Here’s Everything We Wish We’d Known Before Putting in a Raised Bed
We asked the experts for the most important things you should consider.
There’s nothing more exciting than deciding to grow your own vegetables or cut flowers at home. Maybe you’re going for a custom raised bed, or decide to DIY one on your own. Either way, it’s best to know what garden designers think about before they build a thing. Here’s what Christian Douglas, founder of The Backyard Farm Co. in Marin County, and their lead farmer, Christiana Paoletti, say you need to consider.
1. Plot the Location Wisely
“The most important decision of all is where to locate your raised bed because it needs to be somewhere with enough sunlight for plants to thrive,” says Paoletti. Make sure your raised bed will get eight to 12 hours of direct sunlight during the summer and don’t forget that the sun moves during the gardening season, so make sure tall trees, house facades, and fence shadows won’t get in the way.
“Anything less than six hours of sunlight will result in slow growth and small harvests, especially when it comes to heat-loving crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash,” says Douglas. In other words, don’t relegate your vegetable raised bed to a dim, out-of-the-way corner of your yard. You need a sunny spot, and hopefully, you’ll be able to admire your raised bed while taking note of how your crops are doing.
Cool Tip: If your garden is on the shadier side, focus on leafy greens, which can make do with less sun.
2. Choose the Durable Materials
“There’s nothing quite so sad as building a beautiful raised bed only to have it looking tired and falling apart at the seams by year two or three,” says Paoletti. Avoid this sorry state of affairs by using materials that will last much longer. Like, a lot longer; The Backyard Farm Co. builds with materials that can last over 20 years.
Redwood is the best choice for wooden raised beds because it’s less likely to rot. You can make it even more impervious by using a thicker cut, such as 3×6 instead of 2×4.
Corten steel will give your raised beds a more modern look and can form crisp lines or sweeping curves that will delight the eye.
Stone can also be a good option for built-in raised beds or terraces. But no matter what you choose to build with, be sure that water can drain easily from the bottom of the bed.
3. Think About Height and Width
One of the best things about raised beds is right in the name—they’re raised above ground level. This provides ample root space for plants and makes it more comfortable to plant, weed, and harvest. (Your back will thank you, too.) To really take advantage of this design feature, Paoletti says to build raised beds 18 to 24 inches tall.
For terraced gardens on slopes, they build beds 30 to 36 inches tall, which, Paoletti points out, is the perfect countertop height to work with.
Ergonomics aren’t the only dimension to consider; width is important, too. Four feet is the best width for beds that can be accessed from paths on either side. “Any wider and it will be difficult to reach into the center,” Paoletti says. For “single-reach” beds (as in, beds that are only accessible from one side), keep the width to three feet or less.
4. Spoil That Soil
After how much sunlight your beds get, soil has the most impact on plant health and harvest potential. “Plants get all their nutrients from the soil, so it’s crucial to have a good balance of macro and micronutrients available, not to mention all the beneficial microbial life responsible for making the magic happen (aka turning raw materials like compost into compounds that plants can absorb through their roots),” says Douglas. In other words, don’t skimp!
Adding organic compost in the spring and fall before planting new veggies is the bare minimum you should do in terms of replenishing nutrients, but the only way to really know what your plants are craving is to get your soil tested professionally. Luckily, this can be easy and fairly affordable. In fact, Paoletti and Douglas do soil testing through their website.
Paoletti says that nutrient deficiencies and imbalances are the source of most gardening difficulties, so if your plants are struggling the solution is probably right under your nose.
5. Guard That Garden
Keeping critters from eating all your delicious vegetables is a very real part of the gardening experience. Douglas says before you even nail two boards together, you need to give some thought to what kind of animals might pester your plants. Raccoons, squirrels, and rats can be a problem in urban locations, while deer and birds often show up in suburban and rural neighborhoods.
“We always recommend installing gopher wire/hardware cloth at the bottom of the raised bed before adding soil, to stop gophers and other tunnellers from digging into your cache of food,” says Paoletti. Meanwhile, they are increasingly being asked to build large cages from the same wire mesh to go on top of raised beds, protecting all the plants inside from even the most tenacious animals. But don’t worry—with good design and magnetic door closures these covers don’t detract from the ease and beauty of a raised bed garden.
Want to know more about raised-bed gardening? Our limited-run Ultimate Guide to Raised Beds newsletter is packed full of all the information you need to get started. Each weekly installment (there are eight in all) will include advice and insight from Western gardening experts, covering topics from buying supplies to what to do with your harvest.