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How to Make Raised Garden Beds – and Why You Should (or Shouldn’t!)

How to Build Raised Garden Beds

Raised garden beds are an extremely practical method of gardening in many circumstances. Raised beds can be built on top of asphalt, concrete or places where the soil contains poisons or is just impossibly stony.

  • Raised beds drain better
  • Soil in raised beds can be more easily customized to the plants you are growing
  • Soil doesn’t get compacted by being stepped on.
  • In cold climates, raised beds warm up sooner in the spring, allowing slightly earlier planting
  • In being raised up off the ground, raised garden beds are also slightly less prone to slugs and snails
  • They are also a convenient shape to cover for frost protection
  • If you are in a wheelchair or have back problems, then tall raised beds may make gardening possible

As you can see, there are quite a few advantages to building raised garden beds.

There are also some disadvantages, mainly due to the fact that they dry out more quickly: if you garden in a dry climate or have limited water available, then flat or even sunken beds may be a better choice for you.

What is a raised bed?

Raised beds consist of soil that is higher than the surrounding area, often but not always contained by wood or other material in a rectangular shape. The exact shape varies a great deal and might not be rectangular at all. The sides do not need to be wood: you could use stone, plastic, concrete blocks, straw bales or brick. A minimalistic take on raised beds just involves mounded soil a few inches high with no solid sides at all!

Building a raised garden bed

No Sides

The easiest method of building a raised bed is to pile soil up into an un-contained mound and plant into that. However, if you are using raised beds that aren’t contained, you’ll probably have to re-mound them whenever you replant, as they tend to un-mound themselves.

Straw Bale Sides

The next easiest and cheapest (depending on the cost of straw in your area) building method uses straw bales as sides for the raised bed. You should be aware that straw bales will decompose after a year or so – but that means they just turn into compost, making more soil for your beds! Straw bale sides also result in wide beds, so if you have limited space they may not be what you want.

Wood Sides

Permanent, contained raised beds may be more work and expense to build, but they cut down on work later and are more resistant to erosion. The most common material for permanent contained raised beds is wood, partly because wood is easier to work with than many materials and is relatively cheap.

To build a wooden raised bed, you’ll need lumber, nails, a saw if you want the bed to be a different shape or length than the lengths of wood you provide, and a hammer and basic skills with using these tools. Wooden raised beds don’t take much skill to build unless you want a bed that is a fancy shape. Wood will eventually decay, but you should get several years of use out of even the most rot-prone wood before that happens. If you choose pressure-treated wood, cedar, or other rot-resistant wood the beds will last longer.

Masonry Sides

Stone-sided raised bed for herb garden
Stone-sided raised bed for herbs

Stone, concrete or brick lasts longer than wood or straw bales, but unless you use natural stone already present in your garden, they require more in the way of skill in laying and money to invest in building your raised beds.

Location and width of raised garden beds

Whatever method you choose to build your raised bed, you should be careful to build it in such a way that you can reach all parts of it without getting into the raised bed. Stepping on the soil will compact it and remove one of the advantages of having a raised bed in the first place. Being able to reach everything easily is also easier on you physically and makes it less likely that parts of the bed will go untended. For most people, raised beds should not be more than four feet wide, and if you are short, make them narrower!

Also for easy access, raised beds should also have a pathway of at least two feet between them. Or you could use the width of your wheelbarrow as a measure.

As for where to put the beds, full sun is best for many plants, especially most vegetables. Partial shade will do for some plants, but if you put your raised garden in the shade it will strictly limit what you can grow there.