Driving to work, I pass not only homes where backyard gardeners have staked their plots but also farmhouses that sit beside rolling acres of soybeans and corn. I look at all that land, and I picture people hard at work:
But there’s another picture being painted of how a farm or garden plot can look, and it doesn’t always involve digging into the ground or crouching over soil.
The Internet will tell you that raised garden beds are a recent trend. The Internet won’t be wrong. As popular as they’ve become, however, raised bed gardening is a technique that’s been used around the world for centuries.
One of the reasons it’s so popular is that there are so many ways to do it.
These days, the most common idea of a raised garden bed is one that involves a frame placed on top of the ground. This setup makes gardening easy and ideal for institutions like schools, community parks, and retirement homes.
A raised bed frame garden, also called a box garden, takes time and effort to establish. In fact, you might start working on your garden plot while other people are getting ready for the autumn harvest.
Your frame can be set up anywhere, even on top of a concrete patio. However, if you want to build your bed on top of a patch of grass or dirt, it’s recommended that you lay a sheet of cloth or plastic over your plot the autumn before the growing season. This will help kill any weeds or grass that could pop up and interfere with your garden.
The frame for your bed can be any length or width. A depth of six inches will provide adequate drainage for most plants, but frames anywhere from four to 12 inches deep are common. Frames can even be 18 to 24 inches deep or built on top of legs to make gardening easier for people who use wheelchairs, or other people with physical limitations who would benefit from adaptive gardening techniques.
A frame can be made from almost any material:
At the start of the growing season, build your frame on top of your plastic or cloth. Fill it with a soil mixture – the recommended blend is 60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10% potting soil.
Why would gardeners want to grow their crops on top of the ground?
The simple answer is that raised beds in frames help gardeners overcome some common obstacles or avoid common problems:
Raised beds in containers or frames allow people to garden in spaces where otherwise crops might not grow. For the gardener who has poorly drained soil or clay soil that’s too difficult to amend, a raised bed provides an alternative. It also can help with adaptive gardening by raising the level of the soil for people who otherwise wouldn’t be physically able to reach the ground.
By lifting the growing medium off the ground, raised beds bring the soil closer to people’s hands – and farther from their feet. Walking across a garden can compact the soil, which blocks root growth and reduces the movement of water and nutrients. Raised beds prevent this from happening (unless someone jumps onto the soil bed!).
Raised beds also extend the growing season. Ground soil is susceptible to cold temperatures in the winter and early spring, but the soil in a raised frame will warm sooner thanks to exposure to the sun and rising air temperatures.
For all their advantages, raised frame garden beds also come with some disadvantages that the savvy gardener should keep in mind:
The disadvantages are easy to work with as long as gardeners are diligent about establishing and maintaining their beds. The picture that raised frame beds creates is of a healthy collage of garden squares that make the most of limited space and allow people access to soil with less difficulty.
Raised frame beds have helped the adaptive gardening and urban agriculture movements grow in popularity. But for those who have the land space and quality soil for an in-ground garden or small farm, raised beds still can be an option.
Take another look at your mental picture of a farm or garden. Do you see rows dug parallel to each other, as if someone had run a giant rake along the soil’s surface from one end of the plot to the other?
Seeds can be planted in the valleys, or furrows, between those rows. However, gardeners who want to enjoy the perks of raised bed gardening without building or buying a frame can make raised beds out of the hilly rows of soil.
To be clear, a gardener or farmer also can create raised beds without frames simply by building piles of soil and compost on top of the ground. But because this is so often done using rows, this technique sometimes is referred to as raised row gardening or gardening with raised bed rows.
To create a raised row, combine soil and compost and heap the mixture into gently sloping hills about six inches above ground level. This can be done with hand tools such as rakes or spades, or it can be done with a tiller.
Using a tiller to build raised bed rows allows you to incorporate ground soil into your growing medium – a great choice if your ground soil is close to the loamy type of soil that’s not too dense and not too loose. Plus, using a hiller/furrower tool to build your sloped beds lets you dig deep channels for irrigation and drainage at the same time.
If raised beds built within frames make gardening so much easier for so many people, why create raised beds without frames directly on top of the ground?
As mentioned before, raised bed rows allow a gardener or farmer to make use of land and ground soil that already are excellent for growing crops. Once established, they also provide other benefits:
Another benefit is that raised bed rows can be used along with other in-ground growing techniques. A favorite is wide row gardening.
Imagine old-time images of a gardener or farmer walking along a row and planting seeds. In almost all those images, the seeds are planted one after another in a single-file line.
Wide row gardening challenges that picture. Instead of planting seeds single file in a row, the wide row gardener or farmer creates or marks out a row that’s one to three feet wide. The seeds are then scattered or sown across the entire width so that they grow in clusters.
Wide rows can be created with raised beds, which typically are built four to six inches high, or with flat rows. In the latter case, fast-growing seeds such as radish seeds are planted along the rows’ edges to mark each row’s location until the main crops sprout.
The reasons why this planting strategy is so successful are almost as broad as the rows themselves:
With wide rows, gardeners and farmers can achieve the large swaths of lush, green growth that they picture every time they sow their seeds.
There is no one definitive picture of how a farm or garden should look. People today prove this true with every urban rooftop farm or community garden they establish.
Because of the different ways to build a raised bed, raised bed planting contributes to the richness of this mosaic. No matter what kind of space you have available, raised beds can help you raise healthy crops and paint a vivid living picture, full and bright green.