Most 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.
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:
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…
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.
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.