Want to raise the stakes on your next gardening project? Raised-bed gardening is an opportunity for the home gardener to grow their own produce in a small space. Raised beds can have a part in your gardening plan whether you’re working on a wide open space in the Midwest or on an urban rooftop. They make it possible to garden in areas that are sandy, have poor soil conditions or are rocky; and they also drain extremely well, making them excellent candidates for automated irrigation systems. Here’s how to get started on building your own raised bed garden.
There are a lot of compelling reasons to consider building a raised-bed garden. Kelly McGlinchey runs Table and Tilth, a consulting business focusing on green design and urban agriculture. She also tends to her own Manhattan rooftop garden that features raised beds. “From concrete patios to urban rooftops, raised-bed gardening presents an opportunity to create productive, beautiful spaces in places that might not normally come to mind as having garden potential,” McGlinchey told The Active Times in an email.
When considering a raised-bed garden, or really any garden, location is critical. When planning for a raised garden, you want to find a level spot that gets lots of sunlight. Any significant slope is going to complicate water management. It’s okay if your property is hilly; just make sure the bed itself ends up being level. If you’re thinking of making more than one garden, leave enough room between them so that they’re easy to go for a walk through.
Then consider the shape and materials your garden will be made out of. Raised bed gardens can be made out of almost anything, from your typical lumber to brick or even old barrels. Untreated lumber usually works for longer, lower beds, since it won’t leach weather treatment into the soil. Taller beds might be better contained with brick, concrete blocks, or metal. Taller beds are great for root crops and active older people that might want to sit on the wall while they tend the garden.
Generally beds shouldn’t be wider than four feet so that you can reach the middle from all sides, but they can be as long as you want. Some people also use a “keyhole” design with space in the middle and the bed surrounding the space.
Before building your bed, clear the area that the bed will cover of any grass, weeds or large rocks. In places with burrowing rodent problems, you should staple chicken wire or fencing on the bottom of the frame. To build the walls of your garden, you can follow a guide online specific to the material you’re planning to use. Once you have your frame built, it’s time to set up your irrigation system if you’re going to use one.
Raised beds are great for automated irrigation systems because they dry quickly. Soil is heated from all sides and if the walls of the bed are wood the water can also evaporate through the walls. This is great because it keeps most plants from getting waterlogged, but also requires some diligent watering. But the enclosed nature of the beds means you can pipe in water from your tap or a rain barrel a few inches below the surface of the soil and control when your plants get watered with a timer. That way your plants can get the perfect amount of water without you having to lift a finger.
The soil you use may be the most important part of your raised bed. Every gardener has their secret formula to a perfect soil mix, and you’ll have to find your own based on your environment, what kind of plants you’re growing and what materials you have easy access to. “Similar to container gardening with pots, making sure your raised bed boasts healthy soil - rich in minerals, organic matter, and microorganisms - is critical for plants to prosper,” McGlinchey said. “The quality of your soil will dictate the health of your garden, and with raised beds gardeners have a unique opportunity to customize their soil mix based on what they plan to grow.”
After you’ve filled your beds with soil you can start looking at getting some seeds. “In a raised bed, home gardeners may want to consider high yield plants like herbs, lettuces, and other greens that will have multiple harvests in a growing season,” McGlinchey said. “By adding a simple trellis or stakes, tomatoes also make a great choice for raised beds, both in terms of productivity and snackability.” McGlinchey also noted that looking at a companion planting guide can give you an idea of what plants go well together in terms of pollination, nutrient needs, and fighting off pests. For creative planting ideas, here are plants and flowers you didn’t know you could eat.