Is It OK to Stain a Raised Garden Bed?
Staining wood is a simple way to bring out the beauty of the grain and match your garden to your home, but is it safe to stain raised beds that will be growing edible plants?
Using natural products, including raised bed materials, to create an organic environment for my own kitchen garden and those we design for Rooted Garden clients is a high priority for me. With that in mind, I always source materials as close to the state in which they naturally occur as possible (untreated wood, steel that hasn't been coated with synthetic chemicals, stone that hasn't been chemically altered, etc.). I wouldn't want to go through all the trouble of sourcing the best, most natural raised bed material only to ruin its organic nature by staining it with something that's not good for the environment, not good for my plants, and not good for me.
Yes, It Is Safe to Use Certain Stains and Paints on the Exterior of Your Raised Bed
Fortunately, there are products you can use to stain or paint the outside of your raised garden bed that won't compromise the organic nature of your garden. There are also safe, non-toxic sealants you can use for the inside of your raised bed to increase the durability of the wood.
What Products Are Safe to Use to Stain Raised Garden Beds?
You have various options when it comes to staining or painting your raised garden beds. You could:
- paint only the exterior of the raised bed with a non-toxic, eco-friendly paint
- stain only the exterior of the bed with a non-toxic water-based stain
- use a natural wood preservative to seal the interior of the raised garden bed
Each of these options has been tried, tested, and approved over the years in many different Rooted Garden installations.
Painting the Exterior of Your Raised Garden Bed with Non-Toxic Paint
Non-toxic paint on the outside of your raised beds will not affect the plants growing inside the bed. Some examples of non-toxic paint include milk paint (made from natural ingredients like milk protein, organic pigment, and lime) and VOC-free latex paints (VOC stands for volatile organic compounds).
Milk paint will lend a rustic feel to your garden and give your beds a matte finish that won't chip, fade, or peel.
Once the paint on the exterior of your raised beds has dried, be sure to finish with natural beeswax or a polycrylic finish to give your beds a final layer of protection from moisture and sunlight.
The three raised garden beds below are painted with Sherwin Williams Palace White.
Staining the Exterior of Your Raised Garden Bed with Non-Toxic Water-Based Stain
Standard wood stains might contain chemicals intended to preserve wood that could contaminate your garden soil and plants. Look for a water-based wood stain, something that's low-VOC, solvent-free, and eco-friendly. These stains are odorless and won't cause headaches as you apply them.
Note that staining your raised beds won't provide much extra protection in the long term. Staining is more for the aesthetic nature of the wood by adding that rich color and enhancing the visual interest of the wood grain. It's best to follow the stain with a natural wood sealer product.
The raised bed pictured below was stained with a solid exterior stain in black.
Using a Natural Wood Preservative to Seal the Interior of Your Raised Garden Bed
A good-quality, eco-friendly wood sealant will improve the durability of a wooden raised bed by protecting it from the elements, particularly the moist soil on the inside.
Rooted Garden has typically used Valhalla Wood Preservatives Wood Treatment, an eco-friendly, non-toxic option that lasts a lifetime. This treatment penetrates wood fibers to improve the durability of the structure. Independent lab tests have found no harmful residue in soil or water after applying this product, so it's considered safe for plants, animals, and people, even when coming into direct contact with garden soil on the interior of your raised garden bed.
The raised bed pictured below has its exterior painted with Benjamin Moore Black Tar paint.
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Tips to Paint or Stain a Raised Garden Bed
Tip #1: Start with Untreated Wood
Not all untreated woods are created equally, and it definitely matters which type of wood you select to build your raised garden bed when it comes to your garden's ability to withstand weather and other challenges.
Cedar, redwood, cypress, and hemlock are woods that don't rot or decay quickly, meaning if left untreated, they can easily last up to 20 years in your garden space. The best choice of wood depends on your geographic location, so check for the best locally sourced option you can find. Once you’ve selected your wood source, buy the thickest pieces of wood you can afford to improve durability (we typically recommend boards that are two inches thick for the body of the raised bed).
The kitchen garden pictured below features 2-inch-thick cedar wooden raised beds in Cabot Driftwood Gray stain, which is made from an all-natural pigment.
Tip #2: Clean the Wood Before Painting or Staining
If your beds have been sitting outside for a while, use a hose to rinse them off before you paint or stain them. Give the beds time to dry before applying any product. If the wood is new, you can probably just dust it.
The beds pictured below are stained with Varathane Early American wood stain.
Tip #3: Check the Ingredients in the Paint or Stain for Your Raised Beds Before Purchasing
I've found that products from the same brand and even within the same line can be made using different ingredients or bases. Double check that whatever you're considering purchasing is eco-friendly, non-toxic, and safe.
The raised bed pictured below is stained with an eco-friendly solid black exterior wood stain.
Tip #4: Only Paint or Stain the Exterior of Your Raised Beds
Since paint and stain is for the look of the bed and less about sealing the wood, it's only necessary to coat the exterior of the raised bed. That way, even though the paint or stain you select should be safe, you don't have to worry about any chemicals leaching into the soil or your edible plants.
The only thing you need to apply to the interior of your raised beds is a wood preservative. In the picture of the raised-bed garden installation below, you can see the contrast between the stained exterior and the unstained interior.
Tip #5: Apply Your Stain or Paint Correctly
Use a high-quality brush or foam roller for paint. If you're staining, use a high-quality brush, foam roller, or lint-free cloth. Apply in an even layer and then give time to dry to assess the color. A second coat of stain will darken the color. Most projects take two coats of paint or stain.
The raised-bed kitchen garden below was designed with a Cabot stain in the color of Beechwood Gray.
Tip #6: Consider Adding a Protective Coat After Painting or Staining Your Raised Bed
Applying a protective coat—something like natural beeswax or a polycrylic finish, which is completely food safe—to the exterior of your raised bed post painting or staining gives your wood extra protection from weather and increases the lifespan of your raised bed.
The beautiful raised beds in the large kitchen garden pictured below are painted with Benjamin Moore Black Tar paint.
Tip #7: Let the Wood Preservative Dry Fully Before Filling the Raised Bed with Soil and Plants
If you're using a wood preservative on the interior of your raised bed, make sure you've given it plenty of time to dry before you add soil and plants to the raised bed.
Tip #8: Don't Trust Old Paint
It's never a good idea to use older paint on your raised beds or containers. Similarly, don't use wooden boards already coated with paint (or sealed with anything) to construct your raised garden beds. Older paint is likely to contain lead or other toxins that you don't want getting into your garden soil. Even older wood that's unpainted but treated could potentially contain arsenic.
It's best to start fresh with new materials so you can feel 100 percent confident about what's going into your garden and therefore into your body.
The raised beds below are painted with Sherwin Williams Porpoise 4047.
Other Tips to Increase the Durability of Your Raised Beds
In addition to applying a wood preservative to the interior of your raised beds, here are some other tips to extend the lifetime of your wooden raised beds:
- Use the thickest wooden boards you can afford
- Place your raised beds on gravel to protect them from mud, wet grass, and lawn mowers
- Add trim to the corners of the garden
- Keep the garden space clean and dry (gravel will help with drainage)
One thing you don't want to do to protect your raised bed is line the inside with plastic. Again, we're going through all this effort to ensure that every single material used in our kitchen garden space is food-safe and won't affect the organic nature of our gardens.
If you opt for steel raised beds instead of wood, you're looking at decades of durability, but you do still want to treat the exterior of the steel raised bed with a rust protectant.
Pictured below is one more kitchen garden design to inspire you. The four L-shaped raised beds in this formal potager layout are made from stucco but trimmed on the top with stained cedar boards. We absolutely love how that combination turned out!
Find Answers for All Your Raised Bed Questions Here at Gardenary
If you're feeling stuck or intimidated over creating your own raised-bed kitchen garden, you're not alone. Gardenary exists to give beginner and intermediate gardeners a place where they can find all the resources they need to keep on growing.
If you're a DIY'er, my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, delves deeper into picking a location for your kitchen garden and then walks you through the planning, designing, and building of your raised beds, plus how to plant and tend your favorite edible plants.
If you're more an online-course-type of person, check out our popular course, Kitchen Garden Academy. Over the course of eight modules, we walk you through the complete step by step to set up and grow in your own kitchen garden.
For maximum help setting up your own kitchen garden, find a garden consultant near you to come out to your space or work with one of our designers virtually through our brand new online garden design.
Thanks for being here and helping us bring back the kitchen garden!
Kitchen Garden Academy is an online video course that teaches new(ish) gardeners how to design and create beautiful raised bed kitchen gardens and grow the most productive organic plants. You'll also receive live coaching calls to get professional support and answer all your questions as you go through the course.
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