A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Raised Bed Garden

If you are new to gardening and want a quick, easy start, then raised beds might just be your best path forward. Installing beds that sit above the soil of your backyard is like gardening in containers. Both methods give you more control over the quality of your growing medium. That is important when you are uncertain about the health – or even toxicity – of the soil.

Experienced gardeners will tell you that raised beds are a kind of shortcut to productive gardening. In fact, the clues to the appropriate use of raised beds are to be found in the practical advantages they promise.

Installing beds that sit above the soil of your backyard is like gardening in containers.
Installing beds that sit above the soil of your backyard is like gardening in containers.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised beds allow greater yields while requiring less maintenance. You can set plants closer together in raised beds. That means every square inch is productive, leaving little room for weeds to grow. When weeds do grow, they are easier to spot and pull from the loose soil.

Below are pointers on starting a raised bed garden in your backyard.

Selecting a Location

When selecting a location for your raised beds, pay close attention to the amount of sunlight the site receives. Be sure to position your raised beds in such a way that affords maximum sunlight for your plants. Most vegetables require exposure to six hours of sunshine a day.

Beyond that, take care to position your plants accordingly within a raised bed. Be aware of which direction the midday sun is in and consider how tall plants might shade others. Tomatoes, eggplants, chiles, and herbs like oregano and basil will flourish in the sunniest parts of the bed. Meanwhile, plants like lettuce or cilantro will do better in shady placements.   

Be sure to position your raised beds in such a way that affords maximum sunlight for your plants.
Be sure to position your raised beds in such a way that affords maximum sunlight for your plants.
(Photo: Aka Hilge/Flickr)

Considering the Water Supply

You need to plan how you will supply your raised bed with water. If you do not plan for irrigation when you build your raised bed, you will need to water your plants manually, using an old-fashioned watering can or a long hose. Many still choose to water their gardens this way as it is both cheap and effective.

Be that as it may, hauling water can be a particularly tiresome chore. This is especially true on hot days when your plants may need water the most. Consider establishing a rainwater barrel close to your raised bed garden for the sake of convenience.

Consider establishing a rainwater barrel close to your raised bed garden.
Consider establishing a rainwater barrel close to your raised bed garden.

Planning Access Paths

Your beds should be separated by access paths. These should be at least two feet wide to accommodate a comfortable position for weeding and harvesting. Leave the paths to grass if they can be easily mowed. Otherwise, you can opt for a low-maintenance solution, spreading a mulch of wood chips over cardboard along the paths.

Your beds should be separated by access paths.
Your beds should be separated by access paths.

Preparing the Site

If you’re planning to build your raised bed in a space currently occupied by a lawn, simply lay a sheet of cardboard over the site. This will gradually extinguish the section of lawn underneath, making it easier to remove the grass after a few weeks. 

Before you establish the beds, break up and loosen the soil underneath with a garden fork. Go about 6 to 8 inches deep, smashing any clumped or compacted soil along the way. For improved rooting, some gardeners like to remove the top layer, dig down another layer, and then return the soil layers together into the trench.

Before you establish the beds, break up and loosen the soil underneath with a garden fork.
Before you establish the beds, break up and loosen the soil underneath with a garden fork.

Building a Simple Raised Bed

Once you have cleared the area, it’s time to turn to the task of building the raised beds themselves. Experts will suggest a number of ways to build a raised bed, but below are some basic building instructions.

Begin by taking a roll of string and some wooden stakes and laying out the beds. Make them as long as you want, but no wider than four feet. Limiting the width ensures that you can reach the interior of the beds without having to step inside, keeping the soil light, loose, and untrampled.

Build the sides of the beds out of stones, bricks, or rot-resistant lumber. Secure the parapets with rust-proof hardware and stakes. Do not use pressure-treated wood. These can contain harmful chemicals. The walls should be about six to eight inches high, or taller if you want to keep the plants’ roots from reaching the original soil.

Limiting the width of the bed ensures that you can reach the interior without having to step inside.
Limiting the width of the bed ensures that you can reach the interior without having to step inside.

Choosing the Growing Medium

Many types of soil combinations prove useful in raised beds. Some, however, are not suited to for raised bed gardening at all. For instance, do not use commercial potting soil unless your raised bed sits on a concrete patio or gravel – where it is more like a container. 

For the most part, you need more substance than what potting soil can provide for a productive raised bed garden. For best results, fill the beds with clean topsoil, commercial raised bed soil mix, compost, and other organic material.

You need more substance than what potting soil can provide for a productive raised bed garden.
You need more substance than what potting soil can provide for a productive raised bed garden.

Mulching Your Raised Beds

Mulching your raised beds will not only deter weeds, but it will also protect the soil from erosion from the wind and regular watering. Mulch will permit your growing medium to retain moisture, which means you will need less water to maintain your garden. The protection offered by mulch likewise regulates soil temperature, which is important in the middle of a dry summer.

Mulch will permit your growing medium to retain moisture, which means you will need less water to maintain your garden.
Mulch will permit your growing medium to retain moisture, which means you will need less water to maintain your garden.

Gardening on Raised Beds

Raised beds can be as humble or elaborate and creative as you like. Your raised bed planter can be a permanent fixture for perennial plants or a simple, temporary structure for this year’s crop. Either way, building a raised bed will entail an initial investment. Once in place, however, raised beds are no more expensive to maintain than traditional gardens.

If you have reason to be worried about soil toxicity, contact a cooperative extension agent about getting the soil tested. Raising the level of your planting area may be enough to remedy the problem. But if the soil is contaminated, it is safer to have the top layer removed.

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