How to Start a Raised Bed Garden
Have you been dreaming of gardening but something about traditional, in-ground planting keeps stopping you? Elevate your garden goals with some raised beds!
Perhaps you only have a small porch and need a self-contained garden, or your property’s native soil can’t keep anything alive. Whatever factor is pushing you to start an above-ground garden, it’s an easy way to grow and offers many benefits over in-ground planting.
Gather the Right Materials
Every garden is different, but you will need at least some of the items below to start a new raised bed garden. The assumption here is that you will find an "off the shelf" product as opposed to building your own.
- Raised bed and the tools need for its assembly
- Raised bed liner (usually landscaping fabric)
- Topsoil, compost, and potting soil
- Seeds and/or seedlings
- Gardening gloves
- Potting trowel
- Optional: drainage fabric and rocks/gravel (for gardening on hard surface)
- Optional: Raised bed cover
- Optional: self-watering kit
- Optional: trellises, grow cages, and other vertical supports
Decide on the Type of Garden You Want
There’s a good chance you already have this figured out! Whether you want to grow food, herbs, flowers, or all of them, raised beds support almost every type of crop. You’ll be the most successful with plants that are native to your area or fit within the climate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online map is helpful for identifying the best plants for your region.
Some tips to help you decide what to plant:
- Most gardeners limit their raised beds to annuals only.
- Plants in raised beds can be placed closer together than in-ground gardens because you don’t need walking space between rows. Maximize your garden by planting lots of crops!
- Grow plants with the same needs (water, soil, and sun) in the same bed.
- Layout matters: place tall plants in the center of the bed so you’re not reaching through them constantly. Line the edges of the bed with your smallest plants for easy harvesting.
- Flowers and veggies can be grown together and provide mutual benefits.
- Flowers like bee balm and lavender can be planted along the border of the bed to attract pollinators and create a healthy garden. Pest repellents like marigolds are helpful for keeping other bugs away.
Choose Your Raised Bed(s)
Once you’ve decided what you’re planting, it’s time to pick the right raised bed! Not all raised beds are created equal, so it’s important to weigh the various factors:
- Height: Most beds are 12-18” tall but even 6” can still be productive. If you want the raised bed to be an ergonomic gardening solution, make sure it’s the right height for your neck and back.
- Width: You don’t want to step into the raised bed to weed, plant, or water your crops, so be mindful of how far your arms can reach. Most gardeners prefer a maximum of 4’ wide beds, which gives enough space in between rows without being too wide to maintain.
- Material: Cedar wood is standard because it’s naturally rot-resistant. Metal, powder-coated steel, and heavy gauge plastic are also popular. If you’re growing food, it’s crucial to make sure the material is safe.
- Shape: There are countless designs and shapes that raised beds come in, and the options are even greater if you’re building your own. Tiered or terraced raised beds are popular because they maximize gardening space with different soil depths and add something special aesthetically.
- Location: Raised beds planted on the ground don’t restrict roots, so you can grow just about anything in these. If you’re hoping to put the raised bed on a deck or hard surface, the roots can only grow as deep as the bed, so taller beds are the safest option.
The raised beds we offer from FrameItAll are made from food-safe recycled plastic and sustainable hardwood fibers. They can hold fences, trellises, or greenhouses and their stake-in-stake design enables stacking of multiple beds.
Alternatively, Vego Garden’s galvanized steel raised beds provide extreme corrosion resistance and are eco-friendly options. Their modular design allows for up to 10-in-1 different configurations to fit any property.
Pick a Location
You don’t need much space for a raised bed garden, but you do need plenty of sun. Most plants thrive with at least 6-8 hours of sun and it’s best to put the bed in a sunny spot. Some plants love shade, so pick a less sunny area for these.
The garden land should be level. If you have hilly terrain, dig to even it out. Don’t put it where there’s a risk of pooled-up water or rain runoff. Even though raised beds are elevated, collected water can seep up and drown the plants.
Always keep in mind unwelcome nibblers like deer, rabbits, or racoons. We recommend planting the bed near your house to discourage furry visitors. You might want to add a fence around the bed if animals become problematic.
It’s best to put the bed near a hose or rain barrel for ease of watering. It can be a hassle to lug the hose back and forth if the bed is too far away. You’ll also be less likely to spend time relaxing in the garden if it’s across your property!
Prepare the Garden Site
Maybe you’re blessed with even, bare terrain just waiting for a raised bed garden. But most people aren’t! It’s generally not a good idea to put a raised bed directly on top of grass because it can continue to grow up into the bed.
There are several ways to remove grass, weeds, and other debris. Each comes with pros and cons (depending on your property type, goals, and budget) so be sure to read more about all methods before deciding:
- Digging out the grass is the simplest but most labor-intensive method. Use a shovel to dig as deep as the roots go and pull up chunks of grass. Then use a pitchfork to remove the soil from the roots, put the soil back, and add the roots/grass to your compost pile.
- Solarizing or smothering kills grass and weeds using the sun’s heat. Cover the area with plastic, cardboard, or black and white newspaper and wait 4-8 weeks. The heat from the sun combined with the lack of light will kill anything underneath this cover.
- Sod cutting removes a strip of grass with the roots and soil attached. You can reuse the sod in another area where you want grass to grow.
- Don’t use topical lawn/weed killing products because they remain in the soil and will hurt your garden. Always think twice before resorting to chemical shortcuts!
Install the Raised Bed
Setting up the bed can be a quick process if you’re using a tool-free raised bed or more time-consuming if you’re building your own. We recommend the modular raised beds from Frame It All, which are tool-free kits that come with everything you need for simple installation.
After the raised bed is in place, line the bottom of the bed with landscape fabric, builder’s paper, or another type of weed blocker. This protects the garden from pests and keeps weeds/grass at bay. Fasten fabric pegs around the inside edges of the bed to help the fabric stay in place.
If you’re installing the raised bed on a deck or other solid surface, line the bottom of the bed with drainage fabric and rocks/gravel to avoid leaks and stains.
Add the Soil
Once the liner is in place, pour in the soil. Just like in-ground growing, the secret to successful raised bed gardening is in the soil. The upfront advantage of raised beds is you can pick the right soil for the plants you intend to grow instead of using whatever is native to your yard.
For the majority of raised beds, the best combination is 70% topsoil and 30% compost. If you’re worried about the topsoil not being high enough quality, decrease this to 60% and add in 10% potting soil. If you don’t have access to quality topsoil, switch to a 50/50 blend of potting soil and compost.
Plant Your Seeds or Potted Seedlings
It’s time for the best part! Add plants or seeds to the soil mixture far enough apart that they have room to grow. There are different planting techniques for every type, so follow the instructions on your seed packets, call the nearby nursery, or ask your green-thumbed neighbors. If you’re planting seeds, we recommend making a seed-starting schedule to avoid frost and keep everything on track.
Whether you start with seeds or plants, it’s crucial to keep them moist during their early days. Water is essential as seeds germinate and plants take root.
Add Nutrients and Accessories During the Season
Raised bed soil is fluffier than in-ground soil, so roots spread further and absorb nutrients quicker. To keep the soil fertile, mix in granular garden fertilizer throughout the season. Avoid fertilizers not labeled for produce because these can contain nutrients that boost foliage but reduce the size of the crop.
The soil is likely to dry out during the season without surface protection. Mulch should be spread over the soil to keep it cool, limit evaporation, and block weeds.
As the plants grow, add a grow cage, trellis, or other vertical support. These also enhance your garden’s aesthetic and create privacy barriers from neighbors!
Winterize Your Raised Bed
One of the best parts of raised bed gardening is you can keep it all contained through winter. At the end of the season, harvest your crops and remove other plant debris/roots. Keep the soil in the bed and reuse it next season – just add a layer of organic mulch and cover the bed until you’re ready to plant.
When you’re preparing to start your garden up again, revitalize the soil with fresh compost/fertilizer and turn it to keep it active. Then you can get planting as soon as the frost is over!
As you use your new raised bed(s) you'll find that many traditional gardening tools and accessories come in handy. Portable tiller/cultivators are easy to use in raised beds for preparing seedbeds for planting. You may find that you want to customize a watering system with selected watering and irrigation tools. And be sure to check out our selection of garden tools, growing supplies and pots and planters. We add to our selection frequently, so check back or sign up here and we'll alert you to new products as they become available. Happy gardening!
Last updated: 6/22/2022