Raised Garden Beds: Pros and Cons

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Raised bed gardening. The envy of some gardeners, the misery of others. When I first started a vegetable garden, I had a traditional garden in the ground. Secretly though, I coveted raised beds for the delineation, the defined pathways. The paths that wouldn’t need weeding. The raised garden beds that would require less effort and more admiration. 

Or so I thought. 

Today I am going to talk about building raised garden beds and why I removed them last year. Plus, I’m going to share why I won’t go back to them! I’m going to let you in on insider tips. Tips I wish I had been privy to before spending time and a lot of money on raised garden beds. Join me as I take a deep dive into raised bed vegetable gardening. The good, the bad and the frustrating. Without further ado, raised garden beds: pros and cons.

 Building Raised Garden Beds

After several years of gardening, my husband and I finally had the extra money to upgrade my vegetable garden. We installed a new fence and gate and commenced to building raised garden beds. I was beyond excited. In my mind, building these raised garden beds were the holy grail of gardening.

My main vegetable garden is approximately 30’X40′. When we laid out the raised beds in my garden, we decided to leave a main path directly down the center. This path was just wide enough to get a wheelbarrow and push mower down it. This is super important to plan for! You know, clean lines, nice path. That sort of thing.

First, ten 4’X12′ raised beds were constructed. We used treated lumber and deck screws to construct the boxes. Then, five boxes were positioned on each side of the garden. Each box had an approximate 24″ walk path in between them. Again, this allowed for a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower to keep things tidy. 

Keep in mind, there are literally countless ways on how to build a raised garden bed. As long as the material you are using keeps dirt in and raised off the ground, you have a raised garden bed.

Rocks and upcycled bee boxes create a raised bed garden to hold lettuce, peas and carrots.
Part of the my children’s raised bed garden uses rocks and old beehive boxes.

What Comes Next Requires Muscle

First, newspaper and cardboard were used to line the raised garden boxes. This method helps to snuff out the grass and weeds on the ground. Next, we brought in a lot fill dirt. I then added organic matter like leaves and compost to the soil and turned that all over with my hand tools. Think, hoe, shovel and garden rake. That’s right, it was straight out of 1870, working those boxes. 

With a cocky smirk, I finally planted my seeds and dutifully watered my masterpiece. Then I sat back and admired all of the hard work.

I was beyond excited for this growing season. It was going to be my best season yet!

What Went Wrong?

What went wrong? Oh, let me count the ways! First, let’s back up and unpack a few things from the previous paragraph. We brought in a lot of fill dirt. Guess how that fill dirt got in the raised garden beds? With a shovel. And my arms. And my husband’s back. Possibly a few swears, too.

Next, I worked those raised garden beds with hand tools. Did that part strike you as odd? Yea, it was odd for me too when I realized my rototiller would no longer have a purpose in my vegetable garden. Why you ask? Because it wouldn’t safely fit in the raised garden beds! That’s right.

Here’s what happened: My husband helped me hoist the beastly rototiller into the raised beds. I started old girl up and immediately regretted it. Not only did it fling dirt mostly out of the boxes, but it felt like what I imagine parallel parking a semi in New York City would feel like. Tight. Uncomfortable. Dangerous. Your husband staring at you from across the way while you yell swears. Again.

Antique galvanized buckets hold parsley and sage herbs as a makeshift raised bed garden.
Using old galvanized buckets is an inexpensive way to create a raised bed for herbs. I like to use this method as I can also move the buckets around. 

The Raised Bed Prison

Perhaps that title is a gross exaggeration. What I should have titled this paragraph was “How I Learned to Bend My Body in Unnatural Ways to Keep My Raised Garden Beds Weeded”.  As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I somehow thought these beds would require less weeding. Can you believe it? Go ahead and laugh, I’ll wait!

They in fact did not require less weeding, but a more clever way to do it. One must become skilled at perching one’s feet on the skinny raised garden bed boxes while one’s left hand clutches the fence so the right hand can do all the work. God help anyone who drove by.

My advice? Get yourself the Twister game and practice it religiously. Also, have a chiropractor on retainer. And last, wear a snug bra. When you’re bent over in unnatural positions with the backside of your carcass to the sky, one’s breast may have a tendency to frolic outside of the bra. Putting a stray breast away is not always pleasant when your hands are covered in dirt. 

If you are fortunate enough to be a non-bra toting individual, please disregard what I have said and carry on!

Back then, I wish I would have known the benefits of Container Gardening. It would have saved me so much time and money!

Removing the Raised Garden Beds

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you know if you could just get it, your whole life would be better? When you got the said thing and realized it wasn’t at all what you thought, have you ever kept on with said thing because you bemoaned about it so much? To admit it is all wrong would make you look like such a fool!

I kept on with the raised garden beds for four years. Four long years. By this point, I was well versed in the pros and cons of raised garden beds.

My saving grace came when my husband, bless his heart (and back), tried to rototill my root bound raised garden beds. It took less than one box of tilling for him to declare the raised beds were no more! Before a proper discussion could ensue, the tractor came put-putting across the yard. Using the tractor forks, my husband removed the raised beds. 

An honest to goodness sigh of relief swept over my gardener’s soul. That same day, we borrowed our neighbor’s 6′ 3-point rototiller. Within a half hour, no trace of raised beds remained. Only an earthy black canvas lay ahead of me. 

I could stop right here and say the rest is history. But is it? I hardly think so. You came here for insider tips , and by gosh, I’m about to give you helpful insight on the pros and cons of raised garden beds.

A man on a blue tractor rototills a garden. The earth is a black canvas, the sky is blue and it is an early spring day.
Rototilling the space previously used for raised garden beds. This will allow for in ground gardening once again.

Insider Tips For Raised Bed Gardening

If you’re only here for the insider tips for raised bed gardening, this section is for you. Had I been privy to some of these tips, I may have saved myself years of trouble and never gone the raised garden bed route. 

Cons of Raised Bed Gardens:

  1. Can by very hard to weed. Raised beds can be very difficult to weed. Things like the width of the box, or the location of the box can be a source of difficulty. If your raised beds butt up to a fence, weeds will find their way in between the raised bed and fence.
  2. Tilling must be done by hand. By all means, this isn’t the worst thing, but does add time to the planting schedule. 
  3. Upfront Costs. Unlike in-ground gardens, raised beds require an upfront cost. The cost of materials to construct the beds and possibly for the soil.
  4. Can reduce the overall growing footprint significantly. Because it is necessary to leave walk paths between the boxes, the growing footprint of your garden can be reduced significantly.
  5. Beds dry out quicker. I did not realize this until after the raised vegetable garden beds were planted. In the spring, having the beds dry out quicker was no problem because we have mostly clay soil. By July, when my area starts to go into its hottest part of the growing season, it seemed like a fulltime job to keep those beds watered. 
  6. Not convenient for vining plants. To clarify, I successfully grew cucumbers and several varieties of beans and peas ever year. Things like pumpkins and watermelon require a tremendous amount of room to grow and vine out. I would not recommend planting these in raised beds. In my experience, they not only grew out of the raised bed boxes, but also into the other raised beds. Building an overhead tunnel is a wonderful option to grow vining plants vertically in a raised garden bed.

    A woman on a blue tractor back blades freshly tilled garden soil. The sky is vibrant blue and it is an early spring day.
    Using a back blade, the tilled soil was smoothed and leveled out for planting.

Pros of Raised Bed Gardens:

  1. Removable. In my opinion, this is the number one pro of installing a raised garden bed. If you aren’t fond of the location of a raised bed, it is relatively simple to move. Alternatively, if you are renting, you can very easily install and take a garden down. 
  2. Defined walk paths. These generally do not require extra weeding. Another benefit is the use of pebbles, step stones or the likes to line your walk path with. 
  3. Easier for yearly crop rotation. This helps when managing pests or soil quality.
  4. Higher off the ground. Raised beds can be less strenuous to weed. Comparatively, if you are disabled, beds can be constructed to a height that allows you to sit and do your gardening.
  5. Good for wet climates. Because raised beds dry out quicker, this method is especially good for clay soil or wet climates. 
  6. Soil management. Raised beds are an excellent option for poor ground soil because they allow for better soil management.

In-Ground Gardening

My garden is now planted the old fashioned way, in the ground. I still leave a walk path down the center of my vegetable garden. I push mow the walk path to keep it looking nice.

Last summer I had a rather large section of my in-ground garden dedicated to pepper plants. I came up with a new plan to combat weeds. First, I would weed the row that the peppers were planted in. Then I push mowed the space in between the next row of peppers. This saved me a tremendous amount of time when weeding. 

This method of mowing between rows worked with my peppers. It would certainly work wonders between trellised cucumbers and beans as well. 

I would not recommend this method with delicate plants that don’t require nearly as much spacing.

A freshly weeded July vegetable garden in its glory. The sky is blue, the grass is green and all is well on the farm.
A glimpse of my garden last summer. The first in ground vegetable gardening I had done in four years.

Final Thoughts On Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

After knowing the pros and cons of raised garden beds, would I do it again? Absolutely! In fact, I have raised garden beds in other areas around my farm. I have a raised bed for my garlic, my herbs and my children’s garden. I also utilize antique wash tubs and galvanized buckets via Container Gardening to add visual interest to my flower gardens. Growing things like Chamomile takes little effort when growing it in a container garden or raised bed.

The most important lesson I learned from raised bed vegetable gardening is this: It is easier done on a smaller scale. Raised garden beds of a smaller scale are more easily managed. A large vegetable garden with numerous raised beds can be strenuous and time consuming. And for that purpose, I’ll stick to in-ground gardening!


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