Problems with Raised Beds

GardenBeds1Most modern gardening books embrace the raised bed as if it were the greatest invention since the Scots created peat-flavored alcohol.

Raised beds are the modern way to garden. The good way. The BEST way.

Let me count the ways they’re supertastic!

1. Raised beds give you good boundaries

2. Raised beds help the soil warm up quicker in the spring

3. Raised beds make for good drainage

4. Raised beds work well for intensive plantings

5. Raised beds allow you to garden in nicer dirt than your native soil

I think that’s about it. I probably missed one or ten, but who cares. We know what we need to know: RAISED BEDS ARE AWESOME!!!

Actually, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Raised beds have their uses… but I no longer thing they’re the gardening end-all. In fact, I think they may be holding us back from doing even better.

Today I’m going to look at problems with raised beds and reveal why I don’t feel raised beds are the end-all way to garden.

Drainage

Having beds that drain well is a plus, right?

Well, it depends on your local weather. One of the difficulties in being a nationally published garden writer is that it’s difficult to give solid gardening advice for every climate. In places with wet springs, having good drainage is a plus. You don’t want your seedlings rotting in cold, mucky soil, therefore it makes sense to raise the ground inside a bed so the soil dries out quicker.

Here in Florida, however, we face dry springs and hot, wet summers. We also have sandy well-draining soil through much of the state. Spring is our prime gardening season and raised beds are a pain in the neck to keep watered. The improved drainage isn’t an asset: it’s a liability.

In the arid Southwest, gardeners will plant in sunken beds so they can gather and keep as much moisture as possible. Most gardening books that tout raised bed gardening don’t take into consideration the varying climates that might not benefit from the extra drainage.

Construction Cost and Toxicity

Unlike gardening right in the ground, it takes money to create most raised beds. Yes, you can make mounded raised beds in the double-dug John Jeavons style – which works well – but most gardeners aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re building beds with borders.

I’ve built beds with pine, logs, railroad ties, tires, cinder blocks, bottles, rocks, bricks and pressure treated lumber. I’ve never built any beds from cedar because of the prohibitive cost, but I’ve seen some really nice ones and thought about it.

My family and I even did one bed with reclaimed mosaiced blocks:

MosaicFull

If you’re interested, check out my DIY post on this bed.

The problem is, these things cost you.

The materials cost money unless you find reclaimed materials you can salvage. In that case, the time spent building the beds still costs you.

Another thing that may cost you: many of the building materials we use are at least minimally toxic. Tires can leach out poisons… cinderblocks may be made from toxic ash, pressure treated lumber is iffy… railroad ties are nasty…

Ah well. If I had a million dollars… I’d buy some cedar…

Dirt

Here’s another reason people like raised beds: it gets them away from using their native soil.

Soil to gardeners is like hair for women. Whatever they have, they wish it were something else. “I don’t like sand!” “I wish I were blonde!” “My clay is like a rock!” “I can’t do anything with my curls!”

Same problem. God gives you one thing and you want another. It’s very human, but in the case of soil? Soil can be mended.

Instead of amending, however, many gardeners will just buy a big pile of top soil or municipal compost or something else to plant their vegetables in. The problem with bringing in soil is that you’re not exactly sure what you’re bringing in. Purchased compost may be contaminated with heavy metals or toxic long-term herbicides.

Your local soil often contains a wide variety of minerals, even if it’s not pretty. Add some organic matter to loosen it up, throw in some seaweed, manure, epsom salt, etc. and use what you have. It’s cheaper and will usually prove itself worthwhile.

Permanence

One other thing I don’t like about raised beds: their permanence.

I know, that might sound ridiculous coming from a guy that grows his own fruit trees from seed, yet I like to move my gardens around on a regular basis. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve disassembled raised beds and moved them so I could try something new. Having a big plot of bed-free earth is a nice thing. I can let paths evolve, then change them. I can plant a big mess of pumpkins one year… and tight beds of greens the next. Having permanent beds holds me down.

You may be the opposite, however. There’s nothing really wrong with making permanent beds – they’re only stifling for anarchists like myself.

Finally: gardening isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. There are good things about raised beds and there are problems with raised beds, just like almost everything else in life.

If raised beds work wonderfully for you, keep using them. Just don’t let yourself think they’re the very best in all circumstances. Leave that view to the broad-brush garden writers and seek success wherever it can be found… inside the bed or out.

About David The Good

David The Good is a naturalist, author and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David is the author of four books, writes a regular column for The Ag Mag in North Central Florida, is a Mother Earth News blogger and has also written for outlets including Backwoods Home, Survival Blog and Self-Reliance Magazine. You can find his books on Amazon here. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie who now lives somewhere near the equator on a productive cocoa farm. Visit his daily gardening and survival blog here: The Survival Gardener And for lots more gardening info, click here and subscribe to his often hilarious YouTube channel.

View all posts by David The Good

3 Responses to “Problems with Raised Beds”

  1. Laura Bruno Says:

    Thanks for this post! I just wanted to add two comments:

    One other thing to consider about raised beds is that they do sometimes turn non-garden-friendly spots into food production areas. Our yard was all stumps and weeds when we took on this property. I put in raised beds to avoid cut down trees trying to grow into my veggies, but several years in I’m now very grateful for having done raised beds. We’ve since learned that many of the trees were black walnuts! Without having isolated soil, most of our veggie crops would have failed, and we would not have known why. Juglone toxicity remains in the soil up to 6 years from cutting down black walnuts.

    Raised beds also work well for people whose soil is known to be toxic. Although you’re taking your chances with other sources of soil and compost, if you know for a fact that your soil contains toxins, then raised beds offer an immediate solution instead of waiting years to remediate the land with sunflowers, hemp and/or mushrooms. Not everyone has years to get started on gardening.

    Reply

    • Chet Says:

      Good points Laura. I also like raised beds as it allows me a little more protection for starting crops where voles can’t get at them. I have 12 inches of dirt over rocks where voles don’t hang out, and it allows me to safely start all my stuff in cold frames on those raised beds… where a normal bed simply wouldn’t work.

      Reply

  2. Jenna Says:

    I’ve been growing tomatos in two 24 inch deep raised beds inside a greenhouse for three years. The did fine until this year. These beds are permanent,3 foot X 12 foot beds with earth bottoms. I now have lost all my plants to blight. Rotation doesn’t seem to be an option. Can I add soil to the beds to control the disease? And how deep?

    Reply

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