When starting a garden for the first time, one of the first questions you may ask is if you should build a raised garden bed or start your plants right in the ground. Many different factors may influence your decision on this, so I have gathered as much useful information as possible to help you make your decision!
So are raised garden beds better than in-ground garden beds? No, not always. If you are in a very wet climate or have very poor and compact soil, raised beds may be your best option. If you live in a very hot and dry climate and have decent soil structure, then in-ground garden beds may be right for you.
Other factors might influence your decision on how to set up your garden bed. Raised beds definitely seem to be the more popular choice, but they aren’t always the best option. Continue reading to find out the pros and cons of each and how to easily get your garden beds started!
Raised Garden Beds Versus In-Ground Garden Beds
In order to decide if raised garden beds are right for you in your situation, let’s first look at what exactly makes a raised garden bed. A raised garden bed is a framed plot of soil and organic matter that sits on top of the ground. It has no base or floor – the bottom is left open to the ground. If a raised bed has a bottom and is constructed more like a box that is lifted off the ground, then it is basically container gardening. While some of the advantages and disadvantages of raised garden beds may also apply to container gardening, we will just be focused on raised garden beds in this discussion.
Raised Garden Beds
- Accessibility. Many individuals suffer from back issues or other physical ailments. With a raised bed being higher off the ground, gardeners do not need to bend over as often to plant, weed, and harvest crops.
- Better drainage. In an area that has a very wet climate or flooding concerns, a raised bed may be ideal. Water can drain through soil much easier if it is elevated from ground level.
- Plant earlier in the spring. In a colder climate where the ground freezes during the winter, the soil will warm up faster in the spring in a raised bed. This will allow the ability to work the soil sooner and get the first set of cold, hardy plants planted!
- Aesthetics. Many people think a raised garden just looks better! Many options are available when it comes to material for the border/frame, so it’s easier to make it your own!
- Not permanent. Some places, such as a rented home or apartment, may not allow individuals to put a garden their land and/or dig in their ground. A raised bed can be moved around if it is built a certain way to make the frame portable.
- Better soil, quicker! With a raised bed, you get to choose what type of soil and amendments you want to fill it with. You will immediately have a great soil environment for your plants to thrive in if you do it correctly!
- Fewer weeds! We all hate weeds! If the ideal organic matter is added to the raised bed from the beginning, many weed seeds should be eliminated that would otherwise exist in the native soil.
- Less soil compaction. If a raised bed has a good amount of height, then animals, people, children, etc. will be less likely to step in the bed. This results in less soil compaction and keeps your soil aerated and well draining.
- Contain invasive plants. In a raised bed with a frame, invasive plants, such as mint or blackberries, can be more easily contained.
- Requires more watering. This may be the biggest reason not to use a raised garden bed. In a hot and dry climate, a raised bed will dry out more quickly, even in the best soil conditions. While mulching will help, a garden may need watered more often when using a raised garden bed.
- More labor. More decisions and more manual labor is likely necessary to build a raised garden bed and fill it with soil and organic matter. Many different materials are also available to build the frame.
- Upfront cost. Unless the materials chosen are luckily found for free, an upfront cost will likely be necessary in order to get a raised bed built and filled in with soil and compost.
- Harder to use certain machines. It is more difficult to lift a tiller into a raised bed, but a garden should not be tilled after the first year anyway. Other machines are also used for planting and harvesting very large scale gardens that wouldn’t be able to be used in raised beds at all.
- Less natural insulation. While a raised bed may warm up quicker in the spring, it will also cool down quicker and freeze earlier in the fall/winter. More fluctuation occurs in the soil’s temperature in a raised bed.
- Degrading material. Depending on the material that is used to build your raised bed, it may rot or degrade over time and need to be repaired or replaced.
Now we will look at in-ground garden beds. A lot of the points are opposite of the points above so I won’t elaborate as much on these.
In-Ground Garden Beds
- Less watering. In a hot and dry climate, growing plants at ground level will require less watering.
- Less labor. Nothing to build! Some amendments may need to be added to your existing soil but that is it!
- Less cost. No materials needed other than some soil amendments.
- Can use machines more easily when needed.
- More natural insulation for your soil.
- Soil compaction. The soil may have a large amount of clay or the garden may be walked on too often. This can cause soil compaction and hurt the plants.
- Less drainage and more prone to possible flooding. This depends on the specific climate.
- Plant later in the spring. It will take longer for the soil to thaw out from a freeze.
- Takes longer to build
high quality soil.
- More initial weeds. All soil likely has numerous weed seeds in it (don’t worry, everyone’s does!). This can be greatly reduced by mulching!
From this list, you should be able to make a pretty well informed decision on which type of garden bed you should use for your situation. This may lead you to ask more questions – so we’ll look at some of your possible questions next!
What is the Best Material to Use for a Garden Bed?
If you have decided to build a raised garden bed, you may be wondering how you are going to build your frame. First, you’ll want to consider how high off the ground the bed needs to be built. The frame should be no less than six inches high. Also, a good width for a garden bed, raised or in-ground, is about four feet. This allows easy reach to the middle of the bed from either side, preventing the gardener from having to walk on the soil. The garden bed can be any length necessary.
Below are some examples of materials that can be used to build a raised garden bed.
- Natural wood. This is a common choice, but just be aware that wood will rot over time and need to be replaced eventually.
- Cedar. Cedar lasts much longer than other types of wood.
- Large stones or boulders. These may be able to be found for free and it could give a very rustic look to the garden bed.
- Concrete. This could be poured however necessary for a garden bed.
- Cinder blocks.
- Railroad ties. This is actually the material I use in my own garden. See the picture at the top of this page. (I have done a lot of research on creosote and have determined that old railroad ties are not a threat to my plants or my health. Do your own research and decide for yourself! There is a lot of misinterpreted information out there!)
- A pre-made kit can be purchased that can be easily assembled without the need for a great deal of labor. Here is a popular pre-made garden bed kit that we recommend!
Once the frame for your garden bed is build, it needs to be filled with soil that the plants can use to grow. Read on to find out how to prepare soil!
How do you Prepare the Soil for a Garden Bed?
Update: Since the writing of this article we have written a new article on the 4 Best Ways to fill a Raised Garden Bed For CHEAP! It would be good to check out that article for a more in-depth discussion on preparing the soil for your garden bed.
A raised bed needs to be to filled with soil. I would recommend finding or purchasing finished compost. Bags of Pro Mix can also be added to the beds. While this may seem expensive at first, it will pay off in the long run. Some type of compost or Pro Mix organic material should be a top priority and be at least 50% of the filler in the garden bed.
Yes, topsoil is available and often free, but it should absolutely not be used as the main soil additive. Topsoil is heavy and will compact easily in the frame. H
A small layer of manure could also be added. This should be aged manure if the plant is to start planting immediately. Fresh manure can be used if the bed is being prepared to be used later. For example, if manure is spread in the Fall and seeds will not be planted until next Spring, fresh manure can be used.
Whatever you decide to use, the material should be mixed together very well.
If you are doing an in-ground bed, the soil may still need to be amended, depending on its quality. Compost will likely need to be added and it will need to be tilled into the soil. This is the only time I ever recommend tilling! It is useful only when starting a new garden to get good organic matter mixed into poor soil. In subsequent years, soil should never be tilled (Do Not Disturb!) and compost should only be added to the top.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.Genesis 2:15
My Own Personal Recommendation
In the above picture you may notice that I have two different garden beds at my house, one raised and one in-ground. I am experimenting with both. For my own situation, if I were to start another bed, this is a quick summary of what I would do.
- Start at least a year ahead of my first planting.
- Do an in-ground method for my bed.
- Add a few inches of compost, manure, and shredded leaves and till it into the soil.
- Use anything listed above as a border for the in-ground bed. While this would not be used as a raised bed, the border will be used for aesthetics and containing thick layers of mulch.
- Cover the tilled soil with a thick layer of mulch as high as the railroad ties. I would use shredded leaves or woodchips.
- At planting time at least a year later, pull back the mulch to plant into the soil.
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Can you use pressure treated lumber for raised garden beds? Yes, while it is true that many years ago pressure treated lumber was toxic, it has since been changed and is now safe to use for gardens.
How deep should a raised bed garden be? A raised garden bed should be no less than six inches deep on top of the soil.
How much space should be between garden beds? Paths in between garden beds (raised or in-ground) should be about 15 to 20 inches. This leaves enough comfortable walking space in between garden beds. Wood chips are a great cover material for walking paths.