Raised beds aren’t a new idea, yet they continue to be a hotly contested item of debate amongst gardeners. Hearkening back to 300 BC when the pre-Hispanic peoples of the Andes used them to prevent erosion (in a system called waru waru), raised beds still have a dedicated fan base. And there are good reasons for their popularity.
A raised bed, by definition, is a garden bed that is built up instead of down, into a position that solves all manner of gardening challenges. You can create raised beds simply by heaping soil up into a pile, or by using boxes to enclose and contain garden soil. Garden boxes are often synonymous with raised beds because some retaining wall or material almost always has to be used in order to maintain the integrity of the bed over time.
- How to Build a Raised Garden Bed
- Where to Buy Raised Garden Beds and Raised Bed Components
However you define them, raised garden beds offer benefits to all types of gardeners. Here are just 10 of the many reasons to use raised beds:
1. No tilling is better for the soil
A raised bed is really a way of setting up your soil for the easiest possible gardening—the ‘no work’ kind. Instead of tilling up the soil from year to year to add fertilizer and amendments, gardeners usually maintain their raised beds by simply adding materials on top.
Compost, mulches, manures and other soil conditioners can all go directly onto the top few inches of the soil without the need for backbreaking work. And, the soil is capable of doing its own tilling as worms and roots push their way through. While regular tilling by human hands tends to deplete the soil structure, doing nothing builds up the organic component of your soil over time.
2. Your back will thank you
It’s surprising how much back and knee strain can happen just by weeding a garden, especially a large one, and this can take a serious toll over time. A raised bed, especially ones that are at least 12″ tall, can resolve debilitating back and joint pain. Even young people who are interested in farming as a career option should consider the potential damage to your back that organic farming can do through hand weeding. Consider raised beds as an investment in your health.
3. Raised beds look nicer
This may seem like pure vanity, but having nicer beds can have a practical purpose. In the city, especially if you are trying to get away with a front yard vegetable garden, a raised bed could be a necessity for keeping neighbors happy. Raised beds also make pathways just a little bit easier to maintain because there’s a definitive line between the bed and the path.
4. Raised beds help keep out critters
Slugs can climb, but the tall sides of a raised garden box slow them down and provide an opportunity to stop them in their tracks. Many gardeners swear that slugs won’t crawl over copper flashing, which can border your box. You can also install hardware cloth on the bottom of the box to stop crawling critters like groundhogs from stealing root crops. And, because of their height, dogs are less likely to urinate directly on your plants. If deer are a problem, you can add deer fencing directly to your bed, or purchase a box with a built-in deer fence. It’s also much easier to add plastic hoops to raised garden beds for bird barriers, cold frames, or row covers.
6. You will have fewer weeds and crab grass
Tilling actually creates more weeds by burying weed seeds and giving them the perfect opportunity to propagate. Successful raised bed growers swear by covering their beds with mulch, cardboard, or black plastic in the spring to kill all the plants that grew up in the winter. When it’s time to start planting again, simply rake off the dead weeds before they have a chance to go to seed. One of the most effective ways to battle crab grass is with a raised bed. Install a weed barrier on the bottom of beds at least 10″ high to stop the grass from infiltrating.
7. You can plant raised beds earlier in the season
Largely attributed to better drainage in the soil, early planting in raised beds is possible because the soil dries out faster in the spring and warms more quickly for planting than soil at ground level. Many gardeners also find a surprising number of plants have overwintered in a raised bed which shouldn’t have been able to. Again, much of this has to do with the type of soil in the bed. If untilled and fortified with compost, your soil will regulate temperatures better than disturbed, nutrient-poor soil.
8. Raised beds can be temporary
Renters who ache to have a garden should start the discussion with their landlord by showing them a nice photo of a raised bed. A neat, tidy and properly built garden box can enhance property values and be a feature instead of an eyesore. If the landlord still says no, a temporary garden can be built by using a removable garden box. The box is simply set on the ground, cardboard is placed over the grass inside, and the box is filled with soil. When you move, take the box with you, spread out the soil, and throw down grass seed again.
9. Raised beds avoid contaminated soil
Urban gardeners are at a higher risk of ingesting heavy metals, including lead. Many different vegetables, especially roots, tomatoes and greens, absorb heavy metals from contaminated soils and can cause a real threat. Positioning beds away from the road, researching past uses of your land, and planting thick hedges can all help, but raised beds provide the unique opportunity to bring in new soil that hasn’t been subjected to whatever toxicity may be on site. Toxicity is also greatly reduced by adding compost, diluting the concentrations of contamination from year to year and binding heavy metals to soil particles (just another miraculous use for compost!).
10. Raised beds are great for beginners
Raised beds provide an easy way to start gardening by removing many barriers for beginners. They take a little bit more investment up front, but in many ways guarantee success in the first year. Add a box, some soil, some compost, some seeds, some water, and something will grow. “Row crows” can’t boast the same success: till, fertilize, till again, seed, weed, weed some more… the process isn’t as clear as the path the raised bed provides.
Have you found success with raised garden beds? Comment below or share your photos by tagging @eartheasy or using #GoEartheasy.
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About the Author
Nicole Faires is an urban farmer and best-selling author of books on sustainable agriculture and food policy. Originally from Montana, she now lives with her family on the West Coast. Find out more at deliberatelife.ca or connect with her on LinkedIn.