Raised bed gardens have their supporters, that’s for sure. Here’s the deal from my point of view gathered over 30 years in the nursery industry. I’m not going to sugar-coat this article because I know there are a lot of folks who really think raised beds are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In many ways, raised beds are simply big container gardens.
I think it depends on your gardening style and garden. Here’s my experience with this style of gardening. You can either make raised garden beds by mounding up soil or by constructing boxes (of almost any material) and then filling the boxes with soil.
These are however essentially two distinct ways of gardening and I’ll try to explain this below.
Our raised vegetable bed – I built it because we only had 3-inches of soil over shale rock. The overhead supports help hold the sides upright (the weight of the soil bowed them out) and used for growing tomatoes and other vertical gardening crops.
The Advantages of Raised Beds
- The soil warms up faster in the spring. It’s above ground level so the sun gets to work on it from the top and the sides.
- They are closer to the gardener. Which is just another way of saying the gardener doesn’t have to bend down as far to reach the plants. 🙂
- Superb for differently-enabled gardeners who may not be able to bend or kneel comfortably. Wide rows between the beds enable wheelchair access.
- A good raised bed can act as a garden when you don’t have enough soil (like my garden).
Disadvantages of Raised Beds
- They use more water than soil-level beds.
- Large (taller) beds act more like containers than garden beds so you have to modify the soils and watch your fertility if you are going to have truly wonderful gardens.
- Can’t be walked on or if too high, over top of (you have to walk around them and this gives me more grief than any other characteristic of them – from a practical point of view in my large garden.)
- You can’t use machinery such as rototillers to till or modify soil – it’s all hand-work. On small beds, this isn’t an issue but when I tried to make permanent large beds in the old farm vegetable garden (a very large one) then it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to do a lot of digging.
- Mulch is tricky to keep on top of raised beds. It seems to migrate to the sides of the beds.
- Expensive. I have to raise my garden beds because I have very little soil and this means the costs of 6×6 beams and the extra costs of fill and topsoil to fill up these beds.
- In-ground raised beds (where you use a hoe or rake to create raised beds in a regular soil garden) are more work every year and this extra work isn’t worth it if you mulch heavily for weed control (heavy mulching will slow down the heating and reduce the main reason for using these raised beds.
- Perennials and woody plants might have trouble overwintering depending on the nature of climate and the size of the raised bed (bigger beds make it easier for plants to survive).
- You’ll still get weeds and they’ll grow in the rows as well so your weeding isn’t reduced.
The Answer to the Question…
Should you use raised bed gardening techniques? It depends.
I use them because I don’t have much soil where I want to garden and my raised beds help me create the necessary depth.
Are you prepared to use the increased amount of water they require? Any time you raise soil above the ground level, gravity will suck water downwards to the normal below-soil-level mark.
Do you want extra early crops of vegetables? Raised bed gardening is one answer for you and combined with other early cropping techniques can really make your vegetable garden come alive earlier in the spring.
Do you have physical challenges? Then custom building raised beds may be the answer.
Are you concerned about the high heat of summer? Then raised beds might not be the answer as the soil temperatures can get too hot for good growth of some plants. For example – high heat will make vegetables such as lettuce quite bitter.
I wrote an ebook about Raised Bed Gardening right here
Raised beds will be useful for some folks for the reasons above. But they’re not a panacea. They don’t provide any form of garden advantage other than a physical one and/or an early crop. You can find supplies (e.g. corner brackets etc) and other ideas here.
8 thoughts on “Advantages and Disadvantages of Raised Bed Gardens”
All good points. There seems to be a neatness factor, a further extension of the interior of a home into the garden.
in my opinion, small raised beds for the elderly, people with back or mobility challenges and those in wheelchairs will greatly benefit from raised beds for flowers or veggies. The ease of “not stretching too much” raised gardens can be enjoyed for many years.
I have to have raised beds where I live now because we have so many gophers. The beds were built with wire mesh on the bottom.
I actually think they are more work because I still have weeds everywhere and I can’t use a rotoriller. I put down a weed barrier and then gravel between the beds but the weeds wove thru the weed barrier fabric where it overlappeds by a foot. Now I have to remove the gravel and fabric to weed. It also seemed to force the crab grass weeds to grow into the garden boxes to get to the water. I was told to use Roundup first but I didn’t want poisons in my organic garden.
OK, my guess is the wire mesh on the bottom doesn’t stop any gopher or rabbit. They tend to eat on top of the soil rather than burrow up from underneath. So that only makes the digging harder. As for the landscape fabric, I’ve written about then and put videos up about them saying they’re a pain in the anatomy in the garden and simply do not work. But the marketers make such lovely promises…. As I said in the article, raised beds have their place but…
Good morning Doug,
Have raised beds and don’t care for them. I have problems walking so thought they’d be more convenient. Raised beds are more of a pain in the asteric for me than regular beds because of the extra water, overheating and weeding. I’d far rather have to sit on my asteric while gardening!! Thank you Doug for this greatly informative article! Have a wonderful day!
Glad it helped in a small way (if only to say it’s OK to rip them out) 🙂
I have 32 black walnut trees on my property, because of their toxic juglone that leaches into the soil I use raised beds to have great success with vegetable gardening. The gardening fabric and steel mess on the bottom has kept all critters out for 7 years now. I maintain soil with compost and manure, turning in by hand. Love raised beds!
That’s a perfect reason to use raised beds.