Are Raised Vegetable Garden Beds Really Better?

Are Raised Vegetable Garden Beds Really Better?

14 things to consider before installing raised beds

If you’ve done any research about starting a vegetable garden, you will have read about raised beds.  It seems the only way anyone ever grows vegetables in their backyard anymore is in a raised bed.

But you don’t have to use raised beds to grow vegetables.  I have been growing most of the vegetables for my family since 2009, and I have not used raised beds.  When I moved in 2020 from the countryside to suburbia, my first vegetable garden action was not installing raised beds, but rather removing the sod and starting native soil beds.

First year garden vegetable garden started from scratch withour raised beds
Garden in Mid July 2020

I don’t want you to give up on gardening just because raised beds are expensive. So before you start trying to figure out what material to use to build your raised beds affordably, let’s think about if they are beneficial or even necessary for your garden by considering these points:

Reduce soil compaction by size not sides

One of the most popular reasons to use raised beds is to keep people from treading in the area where the plants are growing.  Especially in clay soil, foot traffic can compact the soil and make it more difficult for your plants to grow well.  Compacted soil allows less water and air to the roots, as well as making it physically harder for the roots to reach deeply.

Raised beds are generally constructed in widths no wider than 4 feet so that the gardener can easily tend all parts of the bed without stepping on the soil.

Is it possible to control the foot traffic on your growing beds without the use of raised beds? 

Yes, just make your garden beds just four feet wide and be diligent about not stepping in them.  

Unless you are building very high sides, anyone can step into a raised garden bed just as easily as stepping into an in ground bed.  Only you know whether the existence of a physical delimitation of the bed is actually going to stop people from walking on your garden beds, but I have not had any issues with visitors walking in my garden beds.

Warmer spring soil

Another touted benefit of raised beds is that they warm up earlier in the spring.  Warmer soil temperatures allow you to grow your spring crops earlier and faster.

This supposed earlier warmup is due to the beds being exposed to the higher air temperature on more sides than a bed in the ground. If this is true, it also means that beds get hotter over the summer, cool down faster in the fall, and any perennial plantings will be exposed to colder temperatures over the winter.

In fact though, I have not yet found any studies online that detail actual differences between soil temperatures in raised beds and in the ground.  However, the humidity level of the soil also plays a role in soil warming, and raised beds tend to be drier and may therefore be warmer.

So if we take all of that with a grain of salt, are there other ways than raised beds to warm the soil and get a jumpstart on spring planting? Yes!  The best way is to cover the soil with clear plastic.  And that can be done just as easily on the ground as it can be on a raised bed.

Better drainage vs watering

Raised beds are often used to deal with poor draining native soils.  The theory is that by raising the bed up out of the muck, and filling it with well draining soil, you can grow in an area where previously there were puddles all spring. 

My garden area has puddles in the spring. I am still able to grow there. Be sure any drainage problems are really summer long problems before defaulting to raised beds.

If you have a consistently wet area, figure out why it’s wet and try to solve the problem. Even if you use raised beds, you will still be walking on wet paths between beds, and your plant roots reaching down under the raised beds will still be too wet.

Also note that this wonderfully well drained soil in the raised bed also needs to be watered more.  This whole watering thing is near and dear to my heart.  From 2009 to 2019 my garden was far from the house. I relied on a gasoline powered water pump to pump water from a nearby pond to the garden.  To water anything in the garden meant setting up several lengths of hose, installing and starting up the pump and then watering each plant by hand as the pond water clogged sprinklers. It took a lot of time.  Things had to be really dry for me to water the garden.  There were years that the only time I watered anything in the garden was at transplanting time.  If I timed my transplanting in conjunction with forecasted rain I could get by with just carrying a few buckets of pond water to water in the seedlings the day I planted them.

My farm garden in 2012
This is the garden that taught me not to water

Because I didn’t coddle my plants, they looked for water by growing deep into the ground.  This resulted in much more drought tolerant plants.  Using mulch kept the water levels more consistent as well.

If you have raised beds with well drained soil, you will have to water more.  If your beds are in the ground and you use mulch you can get away with watering only as much as your lawn might need watering in your climate.

Better soil vs deeper soil

Similar to providing better drained soil, many people want to provide their new vegetable plants with the very best soil.  They are concerned that if plants don’t have all the perfect nutrients they will not produce.

Although vegetable plants are quite needy as opposed to weeds, I have found that they are not nearly as needy as people fear.  The fact that we are providing them with a dedicated spot, free from weed competition and comfortably blanketed with mulch is usually enough for most vegetables to produce well.  Although there may be a couple vegetables that need a bit more help, I have not found that all of the supposedly heavy feeder vegetables need anything more than mulch and perhaps some compost or manure worked into the beds every few years.  I even tried a foliar organic fish fertilizer for kicks and it didn’t wow me with results.

What I do believe is that deeper soil is important.  Plants have much deeper roots than most people realize.  Most garden vegetables have roots far greater than 2 feet deep.  They are not only going deep to find water, they are going deep to find nutrients.  The soil you have put in the  6 inches of your raised bed isn’t going to provide them with all they need.  

How do you create this rich deep soil?  Time and worms. Worms dig down as far as 6.5 feet.  That’s far deeper than any tilling or double digging that you are going to do.  If you put good stuff on the soil surface in the form of mulch you will encourage a good earthworm population.  Over time they will improve your soil to deeper and deeper levels. 

Healthy pepper plants in graden started from scratch without raised beds
Lots of peppers

Avoiding contaminated soil

Many of us are gardening to provide better food for our families.  With the rise of the organic movement, we are starting to consider how all those wonder chemicals we created actually affect our health.  Many new gardeners are understandably concerned about potential contaminants in their garden soil negating all the benefits of growing their own.

I am not a qualified professional – the following, like all of my blog, is my opinion:

First, recognize that any vegetable grown in your backyard is infinitely fresher than any organic produce you buy at the grocery store.  Just that freshness will make it healthier.

Second, don’t assume that your soil is contaminated or that any contaminants that are there are going to show up in your food.  It’s likely you have more pesticide and heavy metal exposure from walking down a city street than from eating your tomato.  In addition, most soil contamination issues arise from not washing your vegetables rather than plants taking up the contaminants in their tissues.  Washing your vegetables, removing outer leaves and making sure kids don’t lick their dirty hands is most important.  If your soil is contaminated the act of having a popsicle in the backyard while digging in the dirt is just as dangerous as growing a tomato.

If you have concerns, get your soil tested. Please don’t assume that the bag of dirt you buy at the store is any less contaminated than what’s already in your backyard.

Cornell has excellent professional information about urban garden soils, risks and testing here.

Where weeds come from

Do you think that if you have a raised bed you will never have a weed in your garden?  

Where do weeds come from?  Weeds come from seeds.  Seeds come from everywhere.  In a suburban garden they mostly come from seeds floating through the air, like dandelions and thistles, and also from whatever you are using as mulch.

What about all those seeds waiting in the native soil?  In my country garden, yes they were there, made worse by using hay for mulch.  In my new suburban garden cut out of my established lawn?  Not so much.  I believe most of my weeds are airborne or mulch borne, both of which would be present in a raised bed as well.

If you are diligent about removing all the sod when you start your garden (we rented a sod cutter from the local big box home improvement store), I don’t believe weeds in a native ground bed will be any worse than a raised bed, especially after the first year.

If you don’t weed a raised bed, you will have just as many weeds after the first year as you have in the surrounding native soil.

If you don’t want weeds, you have to pull weeds.  There’s no getting around that fact.  The most important thing for a weed free garden is to be consistent with weeding.

Tilling is not required

Just because I have native soil beds does not mean I wrestle my tiller through my garden every year.  

In my country garden, yes I did.  Why?  Because I was a lousy weeder.  To be fair, we had an 4000 square foot garden so far from the house that I just didn’t get to it consistently. I also used hay for mulch.  I needed to sweep through the garden beds in the spring to remove the weeds from the previous fall. 

But my suburban garden taught me a valuable lesson.  After we removed the sod from the garden beds I automatically grabbed my little mantis tiller (we sold my big one when we moved) to loosen up the soil to make it easier to plant the seeds.  But the clay in my new yard is so dense that it didn’t even make a dent.  I then tried digging and turning over shovelfuls of clay and then tilling it.  Way too much work and not actually very effective as I still had big clods of clay lying like boulders across the bed. 

Heavy clay soil in my garden clumps by the shovelful
Heavy clay soil clumps by the shovelful in my garden

Desperate to get the last plants and seeds in, I finally just used hand tools to make holes just big enough to plant the last transplants and scraped little rows to plant some seeds.  I had my doubts as to whether the seeds would make it without the fine seed bed so often recommended.  But it worked.  The plants were able to push through the clay just fine.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, plants break through rocks all the time. 

At the end of the summer I did not notice a difference between the areas where I exerted a lot of effort in tilling and where I hadn’t.

I mulched everything heavily during the summer and at the end of the season.  Already this following spring the earthworms have made the soil less heavy.  I did not till to plant my peas or lettuce this spring and I anticipate that I will not have to till to plant any of my seeds as my beds look amazingly weed free. 

Although it likely is ideal to till, dig or otherwise aerate the ground the first year in a native ground bed that has been compacted (like a lawn), you can likely get by without as much as you think. The work is not any more than hauling all the bags of dirt to fill the beds the first year.  In subsequent years, a native ground bed can be just as ‘no till’ as a raised bed. 

Keeping out critters

Deer and rabbits and other critters can destroy a garden in one night.  They are a serious concern.  Don’t think that just because you haven’t seen them they are not there.

But does having a raised bed actually deter them?  Certainly not deer, right?  What about rabbits?  If you have seen anything written about raised beds keeping rabbits out of your garden, please know that the raised beds they are likely referring to are waist high raised beds.  Were you planning on installing raised beds that high?  A six to eight inch edge is not going to stop a rabbit, a mouse or a squirrel.  A waist high bed is not going to stop a deer or a squirrel or maybe even a mouse.

You will need a critter solution whether you have native soil or a raised bed garden.

Protecting your back

Despite being awesome exercise, gardening can be hard on your back.  Many garden activities, hoeing, digging, wheel barrow pushing, and harvesting are the same whether you have raised beds or not.  However, the activity you will be doing the most is weeding.

I don’t have a good back so I don’t weed by bending over at the waist.  If you don’t want to bend to weed you will have to have a waist high raised bed.  If you are doing a lower raised bed, know that the best way to weed and protect your back is on all fours.  If you are crawling around in your garden, having raised beds doesn’t help.  Plus, if you are crawling around on your knees. you aren’t going to want those pretty gravel paths so often shown with raised bed layouts.  Because I have native ground beds, I can have soft mowable grass for my paths.  Mowing grass between raised beds must be a nightmare.

How you move in your garden

I fully admit, I am a clumsy clod.  I have never had raised beds, but I’m pretty sure that if I had them I would be tripping over them constantly. A raised bed is essentially adding curbs to trip over all over your garden.  When you are planning your garden beds, it’s important to imagine yourself moving around in your garden, whether crawling around weeding or using a wheelbarrow to bring compost into your garden and the harvest out.

My new garden has much narrower paths than my old garden (2 feet vs 4 feet), just because there’s less total space available for the garden.  I stray over the bed edges quite often with my wheelbarrow and cut corners when I’m lugging buckets of squash.  If I had raised beds I would be constantly tripping over them – because, like I said, I’m a clumsy clod.  Think about how well you stay in the lines before you install a bunch of hard edged lines in your garden.

What makes a garden look nice

What makes a garden a pleasure to look at is different for everyone.  In landscaping, some people prefer symmetrical rows of matching plants in straight lines, others prefer the lush abundance of random plants spilling over into the garden paths.  The decision between formal raised beds with defined sides and a bed just neatly edged into the lawn might boil down to purely an aesthetic one.  Do you just plain want your garden to have neat raised beds?  That is a perfectly logical decision if that matters to you.

However, check out how my garden looks in spring before I’ve done anything besides plant the peas before you are sure that raised beds are required to get the look you want.

native soil garden beds in early spring
My garden in April 2021 before weeding

Gardens on slopes

All farmers and gardeners love nice level areas for their gardens.  It makes working in the garden easier and also reduces erosion.  If the absolutely only sunny area you have for your garden is a slope, then yes, you will want to have something like raised beds.  These beds are not so much raised beds as terraces.  The point of them is to reduce erosion.  They will still have many of the benefits of being in the ground as half of each bed will still be in ground.  Depending on the degree of slope they may require professional design and installation as well.  These will be a huge investment to be done right. Let’s be fair and not even call them raised beds.

Initial set up costs and effort

How much do you have to spend on setting up your garden?  Raised beds can cost quite a lot of money.  This is why there are so many DIY blog articles out there to help you spend less on them.  Are you truly ready to spend that kind of money on something you haven’t done yet?  Are your current finances limiting you to a raised bed material choice that you will just have to replace later on down the road?  If you are making raised beds out of wood, just remember that no matter what kind of special wood you buy it will eventually rot.  It is sitting in dirt. We don’t build the foundations of our houses out of wood for a reason.

If you start a native ground garden in your lawn all you have to do is remove the sod.  You can do this with the same amount of effort as lugging all those bags of soil you will need to fill your raised beds.  Consider pricing out how much it will cost to rent a sod cutter compared to buying the raised beds and the soil to fill them.

Permanence of garden and location

Finally, what happens to your raised bed garden if you find out that you are not so great at keeping it weeded or have changes in your life that don’t allow you to continue to work in it? 

Have you thought about the work of removing it?  If you take the edges out and discard them you still have a mound of soil to deal with.  You might be able to spread it out if you have enough space, but you’ll probably end up doing a lot of spreading and creating a large area to reseed with grass.  Compare that to abandoning a native ground bed.  All you need to do to restore a native ground bed is to reseed the area of the bed. 

What if you realize that your neighbor’s tree is casting a whole lot more shade than you thought?  How easy is it to move that raised bed?  If you are moving a native ground bed you can just move the sod over from your new bed to your old bed.  No reseeding necessary.

Are raised beds still your best choice?

I hope I’ve given you a different perspective on establishing your garden beds.  I’d love to know what you’ve chosen to do in your garden.  If comments are closed, you can reach me via email below.

Similar Posts