Starting a Raised Bed Garden

Are you thinking of starting a raised bed garden? Here is an overview of why we chose raised bed gardening, how we structured our beds, and what we learned from our experience.

We planted our garden in ground for years. When we moved to a property on a shady hillside in the mountains, we decided to put in raised beds. Here is what we did and what we learned.

Reasons We Installed Raised Beds

1) We have a lot of pests - snails, moles, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc. Putting in raised beds helps to keep the plants off the ground and out of reach of the snails. Lining the bottom helps to deter moles and voles. We can cover or enclose a small area to help deter deer, chipmunks, and the like. We use easy-up fencing around our beds. It has kept out deer, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks.

2) We have very rocky soil. Raised beds were faster than tilling up the soil and trying to remove all the rocks. Furthermore, using a good soil mix with a bed designed to drain well helps to prevent waterlogged roots and conserves on water. We have found that we have to water our raised beds far less often than we watered our in-ground garden.

3) Raised bed gardening helps with weed control. Rather than starting with soil that already has weed seeds, you can start with soil that is weed free. If you use a raised bed mix like that recommended in the All New Square Foot Gardening book, the soil stays loose and is not prone to becoming compact, thus making pulling out unwanted weeds that do show up much easier.

4) We are on a hillside and have very little flat space. Eventually, we would like to terrace some of the hill, but for now I didn't want to till up the compacted level area. I was nervous that it would encourage erosion.

5) Garden beds are tidy and look nice. Since we were incorporating the garden into the very small yard area we have, garden beds have kept the garden from overflowing into our yard space and have kept the garden area aesthetically pleasing.

6) Putting in raised beds was fast. With long work-weeks and several other house projects that needed our attention, we didn't have time to till a space, remove the rocks, till again, etc. We were able to fill the beds and plant right away in good soil.

7) We don't have to purchase or rent a rototiller. The first year all we needed to do was fill the beds (see below for how we did it) and plant. Because the soil is not compact, to prepare the beds for planting in the spring I simply aerate the beds and add new compost by hand - no need for a rototiller!

What We Did

We started with three raised beds: the 3x6x1 metal raised bed (2 pack) and the 8x4x2 metal raised bed and later added a second two-pack set of the 3x6x1 beds. We chose galvanized metal because it has a reputation for longevity and we chose this particular two pack set because it was quite affordable compared to some of the other options out there. The taller raised bed was purchased as a comparison. We wanted to see if we preferred beds that were easier on our backs.

Partially because we wanted to save on the amount of good soil and partially because I had read a bit about the permaculture approach to gardening, we decided to layer the bottom of the garden beds. We put cardboard down for the first bed. Since we ran out of cardboard, I used newspaper for the other two. It seemed like a good time to experiment on how each of them fared as a base for the garden bed. You can use weed fabric for the base layer, but cardboard works very well and you can usually find it for free. You can even line the bottom with hardware cloth - a great idea to help keep out moles and voles - before laying down cardboard.

We then stacked small logs from our property and a few big rocks in the bottom of the beds. The rocks and logs at the bottom help with drainage. On top of the logs, we layered branches. On top of the branches we layered leaves, grass clippings, and a few pine needles. All these plant materials will slowly decompose, adding nutrients into the soil as they do. We then added regular soil to the top and packed it down as much as we could. To the very top of this, we added organic raised bed garden mix. We mixed our own for some of the beds and we purchased some on sale for the other beds.

Our first set of raised beds

One of two we added the second year

Post-Season Notes

How have these beds fared? We are moving into our third garden season with the first set of beds and they still look brand new. We get occasional high winds and in the winter we get heavy snow, hail, and ice storms. So far, none of this has caused any damage to the metal frames.

The soil will settle over time, especially if you have layered the bottom with permaculture materials, so each year, we add a bit of soil and compost to the top of the beds. Compost helps to keep your raised bed from becoming nutrient depleted. Other ways you can help keep your soil fertile are to add natural fertilizers like compost tea, minerals, grass clippings, fish fertilizer, etc. If you keep your soil quality high, you should have a good crop.

How did the newspaper perform compared to the cardboard? Newspaper did not perform as well. In the beds where we had newspaper, there is grass coming up. This is likely due to the fact that we were running out of newspaper and stacked it too thinly in the bottom of the beds. I have been told that layering it thickly will keep out the weeds. Thus, I am inclined to think that the fault lies with me in not covering the bottom with enough layers.

Things to Consider

Location - Sunlight, Water, and You. Before putting in your raised beds, be sure to find an area on your property that gets a good amount of sunlight, is located in an area where water is easily accessible, and is in an area that is easy for you to access. Our property does not have any area that gets full sun. This has an impact on which plants will thrive in our garden. Our area is close to water and to us, however. This makes it easy to water and to keep an eye on any threats (deer, rabbits, etc.) to your garden that may be wandering about.

Soil. Get quality soil. One type of raised bed mix we purchased was terrible. Even though it was labeled "organic raised bed soil" it ended up growing more mushrooms (a toxic variety, nonetheless) than anything. I have spent a lot of time asking other gardeners how to best remediate it. It performed better last year, but it is still a work in progress. Our two newest beds have (on top of the log/branches/leaves combination) regular soil from our hillside topped off with an organic blend we found specific for the Pacific Northwest. This blend was affordable, and has performed beautifully. I couldn't be happier with the results from this combination. 

We have friends who fill their raised beds with regular soil from their garden and add compost from their compost pile each year. Their garden is wildly productive (they also have full sun). My point here is that you don't have to use expensive pre-mixed soil. Some people have great results with regular soil. The idea of having mixed soil like suggested in the All New Square Foot Gardening book is that it retains moisture, drains well, and is easy to weed.

Happy gardening!

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