Rows or Raised Beds - Pros and Cons

jusme_newby(5b North-Central MO)February 28, 2012

I am just starting to lay out my first actual vegetable garden after a somewhat disappointing attempt at container gardening due to some rather extreme weather.

So here is my dilemma - Rows or raised beds. The garden plot is about 24 feet by 30 feet oriented with the 30 foot dimension going east/west. It will be in full sun for all but maybe an hour or two in the morning.

I am thinking of planting pole beans, bush beans, tomatoes, both determinate and indeterminate, broccoli, some lettuce, maybe corn, cantaloupe and squash, carrots and maybe garlic.

The plot I will be planting was a patch of ground that was used as a chicken pen last year and is covered with a layer of pine shavings and chicken poop that has had a fall and winter to decompose. I will till this up as best as I can but I have a major layer of clay just 4 or 5 inches below. I am having top soil brought into cover the whole plot to about 4 to 6 inches in additional depth.

Now comes the hard part. If I go with rows, I can run a walkway down the center and have 10 foot rows on either side, with the rows oriented north/south. I guess I will still need paths between the rows to get in to weed so I will be devoting a lot of space to pathways.

If, however, I go with raised beds, I can utilize more of the land surface for planting and I get to group my crops more logically, even to companion planting and make rotation easier for next year.

So raised beds seem to be the better option. However, preparing the garden for raised beds seems to be a lot more work, first starting in fall when I want to till everything under (including the walkways, which will be covered in pine shavings). I don't want to frame the beds, just "hill" them, so when I till, I don't have to undo all the frames. But running a rototiller up, down and through the beds won't be easy and will knock down the "hills" and I will have to go through the job of re-hilling them again next year. But if I go with rows, the slight hilling necessary for drainage and fertilizing will be duck soup when it comes to tilling everything under, right?

What are your thoughts? Have you done both? If so, which was better for you?

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I'm staying out of the row vs beds discussion, but unless it's just nasty and compacted/hard, learn to love your clay.

It's really good stuff for both soil building and nutrient exchange. Organic matter/compost gets all the hero praise, but clay is some good stuff, too.

You might not need to amend as much topsoil as you expect unless it's extremely compacted clay. It doesn't have to be avoided even if you'd prefer a few inches of soft soil on top to work with.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 1:09AM
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I've used the same wide raised beds for over 20 years, and I only till after a cover crop, about every 5 years. If you build them right, you don't have to till. Even if you want to till, it's easy to re-build the beds with the tiller. Rows waste an enormous amount of space, because so much is used for paths.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 1:44AM
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Why is it assumed that rows use any more space for paths than raised beds? If you were to make raised beds that are 4 feet wide and 10 feet long with paths around all sides, what's stopping you from doing the same on ground level?

Can you tell how I organize my garden? ;)

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 3:21AM
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Hi... I originally started out with raised beds but I've since changed to two large beds with a path down the middle. To read the problems I encountered with raise dbeds click the link below. Hope it helps. Regards, John

Here is a link that might be useful: Allotment Heaven: Raised bed disadvantages

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 3:27AM
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Macky77 - what you are doing is wide bed culture, not rows. It is geometrically similar to raised bed culture, but only in two dimensions instead of 3. Johnmac09 is using framed raised beds in the photos he links to - also different from what the OP describes but has apparently switched to wide-bed culture. Framed raised beds are fine for some, but in a large garden the materials are labor intensive, expensive, and often need regular replacement. My beds are 30" wide and built in increments of 10 feet. Each is therefore a multiple of 25 square feet, which makes all future calculations simple - how much seed is needed, lime, yield, water - everything can be reduced to square-foot units for easier math and record keeping. My paths between beds are 8", just wide enough for easy walking without being awkward, and reducing unplanted space to a minimum. I can weed a 100' path with an 8" wheel hoe in about 10 minutes.

Row culture is a series of plants in a single or sometimes double row, with a path between each row. Even using 8" paths, a 2 rows of broccoli might only take 30 " of bed space but you still lose 8" of ground to the extra path. In small gardens and in very large gardens, this becomes significant. For anyone trying to get maximum yield and minimal maintenance of non-productive ground wide beds, raised or not, in straight alinement is the most efficient design to use in terms of growing space. For the sake of comparison, a garden with 8" paths and 30' wide beds that are 30 feet long would have about 568 square feet of growing space. The same garden with 12" rows and 8" paths would have 432 square feet of growing space. The wide-bed garden is more than 80% efficient use of space, compared to 60% with row culture. This does not include the increased planting density that raised beds permit using triangulated spacing which can double or triple the yield in an equivalent amount of space. Wide rows also permit much easier rotations of crops since a single row of lettuce at 12" requires more calculation when you move it where carrots were at 8" or broccoli at 15" rows. For gardeners with limited space, or interested in maximum production, wide beds always make more efficient use of available space raised or not. Raised beds, in clay soils like those the OP mentioned, permit a deeper planting bed sooner than the gradual additions of compost over time can achieve, and make the applications of compost or amendments more efficient because nothing is applied to the paths. With minimal tillage and permanent paths, eventually weed management is minimized. This makes labor on wide beds more efficient than in rows. Less labor means less time, and if you believe time is money, and wide beds have greater yields than rows, then wide beds are much more financially efficient than row culture as well.

Wide beds are easier to incorporate season extension practices such as low hoops or garden fabrics, they make possible a wider variety of succession and companion planting options, and with bio-intensive planting schedules can be designed for almost year-round production in many cases. This equates to a significant increase in productivity that is less easily achieved with row crops.

Can you tell which method I use?

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 5:20AM
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jusme - The link below will give you my vision of how I would lay out this size garden. The picture is not to scale... but it's close. The orientation is in accordance with your description - 24' N-S, 30' E-W. I would recommend Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman for a clearer description of the rational behind this; it is an excellent book in general for understanding the rationale behind many methods. There are good reasons why some people are better served by other methods, but because my gardens are large, I focus on efficiency and maximum returns for my $ and labor, this is what works for me. My farm is divided into a series of discrete gardens, all but one of the production gardens are designed this way (Jerusalem artichokes are in a 35'x90' bed with no rows or beds, just a solid patch that yields several hundred pounds a year, which I'll start digging next week). My ornamental gardens, which also produce some cut-flower income, serve as borders and design elements throughout the property, most are also raised beds with stone walls enclosing them.

Here is a link that might be useful: wide row garden design, 24x30

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 7:51AM
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I think the main thing is to select locations for permanent beds with permanent pathways, so that over time you can concentrate soil building where it counts. Earth-bermed permanent beds work great. To creat visual elevation, a few well-placed raised beds for perennial herbs that need superior drainage may be all you need.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 7:56AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

It isn't an either/or situation. Both have pros and cons and you don't have to choose one and exclude the other.

I'd vote "Row" if you mean wide-row gardening. But the best is some of both worlds. A great big garden using multiple wide-rows is great if you have a tiller and/or tractor and then have several framed-in raised beds too.

What is best all depends on how much room you have to work with, what your sun exposure is, what equipment you have to work the beds, what and how much you are growing, and how good your back is. :-)


    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 9:46AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

My first consideration is drainage. I have 3 gardens. On 2 there is a very gentle slope to the north so I run the rows and beds N/S. The other one is nearly flat with drainage outlets.

I have both wide raised beds and solid ground level plats. I like them both. On ground level areas I tend to ridge a bit in fall so that it is dry enough come spring planting time.

The raised beds are highly amended and soak up rains like a spongue. The level unraised areas need careful attention to drainage in case of 2-3 inch rains.

I have 7 to 14 feet wide beds and am not afraid to walk on them a bit in the growing season. I have about 12inch paths. The conventional area has no paths and is planted grandma would.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 11:45AM
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sunnibel7 Md 7(7)

If you live somewhere where getting the materials to fill your beds is difficult (sometimes the case in suburban/urban areas), then initial start-up cost can be a shocker. If you convert your space to volume by figuring out how high you would raise your beds, you can then take your cubic feet needed and go figure out what it would cost to fill it up with materials from your local box store, and any other sources you can get stuff from. Cheers!

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 1:26PM
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leira(6 MA)

I'm with macky77 on this one. If you prefer the layout you'd use with raised beds, then use that layout...but only raise them if you want to raise them.

My garden sits in a corner, up against a shed and a fence. I have a 1-foot-wide path spaced 2 feet in from the shed and fence, because I can't approach the bed from the outside on those edges. Other paths break down the remaining space into 4-5 foot wide segments. People often say that 4 feet is the max width for a raised bed (because you can easily reach in 2 feet from either side), but you can sort of stretch to 5 feet if you really need to, and the exact width of my own segments is determined by evenly dividing the remaining space. Very occasionally I have to "cheat" and put a foot or knee into the planting area to get something planted in the middle, but I can usually avoid it and stay on the paths.

In these 4-5' sections, I garden somewhat intensively, in a manner inspired by the book Small Space, Big Harvest.

I have a tiny amount of terracing at the edges of the paths to level out a slope, but other than that, my bed isn't raised at all. Last year I installed a plastic landscape edging around the perimeter, because I was tired of the lawn trying to re-claim the space. My paths are made out of 12-inch square concrete pavers.

Just like with raised beds, I stay on the paths and I never walk in the planting areas. I think I'm getting a lot (but not all) of the benefits of raised beds, without the effort or expense of building and filling them. My soil was pretty good to start with, and now that I've been amending it, it's pretty amazing.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 2:04PM
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jusme_newby(5b North-Central MO)

sunnibel7: I am fortunate enough to have a very good friend who has a large hill of topsoil he wants to level. He also has access to a dump truck and has been badgering me to plant a garden for the last couple of years. He will be providing all of the topsoil I need in exchange for some veggies and a few other favors. It doesn't get better than that!

Everyone: Thank you for your input. I believe I can now make an informed and intelligent decision based upon your collective advise. I am in the process of drawing up my planting chart and will use a modified row/bed design that I hope will work for me. I am sure that by next spring I will make some adjustments but I think the concept is sound. I will post my layout in the near future in hopes of eliciting your healthy criticism in time for the actual planting.

Thank you all again. It really is fun having so many really knowledgeable folks ready to help.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 2:53PM
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I vote for wide beds. You don't need edging. I use the lasagna method but don't have clay soil to deal with. The first beds which I had plenty of time to build were maybe 24" high but over winter packed down to half that and after a couple of years of gardening, are at ground level. Each spring they get a couple of inches of composted horse manure. If you encourage earth worms, they will be a big help.

I don't till. It's not necessary. I might use a spading fork in some areas. I keep my walking paths as narrow as possible but maybe mine are 12". Once plants are grown, the walkways end up being narrower.

You can do wider beds for things like summer squash but I don't like anything wider than two rows for bush beans.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2012 at 1:36PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

I have raised beds, due to MANY MANY gophers in the area! We have to have raised beds lined with the strongest wire there is!
I think the biggest mistake I made was too large of a bed (I started with an 8x8, then split it to 2 4x8s) I've added several more beds since then.
The next mistake was not having wide enough paths! Eventually you'll have to maneuver a wheelbarrow down a path and turn it to dump stuff out (compost or more soil when the soil settles) 2 ft is the smallest in my book!
Go onto some garden planning sites and play around, keeping all the things in mind that you've read. I wish I had known about this site before I started my garden! It would have changed a lot of what I did at first!
Most of all....Have fun! Nancy

    Bookmark   March 2, 2012 at 9:03PM
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harveyhorses(7 Midlothian Va)

I did raised beds last year for the first time, and loved them, but we tend to get
some heavy rains, we had two storms that dumped 3-5 inches in just a few hours, and then there was Irene. Also have gopher/ground hog problems. NOTHING is more annoying than pulling up your harvest to find something has already gotten it. (o.k. there are more annoying things, but that was in the top 10)
Good luck with whatever you decide!

    Bookmark   March 3, 2012 at 3:47PM
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natal(Louisiana 8b)

I've never done rows ... always raised beds since my first garden in 1986. Changed the layout a few years ago and added a small decorative fence. I love the wide paths between the beds. Makes it so easy to maneuver.

In the first garden the beds were formed with landscape timbers and were about 6 inches deep. In the current garden I used bricks to form the beds, so they're not as deep. Still, it does the job. During heavy rains the pathways hold water for a time, but the beds are high and dry.

This shot was taken during a drenching rain a couple weeks ago. You can see the standing water in the paths.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2012 at 4:11PM
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jusme_newby(5b North-Central MO)

My wife and I are both tall so I have decided to make my beds 5' x 10' with 30" pathways. my 24' x 30' garden will have 10 beds. Now to decide what to plant where...

    Bookmark   March 4, 2012 at 1:54AM
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Rathos(7b PA)

Jusme: Landscaping fabric is worth it's weight in gold for weed suppression. especially with truckloads of topsoil, you have no idea what kind of seeds will be coming in with it. put it down on top of the dirt between the paths, and mulch on top of it.

if you don't plan seriously ahead of time on controlling weeds, they will control you by the end of the season, and you'll enjoy your garden much, much less. i know it seems like a small-ish plot to be able to hand weed. you might think it won't be all that bad. chances are that in mid july you'll find yourself doing nothing but pulling weeds every day.

so keep that in mind =)

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 10:31AM
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Raised beds give you full control over soil and drainage. If you have problem soil, raised beds are the best option, but cost much more initially. I do find raised beds are much less maintenance as well.

Now if you are one the lucky ones with perfect loam soil, then go with it. It doesn't sound like that's the case. If you are having to bring in top soil due to shallow depth, put that money into raised beds.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 12:53PM
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I like the idea of blocks, rather than beds, but I don't do raised beds. This allows you to change the size of the beds, if necessary and also rotate crops more easily. Not all things like the same size beds, so block planting allows you more flexibilty.

If you find you use the same layout for the first few years, then raising the beds might be a good idea. I'd still prefer blocks, though...since we have hot summers and I've read raised beds dry out faster.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 2:56PM
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Hate to disappoint you, bi11me, but I do plant in rows within the confines of each bed. :) There do exist "paths" between the rows, it's just that they're not walked on unless I'm tending the plants. I hoe walking backwards so the soil is not compacted. The designated paths are allowed to compact. I used to do long rows that extended the entire length of the rectangular garden area, but when we had kids, this didn't work anymore. By breaking up the rows and designating paths, it allows the girls to run around all over the garden and without stepping on anything important or compressing soil around the plants. Pic in link as it's worth a thousand words. :)

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 4:05PM
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Oh, I forgot to mention that when I'm tending plants within the beds (thinning, hand weeding, harvesting, etc.), having them arranged in rows allows me to use 10' boards to walk/kneel on for weight distribution. I have two boards that I just move around where needed at the time and all it takes is a quick skiff over with the hoe to remove the imprint made by the board when I'm done in that spot.

The area is divided into 10 beds, the rows within six of the beds run north-south and are 11 feet long, and the remaining four beds have 15- or 18-foot rows that run east-west.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 4:13PM
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No disappointment, your picture illustrates my point well. A rough estimate is that your garden is at least twice the square footage of the OP, with a lot more area available if you want it. Space is clearly not a limiting factor for you, so maximizing efficient use of it needn't be a priority. That is not the situation of the OP. I have 4 acres in intensive production, grossing over $100K annually - so efficient use of space is of particular interest to me. If you look at Jon Hughes' pictures you will see the effect of triangulated spacing in comparison to rows, the productivity is obvious. I'm not presenting arguments against a particular practice, just presenting the facts that justify mine.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 4:26PM
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sunnibel7 Md 7(7)

I like everyone's pictures of their different gardening styles, and I think it helps illustrate that your style will likely come to reflect what works best for you and your land and your abilities. And now, out to tend mine...

    Bookmark   March 7, 2012 at 10:18AM
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Sometimes it's just a simple decision path. In my yard, the sunniest place is also spot where snowbanks get put. And it really snowy winters, those get pushed back by a bucket loader. Wide rows are what we have but nothing that a plow can destroy.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2012 at 12:16AM
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If it is not too lat, before you dump the top soil on the plot, plow it as deeply as you can.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 1:00AM
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girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

I garden in lower framed beds (10" deep), taller raised frame beds (20" deep), lagsana gardens framed in old concrete chunks and also frame free raised beds.
I have lots of options, and find that there is a place for all. My annual vegetables go in the framed beds or at church in the unframed raised beds. The lower beds are best - they drain very well and seem to stay disease free. The taller beds hold more wet soils and were filled mostly with compost which both depletes quickly and can carry disease for long periods if disease gets into the soil (soil choice wasn't mine). The few issues with the frameless raised beds in our garden is that they get very weedy because matting weed grasses have taken over in walkways, and the walkways between beds are far too narrow for some people (we have a variety of people who garden with us). The framed beds are much easier to keep grass free and it's just easier for people to move about them we find. I love my concrete edged lasagna beds for perennial vegetables. The soil stays more moist in them yet drainage is excellent, I can keep layering inside the frames easily while building the beds and the beds "look" like something even when they are filled only with green manures or mulches. I can create any look I like with the chunks of free concrete and it always looks like rock in a few years and it always looks more planned. A nice idea if you have a front yard garden and want your vegetables looking more like ornamental gardens.
I think everything has it's place, it is really what you prefer, what you can budget for.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 2:28PM
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