Complete Raised Bed Gardening Guide For Beginners
Raised bed gardening is a fantastic way to grow a vegetable or flower garden. But if you’re a beginner, you might be thinking where do I start? Well, consider this article your complete raised bed gardening guide for beginners, covering everything from building raised beds to raised bed layouts and designs to spacing and watering. I’ve got you covered with this raised bed gardening guide!
This post covers:
- What Is A Raised Bed Garden
- The Top 10 Benefits Of A Raised Bed Garden
- 10 Common Raised Bed Gardening Mistakes To Avoid
- How To Easily Build A DIY Raised Bed Without Spending Much Money
- What Size Should You Make Your Raised Bed
- How To Fill A Raised Bed With Soil
- How Many Plants Should You Put In A Raised Bed
- 5 Easy Raised Bed Gardening Layout Ideas For Every Season
- How To Water A Raised Bed Garden
Be sure to also check out Episode 56 of The Grow Guide Podcast Raised Bed Revolution with Tara Nolan from Savvy Gardening where we cover tips for selecting wood and other materials for DIY raised beds. It’s a great episode! And Tara’s book Raised Bed Revolution is a must-read that I reference often from my own home library.
What Is A Raised Bed Garden
This is a great place to start!
When I first started gardening, I felt like there was this pressure to immediately know these basic gardening terms. I was often too afraid to ask “what’s that?” And frankly, I don’t want any other beginner gardeners to feel the same.
So, what exactly is a raised bed garden? Let’s break it down.
To put it simply, a raised bed garden is a container elevated off the ground that can be either a few inches or a few feet off the soil surface in which you grow your plants.
The “container” can be made from wood, metal or recycled materials. It’s really up to you! Typically, there is no bottom on a raised bed, so it is in fact just a square or rectangle with four walls.
Raised bed gardening is not a new concept. In fact, it’s said that raised bed gardening began as early as the 1970s when urban, backyard gardening started to take off. Home gardeners implemented the idea with the hopes of increasing the yields of their homegrown vegetables.
Throughout this article, you’ll hear me refer often to the term in-ground gardening, which is my way of describing planting my garden directly into the soil rather than into the container of a raised bed.
Now that we have the definition of raised bed gardening out of the way, let me tell you more about why I love it so much.
The Top 10 Benefits Of A Raised Bed Garden
There’s many benefits when it comes to raised bed gardening, many more than this top 10 list even includes!
And after 5 years of gardening using both raised beds and planting in-ground, I’ve discovered what I believe are the top ten benefits of raised bed gardening that normal in-ground gardening just doesn’t offer. Here they are!
1. Less Weeds
Every organic gardener knows how frustrating it is to deal with weeding throughout the gardening season. With hundreds of other gardening tasks to get to, weeding is usually last on the list. But with raised bed gardens, very few weeds make their way to the surface of your raised bed’s soil. This is especially true if you build your raised bed soil but first applying a layer of cardboard mulch at the bottom (which I’ll discuss more later!) as it does a great job at suppressing weeds.
2. No Need To Till
Over the years, more research has come out about the negative impact tilling your garden can have for the soil structure and the environment. I’d even suggest applying a no-till method to your in-ground garden! With a raised bed garden, tilling is not needed at all, you can simply add new organic matter, compost and other soil amendments to the top of your soil each Spring to build it up. Easy as that!
3. Easier To Manage Your Soil’s Health
The soil within your raised bed container is its own micro-ecosystem. It makes it much easier to keep out pests, like insects and critters as well as pathogens that can be spread in your soil. Plus, if you notice your raised bed plants aren’t doing well, it’s easy to quickly fix the problem as the soil surface is much smaller than an in-ground garden.
4. More Physically Accessible
Raised beds allow any person in any body to garden. They are accessible to all. If you have trouble bending over, you can build a raised bed that is hip-height or higher. If you are in a wheelchair, you can build a raised bed that allows you to garden while staying seated. The possibilities are endless and you can customize your raised bed to your physical needs.
5. Adds Dimension & Design Interest To Your Garden
There’s so many beautiful, creative raised bed designs out there! Check out Epic Gardening where he lists 50+ raised bed design ideas. In my own garden, I have a mix of raised bed shapes, including a few hexagon shaped raised beds. They are low to the ground and make great conversation starters whenever someone new visits the space.
6. Can Extend Your Growing Season
Raised beds can be especially useful for us cold weather gardeners with short growing seasons. You can start planting earlier in the spring by adding a cover to your raised bed to warm up the soil’s temperature. On the other hand, you can extend your growing season into the fall by adding poly tunnels over your beds to keep your plants warm even if temperatures drop below freezing.
7. Easier To Manage Pests
You can easily keep pests out of your raised bed by using the same cover concept as mentioned above. In my case, our free ranging chickens can be a bit of a pest in our garden. So I simply lay a piece of chicken wire over the tops of the beds as seeds are germinating or still small to keep my hens out. It works great and the container of the raised bed makes it easy to attach any type of material.
8. Flexibility With Gardening Location
You can place your raised bed garden anywhere. Really, anywhere! If your backyard doesn’t get full sun throughout the day, consider placing your raised bed on the corner of your driveway. Alternatively, you can always bring your raised bed with you if you’re moving or want to set up a new garden location. Raised beds provide flexibility as our lives and environments change.
9. Can Be Built Out Of Most Recycled Material
From cedar to recycled lumber to galvanized steel….the possibilities are somewhat endless when it comes to what you can build a raised bed out of. If you’re a thrifter (like me!), you can get really creative and even build a raised bed out of an old bathtub or sink. Just be sure to choose a material that is safe for plants and will have a long life outside in the elements.
10. Lower Maintenance Than In Ground Gardens
The final benefit of raised bed gardening is that overall they are much more low maintenance than gardening in-ground. Not only do raised beds eliminate weeds, they are easier to plan out, physically easier to plant into and to maintain, flexible to move and design….the list goes on. If you’re a beginner gardener, I highly suggest you give raised bed gardening a shot!
10 Common Raised Bed Gardening Mistakes
Moving right along to some of the “don’ts” when it comes to raised bed gardening.
I’m sharing these not to alarm you but to inform you! Raised bed gardening really is easy, as long as you avoid these 10 common mistakes.
1. Using Pressure Treated Lumber Or The Wrong Materials
Treated lumber or pressure treated lumber is often treated using harmful chemicals. They are technically considered “non toxic” for our environments, but I’ve heard many cases of gardeners having issues with contaminated soil from using treated lumber. Instead, select a reclaimed or recycled wood that has not been treated. Or for a higher-end raised bed, use cedar.
2. Placing Your Raised Bed In A Spot That Doesn’t Get Enough Sun
This is important not only for raised bed gardening but any type of gardening when growing plants that require full sun, which is in fact most edible plants and flowers. The walls of your raised bed will naturally create a bit of shade for your plants at certain times of day (especially when they are small seedlings), so be sure to place it in a spot that gets 8-10 hours of direct sunlight daily.
3. Not Adding High Quality Soil
Soil is king…or queen! And the quality of your soil is directly correlated to the health of your plants. I’ll walk you through my step-by-step instructions for building your soil in a raised bed later in this article. But my general suggestions are to use a balance of top soil (or the native soil in your garden), compost, worm castings and a little bit of sand or vermiculite for drainage. If you’ve been gardening in the same raised bed for a few years, be sure to amend your soil regularly with compost and worm castings. This will feed it and ensure it’s high quality!
4. Compacting The Soil Too Tightly
You absolutely want to avoid packing down the soil in your raised bed. It should be light and easy to move. There is no need to fill the soil to the very top of your bed either. Leave a few inches at the top so you can cover the bare soil with mulch and have enough room to work it into your soil at the end of the season. Your raised bed soil should be easy to work and have lots of room to move around.
5. Putting Too Big Of Plants Into A Raised Bed
There are some plants that just don’t do well in the compact environments of a raised bed. Things like indeterminate tomatoes, large vining plants, small shrubs and trees and perennial fruits are typically too big for raised bed gardens. Their roots will likely become compressed, limiting the plants ability to grow to its full size. With that being said, you could certainly have an entire raised bed of say indeterminate tomatoes — you would just want to only have a few of them and ensure they have lots of room to get wide and bushy.
6. Putting Too Many Plants Into A Raised Bed
On the other hand, planting too many plants in your raised bed is a big mistake. I’m definitely guilty of overplanting. It’s easy to do in the Spring when seedlings seem so small. But your plants will get big if you give them the space to. Too many plants in a raised bed can lead to disease, soil nutrients depletion and stunted plant growth. I’ll talk more about how many plants you should put in a raised bed garden later in this article!
7. Not Enough Watering
Soil in raised beds can dry out quicker than in-ground because the confined soil area typically gets hotter and holds heat longer. So watering regularly is key! I find it easiest to install drip irrigation lines throughout our raised beds. I also love using ollas in my raised beds. It’s an ancient form of localized plant irrigation. It slowly disperses water directly to your plants’ roots. I’m a big fan of Canadian brand, Growoya. Use the discount code SOILTOSOUL for 5% off at checkout!
8. Lining Your Raised Bed
This may be a controversial one, but I highly advise against lining your raised bed with a plastic liner. Some gardeners suggest this as they say it provides a protective barrier to the wood, making your raised bed more durable. But I’ve found lining your raised bed causes more harm than good. It can result in your soil retaining too much water and roots overheating or drowning. In my experience, no liner is best! Simply add your soil into your raised bed container and get growing.
9. Building A Raised Bed That Is Too Shallow
You want to build your raised bed based on what you want to grow in it. If your plan is to grow lettuces and salad greens, you can have a shallow raised bed with as little as 4 inches of soil depth. But if your plan is to grow root veggies, like beets and carrots, you’ll want a raised bed with at least 2 feet of soil depth. However, if you don’t put a base on your raised bed and place it on your garden soil, you’ll have the ability to grow directly into your garden and depth doesn’t need to be a concern!
10. Building A Raised Bed That Is The Wrong Size
Finally, a common mistake I see gardeners make is building raised beds that either aren’t convenient to access, they can’t easily reach across or are too tall/short. You should build your raised bed based on your growing needs. I’ve found the optimal raised bed size is 4’ wide by 7-8’ long. It lends itself well to growing a wide range of plants and will allow you to easily maintain it.
What Size Should You Make Your Raised Bed
You can build your raised bed to any size that works for your garden space! Raised beds can be a true expression of your creativity and style in the garden.
We’ve played around with different designs and styles over the years, like the low-style hexagon raised bed pictured above. But to keep things simple, I suggest starting by building a simple square or rectangular raised bed.
Now, there are a few length, width and height considerations you’ll want to take into account.
What’s The Ideal Raised Bed Width
The ideal raised bed width is between 3.5-4.5 feet wide. Any wider than that and your bed will not be very ergonomic or easy to manage. Here’s a few other reasons why this is the ideal raised bed width:
It allows you to easily reach across without needing to get up and walk around.
Is wide enough that you can plant 3-4 rows of plants across.
Is standard size to fit garden add-ons, like tunnels or row covers.
What’s The Ideal Raised Bed Length
The ideal raised bed length is between 5-8 feet long. Any longer than 8 feet and you risk the chance of your raised bed possibly breaking in the corners due to too much weight from the soil.
With that being said, I do like the idea of having raised beds longer than 8 feet if they are in a permanent place or lining a wall that offers support. The idea of one day potentially having to move a raised bed longer than 8 feet does not sound appealing though! So keep that in mind.
What’s The Ideal Raised Bed Height
I personally don’t believe there is any ideal height when it comes to raised beds. Build based on your needs!
Some of our raised beds are only about 1 foot off the ground. Whereas the raised beds in our greenhouse are more like hip height.
If you are not putting a bottom on your raised bed (which I highly suggest you don’t) and your plants are growing into the soil below, then there are no height requirements.
However, if you’re planning on placing your raised bed on cement or a hard surface and want to grow say root vegetables in it, you’ll want to build a raised bed that is at least 3.5-5 feet deep.
How To Easily Build A DIY Raised Bed Without Spending Much Money
Over the years, my husband and I have built several DIY raised beds for our garden. We typically build one to two new raised beds each season. The constant evolution of our garden is one of my fav things about it!
This might be the point in the blog where you get scared just thinking about the cost of lumber. It has definitely sky rocketed over the last few years in Canada. But don’t worry, we’ve found a solution for building long-lasting DIY raised beds affordably.
So let me walk you through our 5 steps to building a DIY raised bed for quick & cheap!
Step 1: Source recycled lumber and seal it with a non-toxic wood sealer
While cedar raised beds are no doubt absolutely beautiful, they are also incredibly expensive. Instead, we’ve found that sourcing recycled lumber from our local buy and sell or a lumber yard is a much more affordable way to build raised beds. We have even built some raised beds out of free wood that family and friends were getting rid of. Just be sure to select recycled lumber that is not damaged or rotting.
Look for recycled lumber that is 1-2-inch thick and lengths that are between 8-12 feet.
You can purchase non-toxic wood sealer from your local hardware store. Our preferred brand is Seal It Green XTreme Garden Box. It’s a clear sealant that is eco-friendly and plant-based.
I suggest sealing your lumber before assembling your raised bed so you can easily paint all sides and edges.
Step 2: Determine your bed size and measure lumber into required lengths
As mentioned above, the ideal raised bed width is about 4.5 feet and the ideal length is anywhere from 5.5-8 feet. Determine the size of your bed and whether it will be a rectangular or square shape.
Then, using a measuring tape and pencil, mark your wood to the desired lengths for the long and short sides (or even sides if building a square bed).
Step 3: Use a circular hand saw to carefully cut lumber
We love our DEWALT 1/4 inch cordless circular hand saw. It is extremely easy and safe to use. Plus, portable! So we bring ours right into the garden when building raised beds.
Follow the measurements marked on your lumber to make straight cuts with your saw. Align your boards once cut to ensure they are the exact length.
Step 4: Screw in one end of each of the short boards first
Start with your shorter boards first. Trust me! This will ensure your raised bed isn’t crooked.
Screw boards with 2-3 inch long screws and a power drill. Our preferred power drill is the DEWALT compact cordless drill. It charges up quick and is really easy to bring wherever we are building.
Place your lumber on a level surface (we usually do this on the grass in our yard or in the garage). Position your short board so it lines up with the edge of one of your long boards. Add two screws to the top and bottom of the board on either edge. Now repeat the same thing by screwing the other short board to the other long board. You are basically making two L shapes.
Next, place a level in the corners of your short and long board to ensure you’ve screwed them evenly together. If not, simply unscrew and start again.
Step 5: Finish screwing in both short sides to the long boards and then gently tap with a hammer to align
Once your boards are level, place your two L-shaped pieces together to make the shape of your raised bed. Then, screw in the long boards to the other end of the shorts.
Use your level again to ensure your raised bed is even. Next, take a hammer and gently tap at the corners. This will even out the lumber further while binding the screws together.
If you are building a tall raised bed, continue to repeat this process, stacking each raised bed frame on top of one another until you’ve reached your desired height. For this approach you will likely need longer screws to secure each raised bed frame to the next. I suggest 4-5 inch screws.
And you’ve just built yourself a DIY raised bed!
How To Fill A Raised Bed With Soil
Let’s start with how to fill a brand new raised bed with soil. This is my approach for when I fill an empty raised bed.
If you are filling an empty raised bed that is deeper that 4 feet, I highly suggest following the lasagna layering method rather than filling the entire bed with soil.
The lasagna method starts with a bottom layer of branches, topped with a layer of thick leaf, cardboard or wood chip mulch, then topped with a thinner layer of mulch like straw or grass clippings and then finely topped with a mix of compost, top soil and worm castings.
Now, if you are instead filling a raised bed that is less than 4 feet deep, I suggest you follow my preferred soil mix recipe:
50% top soil
25% organic matter
Finally, if you already have a raised bed in your garden that you just want to amend to improve the soil quality, here’s what I suggest!
If it’s Spring and you haven’t yet planted anything in your raised bed, add in a 4-6 inches of high quality compost and about 1 inch of worm castings. Mix them into your soil. Then be sure to add in a layer of straw or leaf mulch after you’ve transplanted your seedlings.
If you’re in the middle of the gardening season and plants are already in your raised bed, simply amend your soil by top dressing around the base of your plants with compost and worm castings.
How Many Plants Should You Put In A Raised Bed Garden
The golden question! How many plants to put in your raised bed. I don’t want to say it depends but…it does depend!
For example, the above photo is of a raised bed I came across while we were travelling near Niagara Falls. If this was an edible garden, I’d say this is far too many plants for one raised bed. You can see they’re very crowded, could easily spread disease, limit root development and plant growth…the list goes on.
But because this garden was being used for ornamental purposes only, these aren’t necessarily big causes for concern and I’d say this amount of plants in a raised bed is okay.
In my own raised beds, the number of plants also really varies. For example, in my smallest raised beds, I only plant garlic. I avoid adding any other plants into these beds in the Spring so that I don’t disturb my garlic roots that have been growing all Winter long.
But in my larger, rectangular raised beds I will change what is growing in them 2-3 times throughout the growing season.
In the early Spring, I’ll cover the bed with a layer of poly to warm up the soil and sow cilantro, spinach, radishes, lettuces and arugula. After 45-50 days, I’ll harvest all that and transplant my tender annuals into the same space, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and some annual flowers.
Then come late Summer, I transform the bed again and remove any spent plants to make room for cool season crops like brassicas and greens.
So you see, how many plants you put in a raised bed depends on your gardening objectives and the type of plants you’re putting in.
But let me give you my top 3 tips on how to plant a raised bed garden!
Tip 1: Use the square foot gardening method to space out plants
Square foot gardening is the practice of dividing your growing area (or raised bed in this case) into small 1 square foot sections. Usually gardeners will map this out by using strings or small pieces of wood to mark each square foot. You then plant one plant into each square. It is an intensive technique that will result in a densely planted raised bed, but it’s a great tool for beginners.
We have a really great episode of The Grow Guide Podcast covering Square Foot Gardening With Expert, Mick Manfield that I encourage you to listen to!
Tip 2: Plant crops with similar days to maturity in the same bed
Make the most of your raised bed space by being able to plant multiple crops in it throughout the growing season.
For example, in the Spring you can plant cold tolerant greens even before your last frost date. They’re quick growing and you’ll be able to harvest within 30-45 days to make room for your tender annual veggies. Then come late Summer, you can remove any spent plants that are done producing fruit and replace them with Fall crops like brassicas, root vegetables and greens.
Tip 3: Maximize space by growing vertically and down the side of your raised bed
Use trellises, wire cages, bamboo poles and arches to grow plants vertically. I love growing my peas and pole beans up a tale wire cage in the middle of my raised bed. It takes up very little square footage in my raised bed and allows me to plant low growing crops, like spinach or salad greens, around the base. It also adds nice height to your garden.
Alternatively, you can plant vining plants near the edges or corners of your raised bed and have them vine down and over the side of the wood. Plants like winter squash, nasturtiums and cucumbers are all great options. I find it looks really pretty to have foliage spilling out the side of your raised bed. And again, it doesn’t take up any growing space in the bed itself!
As I mentioned, transforming your raised beds with the seasons is a great way to maximize how much food you can grow.
Even if you only have room for one raised bed on your property, you can grow many different types of herbs, veggies and flowers by using succession planting strategies.
5 Easy Raised Bed Garden Layout Ideas For Every Season
Here are 5 different raised bed garden layout ideas with different interplanting options.
These designs are based off a 4 foot wide x 8 foot long raised bed. I’ve labelled each design based on the season in which the plants will grow best. Keep in mind they are not accurate representations of exact plant size, but can give you a general idea of various interplanting concepts for your raised bed.
Feel free to save these images to your camera roll so you can reference when it’s time to plant.
How To Water A Raised Bed Garden
Over the years, I’ve found a few different approaches that work really well for watering our raised beds. But I think what’s most important is to find an approach that works for you and your lifestyle.
If you’re someone who often heads to the lake over the weekend, use a low maintenance approach that allows you to be hands off for several days at a time.
Or if you’re someone who loves tech, you can install timers and irrigation that does the work for you.
Or if your garden is right outside your backdoor and easily accessible, you can take a classic approach of hand watering with a hose or watering can.
Find a watering style that works for you!
3 Ways To Water A Raised Bed Garden
Here’s three different techniques we use to water our raised beds. The idea is to use one of these approaches in your garden, not necessarily to combine all three.
1. Use An Olla
An olla is an ancient irrigation technique where you bury a terracotta clay pot filled with water under the soil. The moisture slowly seeps out and waters the roots of your plants directly. It’s a major time saver and works very well! I’ve seen improved growth in my plants that have an olla planted near them.
I use two small sized ollas in our 4×8 raised bed.
2. Install A Drip Line
I often find gardeners get scared of the idea of installing drip irrigation, but it really is simple and so effective. We love using it in our raised beds!
It makes your garden low maintenance and ensures your plants continue to get water directly at the root throughout the entire growing season.
We buy the MoHern Drip Irrigation Tubing Set for our raised beds. It comes with a 1/4 inch drip line and 20 pieces of parts so you can customize how the hoses run between each plant.
This is something we install each Spring and remove in the Fall. We’ve found leaving the hoses in the garden during our harsh Canadian Winters results in the hoses cracking. So be sure to pull them up and store them away from moisture and frost.
3. Water Using An Adjustable Nozzle Sprayer
Using a high pressure soaker nozzle is the simplest way to water raised beds but also the most time consuming.
However, I do believe hand watering is a great way to understand how your plants are doing and meet their needs.
We use this adjustable water hose head that offers 8 different watering patterns, like soaker, flat and cone. The adjustable options are so key for watering the garden while your plants are small seedlings and mature plants.
The head fits on any standard hose. Ours has lasted 3 years without breaking!
Best Practices For Effectively Watering A Raised Bed:
- Water either first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. Watering during the heat of the day can burn plants and water will evaporate before being absorbed.
- Water close to the roots of your plants, near the soil surface rather than from above. Sitting water on foliage can cause disease.
- Water deeply, soaking your garden every other day rather than light waterings more frequently.
- Mulch your garden for improved water retention. This is especially key during Summer heat waves! You can read my post on straw mulching for all my tips and more benefits.
And there you have it!
That was your complete guide to raised bed gardening for beginners.
I hope you found this article useful and can apply it to your own raised bed gardening this season. If you have any unanswered raised bed questions, comment below! I answer all your comments.
And if you’re looking for more organic gardening advice, be sure to check out the blog. I publish new content each week geared toward Canadian gardeners growing in short seasons and cold regions.
You can keep up with my garden over on Instagram too. I love building community with you over there!