken wire, netted row covers and other deterrents to raised garden beds, keeping plants safe without requiring you to use poisons or pesticides that not only kill wildlife, but could also harm your family.
Better protection against weeds
As with pests, raised garden beds make it harder for weeds to take root in your garden, in no small part because you’ve filled them with clean soil free of weeds and their seeds. The high sides of raised beds keep weeds from sneaking into your garden, and the galvanized hardware cloth you installed to prevent a rodent invasion will also help stop weeds from creeping in from below. For added protection, we recommend installing commercial-grade weed barrier fabric.
Because of their height, raised garden beds are also more comfortable and ergonomic than in-ground beds, which frequently require gardeners to spend hours bent over or crouched near the ground and can take a serious toll on backs and knees.
Depending on the height of the beds you install, you may even be able to do some of the work from a seated position. If you struggle with back or other mobility issues, try to limit the width of your raised garden beds to four feet or less to prevent you from having to reach long distances to access the middle of the bed.
While there’s nothing inherently unattractive about traditional gardens, raised garden beds offer dimension and crisp borders that in-ground gardens simply can’t. With raised garden beds, you can mix and match different heights and container sizes to add visual interest. You can also use different tones of wood, metal and other materials when building your raised beds and incorporate solar lights or other pretty accents.
Even if you keep your design basic, raised garden beds are easy to keep looking neat due to the well-defined borders created by the container, and you won’t have the spread of soil and other materials that often occur with in-ground gardens.
Unlike in-ground gardens, which are limited to available flat space in your yard, raised garden beds can be installed almost anywhere, including hillsides, patios and even rooftops. You can place them strategically to make the most of available sunlight and even add wheels to make them easier to move.
Just make sure to line them with material that allows for adequate drainage while also keeping the soil contained. With raised garden beds, the possibilities are virtually endless!
What are the Cons of Raised Garden Beds?
While raised garden beds offer a long list of benefits, they’re not perfect. When deciding whether raised garden beds are right for your horticultural needs, be sure to consider the following potential drawbacks.
Cost of materials
Raised garden beds are practical and attractive, but they’re not cheap to build or purchase. If you plan to construct them yourself, you’ll need to buy quality lumber or other building material, nails, screws and more, and if you don’t already own them, you may have to purchase or rent tools to help you put it all together. Once construction is complete, you’ll also need to invest in soil, compost and aeration material to fill them. Depending on how many beds you plan to build, the up-front costs can add up quickly.
In contrast, in-ground garden beds are relatively simple and cheap to establish, although you may end up spending just as much money in the long run to improve the soil, fight weeds and fend off pests.
Required construction skills and sweat equity
Fortunately, raised garden beds aren’t terribly complicated to build, but you will need basic construction skills, tools and some time and energy. If you’re handy, you can design your own raised beds, but if you’d rather not attempt to make the calculations for buying and assembling the materials, you can also source plans online.
While raised garden beds are generally quite durable, they won’t last forever and will ultimately need to be repaired, refurbished or completely replaced, which can require considerable effort. How long your garden bed will last depends largely on the construction material you choose, with beds made from stone or concrete blocks lasting longer than wood.
If you do opt for wood, consider investing in a long-lasting hardwood like cedar or redwood, which will outperform softer, less expensive woods like pine, fir and plywood.
Layout and design constraints
While it is possible to change the size, shape and layout of your raised garden beds once they are constructed, it can be both costly and time-consuming. In contrast, it’s relatively easy to change the location and design of your in-ground garden by simply tilling a new area in the size and shape of your choosing.
Most raised garden beds are limited to square or rectangular shapes, although it is possible to create the illusion of curves with shrubs, decorative stones and other design elements.
For most home gardeners, the advantages of raised garden beds far outweigh the potential downsides. Raised beds allow for the creation of an ideal environment for the specific plants you wish to grow, with near-total control over soil quality, sunlight levels, moisture retention and drainage.
Raised garden beds also make it easier to defend your labor of love against pests, weeds and other destructive forces. While traditional in-ground gardens may be simpler and cheaper to install, in the long run, the superior appearance, convenience and plant health you’ll enjoy with raised garden beds are well worth the additional up-front investment.