Are Raised Garden Beds Even Necessary?
I get that question a lot. Also: Why use raised garden beds when I can just grow in the ground for free?
After years of gardening in ground (unsuccessfully) and gardening in a raised bed (quite successfully), I've converted to almost exclusively growing my annual vegetables in raised beds. My Houston-based kitchen garden design company, Rooted Garden, and my online garden education company, Gardenary, both focus on using a raised bed with trellis system for finding success in the kitchen garden.
Here are my top three reasons for planting in raised beds.
Reason #1 to Grow in a Raised Garden Bed
Raised Beds Maximize Productivity
I was excited to have a large backyard when we moved to the Chicago area, but I quickly realized the whole backyard was shaded by mature trees. The only sunny spot to build a kitchen garden was a little strip along the side of our home. Even with six raised beds (each 7ft x 2.5ft x 2 ft), I only have about 90 square feet of gardening space. If I were gardening in the ground, 90 square feet wouldn't actually allow me to grow very much, but because I'm growing in raised beds, I can plant and harvest way more than I thought possible in such a small space.
Raised beds increase your productivity in several ways.
Raised Beds Increase Productivity by Giving Roots More Room
I liken the difference between growing in raised beds vs in the ground to the difference between living in the city vs the suburbs. If you live in the suburbs and want more room, you can literally spread out more. You might not even need a second story—you can just keep adding width or length to your home. If you live in the city and want more room, you'll need to go up. City dwellers live in condos and apartment buildings and even skyscrapers that are hundreds of feet tall just to give everyone room.
In-ground gardens are like the suburbs. When you pop a plant into the ground, its roots are going to sprawl outward and stay fairly shallow, closer to the surface of the soil, which means each plant needs a lot of horizontal space so that its roots don’t annoy its neighbor. The instructions on seed packets for spacing your plants one, two, even three feet apart only apply to row gardens because they assume you’ll be planting your seeds in the ground.
We want to be able to pack more plants in our gardens and make use of every square inch of growing space we have. That means growing up and down, like we do in the city, instead of sprawling outwards, like we do in the suburbs.
We can do that by giving roots an opportunity to burrow much deeper underground in a raised bed. The plant will follow suit and grow more vertically, the way we expand in the city. That means we can fit way more plants in a small space.
Plants like peas, which would normally be planted three to five inches apart from one another in the ground and take up lots of space, can send their roots down deep and be helped upward by trellises to make every inch of your small garden space count. That's how we can ditch the spacing rules on the back of seed packets—they don't apply to the vertical growth we achieve in raised beds.
Of course, the more plants we can fit in a space, the more harvests we have coming our way.
Raised Beds Increase Productivity by Improving Drainage
Good drainage is also important in increasing your productivity. While you might love a good, long soak in the bathtub, your plants do not. Most plants you grow in the kitchen garden—cabbages, radishes, kale, peas, etc.—like to be watered frequently but hate to have their roots sitting in water. It’s hard to control what kind of drainage you have in the ground, so you’ll most likely be battling mold, rot, and mildew if your plants stay wet too long. Poor drainage can even just prevent your greens from flourishing.
In a raised bed, gravity works in our favor to keep those roots happy. When I come out to my kitchen garden, the soil is often moist from being watered the day before but not soaking.
Raised Beds Increase Productivity by Extending Your Growing Seasons
You can plant earlier in the spring and later in the fall/winter in a raised bed, extending your total growing time. Near the end of winter, the top three or four inches of soil in your raised garden bed will warm up faster than the ground. If I shoveled snow off my raised beds in Chicago, I could plant as early as late February or the beginning of March. Contrast that with my in-ground pollinator garden next to my raised beds. I couldn't even get a shovel past the first inch of snow and had to wait much longer for the ground to thaw before I could plant in that space.
Getting to plant earlier and longer in a raised bed means you get to grow so many more things throughout your seasons.
Raised Beds Increase Productivity by Allowing You to Start with the Best Possible Soil
Along with good drainage comes good soil. You’ll spend several seasons amending the soil of a row garden to get the right composition for growing vegetables. With a raised bed, you get to start with the best soil, leading to success in your garden much faster. Honestly, soil is so important, I could just stop right here!
Discover how to grow your own edible oasis right in your backyard with a membership in Gardenary 365. Get the plan, the how to, and the motivation you need to make the garden part of your everyday life—every day of the year. Gardenary 365 is an online membership that gives you front-row access to professional gardening courses, ebooks, and garden coaching so that you always know exactly what to do in the garden, from starting seeds indoors to building a new raised bed kitchen garden.
Reason #2 to Grow in a Raised Garden Bed
Raised Beds Increase Convenience
When I started designing gardens for clients with my Houston-based company, Rooted Garden, some of my clients insisted on in-ground gardens instead of raised beds. I was a yes-girl at that point, so I did a few in-ground gardens before those same clients came back to me and complained that the maintenance on an in-ground vegetable garden was too intense. When I would return to those gardens to tend them, the ground was often muddy, and I'd leave with a sore back.
I’m betting you didn’t get into gardening to spend time trekking through mud or kneeling in the dirt pulling weeds for hours, right?
Once I started encouraging my clients to go for raised beds, we all became spoiled by the extra height. With a two-foot tall raised garden bed, you bend over from the waist and are at the plant’s level, which makes tending and harvesting so much easier and more convenient.
You might find you want to go out to your garden space more if you don't have to put on boots and wade through mud just to reach your plants. After all, garden work should be an enjoyable part of your daily routine, not a chore.
Learn more about the ideal raised bed height.
Reason #3 to Grow in a Raised Garden Bed
Raised Beds Look Beautiful
Raised garden beds elevate your outdoor space and provide lasting beauty all year long. Even if your plants aren’t growing yet or your garden is covered in snow, your raised bed and trellises are hardscaping pieces that become an integral feature of your landscape. We're not talking about just some plants and soil—we're talking about a feature of your yard that stays beautiful year round.
Plus, no matter the style of your home, there’s a raised garden bed material to compliment it.
The importance of the aesthetic component really struck me when a client referred to her raised beds as a home improvement project. But unlike slapping on a fresh coat of paint or laying new tile, you can eat the fruits of this labor.
Are there any plants that shouldn't grow in a raised bed?
While I grow the majority of my annual vegetable plants in my raised bed kitchen garden, there are some things that are not suited to raised beds.
large fruiting plants
Squash, pumpkins, melons, and gourds have vines that trail horizontally and take up a lot of room. The growing space in my raised beds is too precious to turn over to plants in the Cucurbit family, with the exception of cucumbers, which I can train up a trellis. Learn how to create your own backyard "squash patch" to grow these large fruiting plants.
flowers for pollinators
I still plant lots of flowers in my raised beds, but I also created a pollinator garden that's a less formal space than my kitchen garden, a place to scatter zinnia seeds haphazardly and with glee. The flowers and herbs that grow in my pollinator garden are not as particular about the soil they're growing in as fruiting plants like nutrient-sucking tomatoes. Read the step by step to create your own pollinator garden.
Like the large fruiting plants, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes can really spread out, but this time, most of that horizontal growth is happening under the soil. Potatoes also thrive in a more acidic soil than the rest of your veggies. Explore the steps to plant your own organic potatoes.
I love to tuck herbs into the corners of my raised beds. Mint, however, is unlike its herb cousins and does not play nicely with others. Mint's roots will elbow their way past whatever other roots are in their way to take up as much space as possible. For this reason, it's best to grow mint in its own pot or container.
Learn more about which plants should generally not be planted in raised garden beds.
Ready to build your own raised bed?
Get three books in one and learn how to make each of Gardenary’s signature raised beds.
You’ll learn the step by step to create:
-the $100 raised garden bed used in Salad Garden School
-the rolling steel planter used in Herb Garden Guide Course
-the Gardenary signature raised bed with trim
Ready to Grow in Your Own Raised Garden Beds?
Now that I’ve seen the light shining on my raised beds, I’ll never go back to growing my tomatoes, peppers, or lettuce plants in the ground again. Have I convinced you?
If you’re looking for more resources on how to set up your own raised kitchen garden, you can check out my book, Kitchen Garden Revival. We also have an online course all about building and planting in your own raised beds called Kitchen Garden Academy.
If you install raised beds in your space, even if you opt for a moveable container like this one, I promise you won't regret it. The walls of your raised beds will help define you garden space as something special—your own little edible oasis. Here's to your future raised bed that will increase your production, allow you to garden longer throughout the year, make tending easier on your back, and add beauty to your yard!
Online Kitchen Garden Design
Let a certified Gardenary designer create a raised-bed kitchen garden design and provide a step-by-step plan so you can build your own growing space with confidence.