Last year I planned how I was going to grow my vegetables and herbs using a raised bed garden. I wanted to have raised garden beds that looked good since they would be visible from the street. I also wanted them to be durable and needed to be able to relocate the whole garden bed in a few years when a huge landscape redesign would be happening.
Choosing a Location for your Raised Beds.
The three main things plants need are the appropriate soil, the correct amount of sun, and water (just the right amount - not too much, not too little). Doesn't sound too complicated but it can be. Please know that having a raised bed isn't a necessity! People have been gardening in-ground for centuries! Plus, that's what the farmers do.
Why I chose to do raised beds.
I had three main reasons.
I have a huge walnut tree in my yard.
Many of my plants would not grow in my soil because of the chemical called juglone that walnut trees excrete. Tomatoes are one of the main plants I wanted to grow and they are the most affected.
Ease of gardening with elevated beds.
I'm getting older and raised beds are easier on your back and easier to maintain. Although my beds are only a foot high, it made a huge difference because I could sit and just reach over (not down) to plant, weed and harvest. Also, because I could control the soil I put in, it was way less weedy and not as dense as the soil in my area. It just made gardening so much easier, enjoyable and way less of a chore. Weeding was so much easier!!
They look nice!
I have to admit I spent way more money on raised beds than I would have if I would have just planted in the ground. I like my yard to look nice and orderly and my garden would be very visible from the street. I wanted it to look pretty!
How to determine how much sun a location has.
My home is 100 years old and I have some huge trees in my yard. That makes it very shady! I have followed the sun around my yard for a couple of years. This year was the first year that I thought I could have a good vegetable garden because I just a tree down. That spot would have the sun that I was lacking in other areas. When you are determining the hours of sun you have, keep in mind that in the spring it can seem like you have more. My trees fill in and all of a sudden where I had a whole day of sun, I had maybe an hour. In my opinion and experience, you want more than 6 hours to grow a healthy vegetable garden. Closer to 8 hours is better.
How do you track the hours of sunlight? I visually looked at when areas started getting sun and when areas stopped getting sun on a spreadsheet. There are gizmos online that you can buy but I haven't seen any I'd be willing to spend $20 on!
Here is the spot that I decided would be my garden. I had a maple tree there that had girdled roots and was dying. My choice was to make this into a nice lawn or a vegetable garden.
What I used for my raised beds.
I wanted to make my beds out of solid galvanized steel for longevity. I had looked into the huge troughs that farm supply stores and now hardware stores have. They were too bulky for me to get home, heavy and I would have had to drill many holes in them for drainage. I've used small troughs for planters in the past with success. But the big ones were expensive and I'd essentially be ruining them with the drainage holes. My other concern was I would need to move them in a few years and I couldn't imagine how heavy they would be with the dirt in them!
At Home Depot, right beside the galvanized farm water tanks were some solid campfire rings! They were much less expensive, solid, and would be so much more portable in the future. I bought 4 of them. What I liked about these ones is they had a rolled edge on the top so there was no chance of getting injured from them. They were roughly 12 inches high and had a diameter of about 3 feet. Full disclosure. They were about $65 each in the early spring and I saw the same ones last week in the $90's.
Alternatives and inexpensive raised garden bed ideas.
My raised bed gardens were a bigger expense than expected but I was investing long-term and knew I would be using these for many years. If just starting out and testing out your gardening interest, you could buy one raised bed to start. Many stores carry garden bed kits. Or you can even rig up a raised bed using pots. I essentially did that with my tomatoes because they would have used up too much room in my raised beds.
Do not use railroad ties!
Years ago, before I knew better, I created a raised flower bed that I was going to also put some veggies in. I loved the look of railway ties. DO NOT use these. There are so many chemicals including creosote and arsenic in them. The ties themselves were very hard to get rid of after I no longer wanted to use them. I didn't want to keep them. After all, I couldn't grow anything I would eat in or near them because I was afraid the chemicals would leach into the veggies and the ground.
I did consider using concrete blocks and may make a smaller bed or two with those next year. I think they would work well! They would be inexpensive and easy to use. You will have to consider a way of stabilizing the concrete blocks if going higher than a couple of layers (I wouldn't be). Be careful that you are not using old cinder blocks. They look the same but were made from fly ash which contained some nasty chemicals. Cinder blocks were made about 50 years ago.
DIY your own wooden raised garden beds.
I had the simplest wooden garden beds for a couple of years. They were just wooden boards cut to size and screwed together. Essentially just a wooden frame. But, that was in the days when lumber was much cheaper. If going this route, do buy rot-resistant wood like cedar. My preference is also untreated wood. Use deck screws to attach your wood together. If going higher than roughly a foot, make sure to research and follow a plan so your frame stays stable.
Buy a kit
I even saw kits at Costco this year. Amazon certainly has many. If you are a beginning gardener, I suggest looking up square foot gardening. It will teach you how to allocate space to certain plants. I don't think it's a perfect system but that's a personal preference. It certainly is a great way to start!
You can also buy containerized raised beds to place on patios. These are elevated waist-high raised beds that you can grow plants in. The point of these is to be able to stand when gardening.
How to fill your raised garden beds with soil.
Be prepared to be surprised at how much soil you need! Layering other natural gardening/growing items to help fill your bed is a great idea. It saves money and as things lower in the bed decompose, they become amendments to your soil. Yeah, free compost!
I put cardboard on the bottom. This had a dual purpose because it would decompose and smother any grass or weeds where I put my beds.
After the cardboard, I put in some ground-up chips from what was my maple tree. That was to help make sure all my beds were flat at ground level to start with and that the bottom didn't have holes that critters could crawl into. I started the filling process about a month before it was planting time so I had time to fill the bed with things from my yard. I had a pile of cut up branches that I cut into smaller pieces and added a layer of. I also added grass clippings and some of my spring cleanup from my yard. One thing I was very careful of was that I did NOT put anything in from my walnut tree. Walnut trees excrete juglone which prevents many plants from growing (tomatoes for example don't do well near walnut trees).
I purchased a variety of bagged soil and mixed them well as the top ½ layer. I used raised bed soil, some in-ground soil, and potting soil. Do not use only ground soil because it is too dense for a raised bed. I used it but mixed in potting soil to loosen it. I also added some bagged compost into each bed and mixed it in well. As I was layering, I also occasionally threw in a couple of shovels of chipped wood (untreated and not dyed). I don't have an exact soil mix recipe since I used what I had and what was on sale.
What to grow in your raised garden beds.
There is no limit to what you can grow. I have four raised beds and here is what I did!
My Herb bed
I love cooking with herbs and have started preserving herbs. There is nothing more satisfying than preparing and eating what you grow.
My herb planter has dill, basil, rosemary, parsley thyme, and sage in it. It's full and I love it!
My Bean bed
I planted bush beans in one bed. It was great for having fresh beans for dinner and even a few to freeze. I found garden fresh beans were delicious enough to eat raw (with a little salad dressing as a dip). As the summer went on, I started using about ¼ of this bed as a plant nursery for some flower cuttings etc. Once the beans stopped producing and I pulled out the plants, I planted a second batch and am waiting for my next crop of beans to mature in early fall. As long as the weather stays warm and there is no frost, I'll be eating fresh beans again in a few weeks (This post was written in early September)!
Peas and cucumbers
I put a trellis in a couple of my raised beds. I planted peas in the spring since they are a cold crop. On the other side of the same trellis, I planted cucumbers. This was a bit of an experiment and it worked perfectly. The peas grew great in the cooler weather. I started cucumber seeds inside and when it was warm enough to plant them, I did. They started to grow up the trellis right about when the peas were done. I'm doing this again. Having cucumbers grow up the trellis made them easier to access and also contained this viny plant.
Pumpkins, gourds, and squash
If you have ever grown pumpkins and squash, you know they take up a lot of space. The pumpkin vines seem to grow a couple of feet overnight sometimes. It's crazy to watch! What I did was plant the seedlings (I started from seed with heat mats and grow lights) in the raised garden and let the plant drape over the sides and spread on the ground. The ground around my raised beds has a thick layer of maple wood chips from when my tree and the roots were ground up. This gave the plant great soil to grow in and lots of space to expand. These plants are crazy and all over the place now. I think I will try to have a bed specific to these plants a little further from my other veggies next year. Gardening is often learning by doing and I need to either plant way less of these or move them. I LOVE my homegrown pumpkins because I plant and grow bigger ones.
I almost forgot to tell you how I grew my tomatoes! I started the plants indoors and they got big. I planted them in buckets that I had. My one son made fun of my kitty litter buckets holding the tomato plants. So, I spray-painted them brown and they looked much better!
And of course, I also added a raised bed of flowers. I was so lucky to be able to buy an inexpensive antique wash tub for this!
One of my first crops that I harvested were radishes! I put them in my bean bed before the weather was warm enough for beans. Here is how I grew them and a quick recipe to use them.
I grew tons of basil last year. Here is how I grew it from seed and then dried some and froze some to use later
Love the flower planter? I LOVE creating planters. Here is a post with lots of flower container ideas!
Hope this article and some of my other articles are helpful and inspiring to you! Please do feel welcome to look around my site for other things that may interest you!