Raised-Bed Gardening Materials
We all know that vegetable gardens need good soil, water, and sunlight to thrive, right? Equally important to the success of a garden, however, are the materials used to create the garden space.
After designing hundreds of custom kitchen gardens for my Houston-based company, Rooted Garden, I've learned a thing or two about the four key structures that every garden should have. As outlined in my first book, Kitchen Garden Revival, these four structures are:
- raised beds to give vegetables the perfect soil to grow in and to make tending easier on the gardener
- trellises to add vertical space to the garden and support climbing plants
- borders to separate the yard from the garden space
- pathways to provide easy access to and from the garden area
Rooted Garden’s signature system includes these four elements in each and every kitchen garden design, and you should too.
We're going to focus on raised garden beds, particularly the best materials to use for your raised beds. Keep reading to learn what five things you should consider before selecting a raised bed material and explore my top three recommended raised bed materials.
As you're planning your kitchen garden, keep this in mind: Making good decisions now as you're gathering materials and building raised beds can save you money in the long run and ensure you’re able to enjoy your gardening space to the fullest. I hate seeing people build their first raised beds, only to be disappointed and have to start all over again.
But First, Why Raised Beds?
As I wrote in Kitchen Garden Revival:
"Though you can certainly have a kitchen garden without a raised bed, I wouldn’t recommend it. Raised beds produce such reliable results, provide a stunning look in the yard, and create consistency throughout the seasons that helps stabilize the kitchen garden area even as plants rise and fall."
Your goal when selecting your raised bed material is to pick something that will help you create the ideal growing conditions for herbs and vegetables. Of course, I also recommend picking something that's attractive. A raised bed should be a beautiful hardscaping piece in its own right, adding beauty to the garden all four seasons, even when nothing is growing.
Practically speaking, raised beds provide the following benefits:
- Raised beds allow you to start fresh with healthy soil, rather than amending what you already have (which is probably not ideal for vegetables).
- Raised beds stay warmer than the soil in the ground, which allows you to extend your growing time in the fall and the spring.
- Raised beds give plants' roots more vertical space to dig down so that you can fit more plants horizontally in a tighter space.
- Raised beds drain more quickly than in-ground beds.
- Raised beds increase comfort and ease when tending or harvesting your garden.
I go into further detail on the reasons raised beds are all around better for gardening here.
Elevate your backyard veggie patch into a sophisticated and stylish work of art
Kitchen Garden Revival guides you through every aspect of kitchen gardening, from design to harvesting—with expert advice from author Nicole Johnsey Burke, founder of Rooted Garden, one of the leading US culinary landscape companies, and Gardenary, an online kitchen gardening education and resource company.
How to Know Which Material Is Best for Your Garden
Five Things to Consider Before You Choose Materials for Raised Bed Gardening
From cinder blocks to stone, there are many different options to choose from when selecting your raised bed material, so focus on these five characteristics to help guide your decision when selecting a raised bed material: naturalness, durability, beauty, sustainability, and affordability.
Choose a Raised Bed Material That's Natural
Our goal is to create an organic environment for the edible plants that will grow in our gardens, so with that in mind, it's best to source materials as close to their naturally occurring state as possible. Think untreated wood, steel that hasn’t been coated with synthetic chemicals, and stone that hasn’t been chemically altered.
Choose a Raised Bed Material That's Durable
Your raised garden beds will have to endure all sorts of weather over the course of their (hopefully) long existence. Prioritize a material that'll stand up to the elements.
While untreated wood has a limited lifetime, using cedar, redwood, cypress, or hemlock can prolong the garden’s life expectancy by five or ten years, meaning you can enjoy decades with your wooden raised beds. Steel is next in durability, and stone and brick can quite literally last a lifetime.
Match Your Raised Bed Material to Your Home
My goal when designing gardens is to make the space feel like it's always been a part of the home and landscape, since the very beginning. We do this by establishing an overall style for the space and then selecting materials that match that style.
When I went on my first official garden consultation, my client told me she wanted her garden to have a "French feel." I nodded, as if I understood, but inside I was panicking. Were we talking like gilt-furniture-French or lavender-fields-in-Provence-French? Once I finally took a deep breath and calmed down, I realized the client's elegant stucco home should be my guide. Her wooden planters, ivy-covered wrought iron gate, and patio furniture already had that French appeal she wanted. She was simply asking me to continue her existing style with the kitchen garden.
Look at your home and determine which word an architect would best use to describe it. Modern? Traditional? Tudor Revival? Mediterranean? Farmhouse? Mid-Century? French?
I've lived in several houses that left me a bit uninspired in the architectural label department. If you're feeling stuck too, try googling specific elements of your home to find a word to describe its existing style. Try searching your home's construction materials, architectural features, roof shape, and the decade it was built. Googling "stucco walls", "clay roof tiles", and "ornate iron elements", for instance, will probably tell you that you have a Spanish colonial home.
Use whatever word you select to describe your home as your theme to guide your choices throughout your garden design process. If your home is modern with lots of clean lines, make sure your garden bed material emulates that (perhaps with a steel raised bed with a thin profile). By aligning with your home's existing style and structures, your garden will become an extension of your home. Not an unsightly veggie patch stuck somewhere in the yard, but a beautiful and central feature of your landscape.
Choose a Raised Bed Material That's Sustainable
I recommend considering only sustainably sourced materials for your garden, though this does add an extra challenge. If you're shopping for hardwood, try to source from trees that have been sustainably harvested and check to see if the miller replants trees after harvest. For steel or metal, ask how far the material has traveled and how the metal was excavated. For stone, choose materials that come naturally from your area, whenever possible.
Keep Your Budget in Mind When Selecting a Raised Bed Material
Affordability is probably on your mind, especially if you'd like to add several raised beds to your space. Cedar is an expensive wood, but it's generally the least expensive of the raised bed materials we recommend. Steel and metal gardens are next in affordability, while stone gardens, if installed with a cement footer, are the most expensive.
If you're not ready to commit to a full kitchen garden and want to grow in something a little less permanent (and cheaper) for a while, clay containers or fabric grow bags are safe and affordable options.
The Best Raised Bed Materials
Wood Is Often the Cheapest Raised Bed Material
Wood is the least expensive and most popular option for constructing your raised garden bed. As you can see in the chart above, wood ticks all the boxes.
Use untreated wood to ensure that chemicals aren't leaching into your soil (and therefore into the food you're going to eat). If you want to stain the outside, go with a high-quality, eco-friendly and weather-resistant stain. (Learn more about staining raised beds.)
Types of Wood to Use for Raised Beds
My favorite wood to use is cedar because it's an incredibly durable and attractive timber that will perform well for years to come. Other woods that don't decay or rot quickly include redwood, cypress, and hemlock. If you're keeping sustainability and durability in mind, then the best choice will depend on your geographic location, so look for locally sourced wood.
Tips for Buying Boards for Wooden Raised Beds
The Thicker the Board, the Greater the Durability
I recommend buying the thickest board you can afford, preferably at least two inches thick. You'll get more life out of your raised beds and be able to enjoy them for longer if you avoid the temptation of buying something only one inch or so thick.
Understand Lumber Measurements
The first number we use is the board's thickness in inches, the second number is the board's height in inches, and the final number is the board's length in feet. So a 2x6x8 is a piece of wood that's 2 inches thick, 6 inches high, and 8 feet long. Our ideal piece of wood, based on its availability, affordability, and durability, is a 2"x6"x8' cedar plank.
If you're building more than two garden beds, it might be worth it to seek out a local lumberyard. When you're purchasing wood, take the time to pull each board out and check it for discoloration or defects. Make sure each board is as straight as possible. These are natural products, and longer wooden boards tend to have a slight curve to them. If you're certain of the measurements for your raised garden beds, ask the store to cut the lumber for you.
Pro tip: Consider having your materials delivered to your home. Otherwise, make sure to check whether they'll fit in your vehicle before picking them up from the store. I once had a 12-foot-long cedar plank bust through the windshield of my minivan!
How to Build a Wooden Raised Bed
Check out the post below to find a shopping list and step-by-step directions to build your own raised bed. If you'd like to add trim to the top and edges of the bed, download our Complete Guide to Gardenary Raised Beds ebook for instructions.
If you'd prefer to have a kitchen garden company build the raised beds for you, search our business directory for a garden designer near you. You can also contract a local carpenter yourself.
Before you're tempted by a wooden raised garden bed kit you find online, check the thickness of the wood. The boards are often quite thin and won't last very long outdoors once they're filled with damp soil. If you can’t find the measurement for the thickness of the wood online, head to a local store instead so you can feel the material yourself.
Steel Is a Stylish and Sleek Raised Bed Material
You can't get much more durable or strong than steel; steel raised beds can last for decades if their exterior is treated with a rust protectant.
My favorite types of steel to use in garden designs are corten steel (pictured below and known for its stable weathered appearance) and powder-coated steel.
Pros of Steel Raised Beds
Here are some benefits of using steel as your bed material, if your budget allows:
- Steel beds have thin sides, and this small footprint allows you to maximize your growing area in a smaller space.
- Steel is made from mined iron and can be completely recycled.
- The soil in a steel garden will warm up faster than a wood bed in the spring.
- Steel is a food-safe material.
- Both corten and powder-coated beds can withstand corrosion and won't chip, crack, or peel.
- The color of powder-coated beds can be chosen to coordinate with existing materials on your home.
The Best Metal Raised Bed on a Budget
I love to repurpose water troughs or other containers made of stainless or galvanized steel as affordable raised beds that are great for small kitchen gardens. These beds make the perfect planters for salad plants and herbs. Get the steps to build your own raised bed on wheels.
Tips for Ordering a Steel Raised Bed
If you're going with steel, make sure you arrange for delivery. I've installed beds that were so heavy they took four (sometimes even six!) grown men to carry them off the truck and maneuver them into the yard. Many arrive pre-made, so measure the narrowest part of the path the bed will have to travel to ensure it will fit through.
Stone Is the Most Durable Raised Bed Material
Nothing beats stone for longevity and beauty when it comes to garden materials, no matter what type of temperature ranges, humidity, and water intake your bed will experience. Stone is also food-safe and can often be locally sourced. Stone is definitely an investment and might not fit all raised bed budgets. It's on my wish list for a garden someday!
(Learn more about the benefits of stone raised beds.)
Tips for Installing a Stone Raised Garden Bed
Though I have installed a few stone gardens by dry laying them (meaning the stone is not secured with cement but stacked on a sand foundation), the more durable design requires a cement footer under the stone beds. That's how you create a garden that will be here for generations to enjoy. I recommend hiring a garden designer or stonemason to help you install a stone raised bed if you plan on going above two bricks or stones tall.
Less permanent ways to use stone include dry stacking cement blocks, cement pavers, bricks, landscape stone, or natural rock or using minimal cement to hold them in place. If you're using cement, make sure to stack them on a level sand bed to ensure the stones don't crack as the ground shifts underneath.
What Not to Use for Your Raised Bed Material
The purpose of a raised-bed kitchen garden is to grow things that you'll actually eat. The last thing we want to do is nurture our edible plants in beds that are leaching synthetic or downright dangerous chemicals into our food.
One of the benefits of stone is that it doesn't emit chemicals or require any kind of stain or coating to maintain its appearance. Bricks and cinder blocks are also great, but make sure you use fresh materials. Never use anything you don't know the history of. Older materials can be dangerous for a number of reasons, from their manufacturing to their tendency to secrete carcinogens if they were ever burned.
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.
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.
Thanks for being here and helping us bring back the kitchen garden one raised bed at a time!
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.