The case for and against raised beds?

elisa_z5April 3, 2014

There are lots of posts springing up (sorry about the pun) from brand new gardeners building raised beds. In past years, these posts have sometimes been followed by pleas for help with yellowed, stunted plants, and often we find out that things have been planted in some bagged or delivered "top soil.". And so the chant begins -- mix it all in with your native soil, you need a mineral component, you need the soil food web, which is in your native soil, not in the "top soil" they sold you . . . etc.

I am left feeling that some book out there has misled a lot of new gardeners who could have skipped all the expensive lumber and "top soil", saved all that building and filling work, and instead just dug up (or lasagna-ed) a piece of lawn, added some compost and what ever other amendments their professional $10 soil test said they needed, stuck their seeds and/or seedlings in the ground, and gotten a nice harvest.

If someone has high lead or cadmium, I get the raised bed thing. Yard a bed of rocks? Ditto. A new neighborhood with nothing but subsoil from when your basement was dug, covered by a thin layer of sod for your lawn? Or got the mole/vole thing going on?Okay, do raised beds. But why is native soil getting such a bad rap these days?

Alright, rant over. I am now seriously open to any and all explanations as to why raised beds are the best thing ever. And I'm hoping that this thread will be informative for the new gardeners starting out this year, and will help avoid some of the common pitfalls.

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I like your post :)

I do most of my gardening in-ground. Great soil here that is high in organic matter. I use plastic mulch and hoophouses to warm the soil early, so no additional benefit from using raised beds, even in my zone. Actually, plants in raised beds are more susceptible to spring and fall frosts.

But there's no one-size-fits-all answer. I think the biggest case for raised beds would be for people with poorly draining heavy soil. I had to deal with that at my previous home where I did have raised beds. All it took was one June rainstorm to turn my yard into an anoxic soup for weeks.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2014 at 11:05PM
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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Many gardeners in my area use raised beds because the prevailing soil is heavy clay with minimal drainage.
Elevating the growing media above the mire allows us to grow healthy plants.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 12:32AM
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I only do it because I have gophers. I filled my beds with native soil and compost. (And in two beds I added horse manure).

In the past, I have experimented with the square foot gardening method. I have nothing against it, but after I moved out of the city I didn't want to spend that much money on potting mix. (I have a lot more beds now).

When I drive around and look at the farms in this area, I see that most of them have shaped beds for most crops. These are also raised beds, they just don't have wood (or anything) holding them up.

So the farmers obviously believe that creating a raised bed for crops is worthwhile. Sometimes the beds are covered with plastic and sometimes they are not. I think it may help to keep the seedbed a little warmer.

Another benefit to raised beds is that it is easier for other people (and the dog) to understand where they are not supposed to walk.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 12:34AM
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I do both. My soil is very heavy & hard to dig, though it seems to be very nutrient rich. Not to mention I hit rocks just about everywhere I put the shovel. I have to stand on the shovel to dig even a small hole. I use my raised bed for anything where the crop has to be dug out of the ground. Carrots, potatoes, garlic. When we moved in here a few years ago, the previous owner had planted carrots in ground. I broke most of them in half trying to dig them up.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 1:05AM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

RAISED BEDs are made and serve more than one purpose:

1) AS A DESIGN ELEMENT: It makes the garden bed to stand out on its own and have a character instead of just a ditch in the grass

2) ERGONOMICS: It enabled the gardener to walk around it and work on it, harvest, weed, with less back ache and strain.
Call it convenience and comfort factor.

3) DRAINAGE SOLUTION: Often the land is low, the soil has low drainage, it rains a lot (like PNW).... Raised bed is the best , perhaps the only solution to avoid drenched/soggy garden bed.

4) When you want raised bed for the reason (1) or (2), and there is no native soil to fill it, no native elements available to retain the soil, then you have to purchase/ procure them from somewhere

So in conclusion : Yes it can be be costly but it is justified if it serves a purpose. IMO

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 2:57AM
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I'm with you, Elisa.

Even for cases of extremely hard, heavy soil, the situation could be remedied by several years of heavy mulching to soften the ground and get active soil life going. Ed Faulkner in his books explains how he started with just that situation and simply crushing the growth to the ground for several years mellowed it completely.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 6:35AM
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northerner_on(Z5A ONCanada)

I will be making 2 raised beds this year because I just don't have the energy and time to cultivate the area (it is now lawn) the 8 inches required to produce good veggies. Instead, I will just build it up. I have enough wood lying around, and 2 sets of those large hinges sold by Lee Valley for this purpose. I don't mind hauling bags of topsoil and compost. Just a lazy gardener.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 6:55AM
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Raised beds are less work especially in terms of weeding and soil fixing, but they are necessarily expensive the first year.

If making a raised bed is not easier than working in the ground soil, then what's the point?

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 7:36AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I am expanding the garden and I have used raised beds for a long time. I find it much easier, ergonomically. I mulch with shredded leaves and I don't really have to weed. I don't till the soil, I might loosen it with a pitchfork in the spring. Maybe I could do the same thing without the raised beds, but, I like the way they fit into my landscape better. I have a small property and the vegetable area is front and center in the back and I find it neater. I also think the ground warms up earlier in the spring.

I have no idea how I'm going to fill new beds though. I will dig and loosen the soil under the beds, but that's not going to do the trick. I got lucky the last time, I found someone on Craig's List who had to move from a property where he was growing organic vegetables and was giving away the soil if you came and carted it away. It was pretty good soil, but I did have to go through it for some Oriental Beetle larvae, that he had problems with, and I didn't.

I also thought some of the beds I will just sheet compost in them, but I don't want to end up with all compost. I have a flat property and nowhere I can dig up soil and add it to the beds. Although maybe I could take a shovelful from here and a shovelful from there.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 9:33AM
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I have had veggie gardens for much of my life (and I'm in the second half of my life by now) both in ground and in raised beds. I much prefer the raised beds which I filled with a mix of native soil (sieved to get rocks out since this was on fractured native granite) and composted manure from the local dairy farmer. Like PM2 I mulched with shredded leaves and compost. For me the advantages included earlier warming and draining of soil, important here where soil freezes most winters deep enough to inhibit spring drainage, ease of placing and fastening of row covers and crop supports since we had holders fastened to the bed sides, and comfortable working positions. We had fewer critters such as cutworms and voles in the beds, virtually no weeding, and earlier crops. Where we live now we haven't built them since there was a pre-existing veggie garden and we planned to only be here a few years. I miss the raised beds, particularly since I hurt a knee a few years ago which hasn't fully recovered, making it more difficult to squat or get up from the ground.

PM2 - Consider moving some of the soil from your previous beds into the new ones so that they all have a more even amount of soil. If you can find a farm who will deliver manure, that's always a good addition.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 10:03AM
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theforgottenone1013(MI zone 5b/6a)

I like raised beds because they warm up and dry out quicker in the spring. During the early spring my backyard can be swamplike at times. Like right now, after only a day of rain, there are puddles everywhere and you squish everywhere you walk. The soil in a mere 6 inch tall raised bed, which is what I mostly use, is completely different than at ground level.

As I've already said, most of my beds are 6 inches tall. Therefore I dig down into my native soil about a foot. My native soil isn't rocky but it is heavy and most things don't grow too well in it. Plenty of compost and organic matter remedy this. When I break ground in a new area it usually takes a full season before things really start to grow well for me (things grow okay the first season, just not as well as they should).

I think the most important thing that needs to be noted is when to start new beds. If someone is going to build/make new beds, the best time to do that is in the fall. In the fall there's plenty of time to allow any raw organic matter (fallen leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, manure, partially finished compost, etc.) to break down and become usable before spring/early summer. Plus there is more raw material available in the fall. In the spring you are pretty much stuck buying already finished compost or topsoil (not the best choice, IMO) in bags or in bulk. Which can get expensive if you can't get it for free. And if someone's into square foot gardening, "Mel's Mix" can be insanely expensive and I've always thought it unnecessary.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 12:50PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

ThatâÂÂs another point I would prefer to use raised beds for, as Babs said, placing and âÂÂfastening of row covers and crop supports and drainageâÂÂ, because I do have clay soil as well. IâÂÂm also planning on building cold frame covers for them to extend the season. IâÂÂd rather do a high hoop house or greenhouse, but with 6 hrs of sun maximum, it hardly seemed worth it, so I thought this was a good alternative.

Babs, I plan on using all the soil from my old beds, but IâÂÂm doubling the square footage of my beds and IâÂÂll have empty beds for sure. IâÂÂve been someone who never uses manure in my vegetable garden. I had read that there could be risks using it when growing food, and just to be on the safe side, I use compost instead. I also cover crop. I would use it in the rest of the garden though.

I would cringe at the idea of buying topsoil from someone, and not knowing what you are going to get along with it. I took a chance with the CraigâÂÂs list person last time, but that was a situation that is pretty unusual to find and I went by my instincts that this person was trustworthy.

I have been collecting kitchen scraps all winter and now have two plastic compost bins that are full and the remains of 1/2 of a large wire compost bin thatâÂÂs over a year old, and stockpiled cardboard to use to make sheet composting. I realize I wonâÂÂt be planting in those beds this spring, but IâÂÂll still have at least as much prepared beds as I did last year to use.

The old rotted frames were taken off yesterday and the squares of soil are just waiting for a new home. :-)

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 3:54PM
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Great info -- thanks so much for posting, everyone.

I like the term "mounded beds" -- that's what I do. So I get the benefits of good drainage and early warm-up without any wood or building or filling. Just stand on one side and hoe, then stand on the other side and hoe (first year) and after that, add manure, compost, and hay to the beds, and stomp all over the pathways, and voila, permanent mounded beds. I also sometimes rototill the pathways and plant clover, so that keeps the weeds from creeping into the beds.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 7:54PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

Clay and gophers! Nuf said! Nancy

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 9:13PM
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Clay soil and poor drainage. The raised beds drain, the mix I filled them with is also lighter and doesn't compact into something near concrete like the native soil does, so I can actually grow root crops that just stunted in the native soil.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2014 at 11:59PM
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There's no doubt that raised beds are a 'seen it on the internet' thing for many people, but as the posters above have pointed out, there are multiple reasons for favoring raised beds. My New England suburban topsoil is about 4 inches deep, with heavy, compacted and rock-filled clay under it. Raised beds warms up soil in the spring to the tune of about two weeks. And raised beds drain better than ground-level soil. Most of my beds (10 now) are in-ground, but my 4-inch raised beds have definite advantages. I certainly wouldn't use store-bought 'topsoil,' but when I can I'll add more raised beds to my garden.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 2:57PM
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Raised beds are super-popular around here in the land of river rock-laden clay soil and long-lasting cool temperatures even in Summer. Of course, my "raised beds" are just reclaimed plastic pots atop old pallets and cinder blocks. (We're on a budget.) But they help get the plants up off the ground so they can catch a decent amount of sun even in remote corners of the backyard, so they get the job done.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 3:03PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I'm still pretty focused on the subject of raised beds, since I'm in the middle of rebuilding mine, and have been looking at photos of them all week and I was thinking about those of you who garden without raised beds. I would be happy to have the circumstances to use an area of my property for that kind of a vegetable bed. You're lucky when you can.

And I was thinking about how it seems to be popular right now. Of course, it often can be the soil conditions or voles, but I wonder if it is the aging population too? There are actually about 75 million baby boomers that are all reaching that age at the same time. [g]

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 4:36PM
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And one of them is me. Yep, raised beds are good for the plants for many reasons, but they are also good for me :)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:00PM
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I'm an in-ground gardener. My grandfather did it that way, my parents and me. My soil is a complete no-go for carrots (too much shale). I do grow eggplants and some hot peppers in containers because it does warm up the soil faster.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:23PM
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shermthewerm(8 PNW)

I really like the raised beds for our swamp-like conditions we're known for. In the raised beds, however, the soils stays mostly "workable" all year round which is what I'm going for. I chose cobblestone beds for the front yard, because I thought it looked more decorative & other than possibly adding hardware cloth eventually one will last until I decide to remove it. As it is now, it's a little mole swimming pool/play pit.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 10:47PM
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shermthewerm(8 PNW)

Different angle of the same bed.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 10:49PM
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shermthewerm(8 PNW)

Other side of the same bed (hope I'm not boring you), just showing off my hubby's handiwork!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 10:52PM
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flowerchild59(z6b IL)

I just put in 6 raised beds purely for the ease of gardening. I know it is an initial outlay of money,, but if it saves me multiple chiropractor visits from occurring it will be worth it in the long run.
I love gardening in raised beds. 'nuff said.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:25PM
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Shermtheworm that is a fabulous cobblestone bed!

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 5:45AM
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You could do the lasagna method in a raised bed - newspaper, compost, etc. I like raised beds because we have alkaline soil where I live and drainage isn't that great, either.

Raised beds greatly reduce weeding and keep the vegetables separate from the grass and other landscape. I used old shelving for the frame, so there was no cost for lumber. My first year i just added Amend to native soil. The second year I did the peat, vermiculite, compost blend. Now I just add compost when adding new plants. Since I have a compost bin, the compost is free.

Here is a link that might be useful: My raised bed

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 11:53AM
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I think we have some answers that basically relate to area and type of soil. I would also wager that many use raised beds because they read about them more. Internet or book research leads us to do things a certain way, if we've never done it before. We figure that the book or instructions by others can be what we'd use.

I, on the other hand, have never used raised beds. My parents didn't either, and so while growing up with them in the yard, my only exposure to gardening is to do it right in the ground.

As a result, upon maturing and getting my own home, I also did the same. Right in the ground.

Granted, my soil is not filled with rocks or landfill stuff. It was just grass and weeds, which, given the time to turn it over and plant in it, was doable. Yes I get weeds in the garden section but they are much fewer and can be easily pulled out once I recognize the seedling or know that it's not a plant that I want there.

Would I like to have a raised bed? Yes, I would still choose that, for much the same reasons as others have said. A distinct object in the yard like that can be part of the decor of the yard also. And working in a a garden that is another 8-12 inches off the ground certainly can be nice and helpful.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2014 at 10:35AM
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I do containers and raised beds (high ones) largely because of the heavy clay and partially due to physical disability. I can't do a lot of the heavy in ground work-I can't spend a lot of time kneeling or stooping.

So, everything grows at a level I can easily reach and work.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2014 at 4:34PM
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We are on sandy clay with very little humus in it, but i do find debris from an old farmhouse that was demolished here. My back yard is only 9 ft between house and fenceline. So, i am putting in raised beds to help organize the confined space. Also, a good growers mix with organic cert. Compost ($45 a cubic yard) will support veggies better than this native soil alone. Sure i will be loosening up the soil under the beds. I will have 12 inch beds for some crops, and 6" deep beds for others. Even if they are not dep and if they mostly contain native soil, i like the hard border between to delineate the areas and make it easier to treat them differently

    Bookmark   April 19, 2014 at 7:10PM
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IMO people are lazy and the large home centers encourage this.

My garden beds all started out with fill. The neighborhood is the result of hills that were leveled and large boulders buried all around. So i have to dig up a lot of rocks. I've sifted whole beds. I never had a rototiller either. I learned over the years to avoid a lot of heavy fertilizers and go organic.

One major problem I have with what the likes of Home Depot suggests is all you have to do is buy some of these cedar boards they sell and a bunch of bags of Miracle Grow potting mix/soil etc. and everything will be fine and dandy. What about the lawn you are burying? You know that thing is full of grubs, wireworms etc? Also your plants are going to have to dig through that.

Gardening is hard work. It makes the beer taste better afterwards though ). When your entire body feels like your just got a massage with a baseball bat you will be filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

If you're just starting out you wont have compost. My favorite things to add to the soil of a new bed are peat moss, cow manure, slow release fertilizer(organic)and fish emulsion and straw. That's pretty much it save for ph adjustments.

Technique wise if the ground has lots of roots break it up with the maddock(Warwood preferred). One pass good enough? Probably not if tree roots are involved. Then I turn to the digging shovel(sharpen it)and sink it and flip the soil over. Too much resistance? Back to the Maddock. Then turn to the garden fork and remove all the roots. Then work in soil amendments. Mulch with straw and the next time you till will be much easier.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2014 at 12:06PM
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I was raised by parents who had an in-ground garden and that's just what we did. So when I bought my house and wanted a garden it was in-ground. I had a 1000'x100' garden for a couple of decades. Perfect soil that was previously pasture land so anything I threw on the ground would grow.
Then I had spinal fusion surgery. I definitely couldn't till that big of a space anymore so raised beds were constructed. Non-treated 2x12's (because I had some extra laying around), 60% topsoil, 30% compost, 10% peat moss. Best thing I've done in years!
My mother who grew up on a farm and was skeptical at first because, well, why pay good money for bagged dirt to put in a box when you already have God's ground right there? That's just crazy talk. After helping 'not' weed my raised beds, harvesting without having to baby her back the next day, and the ease of not dragging out the tiller for a couple of years she has become 'one of us'. Yep after 70+ years she has now become a raised bed fan.
Is it laziness? Well if I were lazy I probably wouldn't have a garden to begin with so no, that's not it. Does it make me lazy to prefer enjoying my raised beds rather than tilling in between rows of my in-ground? Doesn't make me lazy, makes me happy. What is it they say? Work smarter not harder? Yeah, I think I'll do that.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 4:31PM
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howelbama(7 NJ)

"Gardening is hard work. It makes the beer taste better afterwards though ). When your entire body feels like your just got a massage with a baseball bat you will be filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride."

It can also lead to permanent back/knee/joint damage. Most people don't follow proper bending and lifting procedures, which eventually catches up to you.

Rasied beds are not a sign of laziness...

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 4:48PM
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Wow, working a garden of over two acres by hand? That is a whopping lot. Even if the bi-yearly tilling was done by tractor it is a huge amount to seed and cultivate by hand.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 5:16PM
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loribee2(CA 9)

Raised beds a sign of laziness? Wow, that's a pretty ignorant statement.

I have raised beds because my garden is on a grade. It's the only way to level the ground for planting.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 6:05PM
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The soil where I am in N.Y. is clay and gets ROCK HARD when dry. Raised beds is really the best way to grow IMHO here. No way I could grow carrots here without raised beds.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 9:16PM
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I have always avoided using raised beds. I figured I had no reason for them as long as I had the deep, well-draining soil that I do. And plenty of space. I did construct one in an experiment to see if the raised beds warmed up faster and/or retained heat more than the in-ground rows. They did not, the temperatures were indistinguishable throughout the entire growing season. Once I had this bed, I grew carrots in it and they were the best carrots I was ever able to grow. My soil, although well-draining and crumbly, is also heavy and makes deep carrot root formation very difficult, especially as I don't til. So now I have two 5'x10' raised beds that I use specifically for carrots or other delicate seedling crops like leeks. For my other main crops (collards,kale,winter squashes,tomatoes,potatoes, pole beans) the raised beds offer no particular advantage to me. Particularly since I practice wide spacing among my plants. I also do soil tests and balance the minerals which I'm not sure how that works in a raised bed full of peat and compost and such.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 1:27PM
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slowjane CA/ Sunset 21

I have a very small yard - and it's a way to keep it visually tidy, and separate from whatever else is going on. If it rains (rare!) I don't have to worry about it flooding with the rest of the yard. Seems to discourage the skunks, cats, whatever else. And I like being able to sit and see everything at a higher level. I spend enough time squatting pulling up endless weeds in the rest of the yard (our property was neglected for years and we have the weed seeds to prove it) It seems like I can control for more variables this way.

I grew up on a big sprawling place in New Mexico with a giant in-ground garden - would love that again! But my mom has converted to raised beds in her new house - and doesn't miss all the work. Seems to keep things contained - soil doesn't get compacted, easier to pick veggies, work in fertilizer etc.

But if I had the space I might feel differently...

Raised beds (meaning wood boxes filled with soil mix) are good for the urban gardener.

(For clarity, in my Mediterranean gardening book, he calls raised beds just raising the soil higher in furrows which you do if you have too much moisture/rain - I think this is the traditional definition - but I assume we all mean using wood/boxes to raise and contain the garden?)

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 2:39PM
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terrene(5b MA)

I have a large yard with 1.25 acres, and large perennial gardens and mixed borders in the front, side and back yards. Most beds have a curving organic flow, with a naturalized feel. Frankly I think tidy little boxes plunked in the middle somewhere would look kind of silly.

Also my soil is sandy loam with a subsoil that is, according to the guy at the Board of Health, "sand and gravel as far down as you can dig". The soil drains very well (too well) and raising a garden bed in these conditions makes no sense.

Although it tends to be droughty, it is very nice soil to work with especially when I have added lots of organic matter over the years, like compost, leaves, grass clipping, coffee grounds, etc. All of which are FREE, and lasagne beds are EASY, compared to buying materials and carting in soil for the purpose of building places for the plants to grow.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 8:15PM
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Very interesting -- enjoying reading all the good reasons for raised beds, and about a few yards that don't need them at all. I don't need them on an acre of great soil that can be as messy as it wants to be -- but I sure can't grow carrots worth a darn!

auntnana, I love the story about your mom's conversion :)

slowjane -- yes, in my OP I was referring to the little boxed beds.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 10:29PM
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gardener_mary(6 MA)

I have very eclectic gardens, some flat in ground, some raised with sides, some without (all narrow enough to reach the middle without stepping or leaning on), some surrounded by fencing. I use some containers and sometimes even grow directly in a bag of growing mix. I'll try almost anything that looks like it will work for what I wish to grow.

That being said, every year that goes by and my knees and back tire easier, 2 ft. high raised beds move up higher on my wish list.

Good Gardening, Mary

    Bookmark   April 25, 2014 at 1:05AM
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Clay ground does seem like the primary case for a true raised bed. Otherwise it's more of an individual preference thing.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2014 at 7:29AM
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I am left feeling that some book out there has misled a lot of new gardeners

I blame Pinterest for showing so many raised beds. :)

There are places where it's required ... poor soil and/or a bad back.

It also makes the garden look tidier.

I just installed "raised" beds for my chilis and herbs, sort of. It's more a mulch retainer than anything.

Here is a link that might be useful: My

    Bookmark   April 25, 2014 at 7:38AM
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