Organic Gardening the Easy Way, Part II: Raised Beds

Reader Contribution by Carole Coates

In Part I of my easy organic gardening series, I wrote about growing vertically. Today I extol the virtues of raised bed gardening. It may seem an obvious choice to many Mother Earth News readers, but as I drive along country roads, I still see in-ground gardens all around. Clearly, not everyone has jumped on the raised-bed bandwagon.

Gardening in raised beds is easy and shows your garden to best advantage.

Why Garden with Raised Beds?

No way to garden!

It makes me cringe a little every time I see my neighbors tilling up their gardening space. Growing in raised beds is so easy I can’t imagine going back to the old way. But even if ease isn’t a concern for you, there are many other reasons to transition to raised beds. Here are 10 quick ones:

1. You’re in control of your planting medium, and you can guarantee that your beds are filled with soil of the highest quality—no more rocks, heavy clay, or compacted soil. Just be sure you don’t fill your bed with native soil. It may be full of pathogens. Instead, opt for bagged garden soil (not potting soil), compost, or compacted manure.

2. With raised beds, weeds are minimized, especially if you’re careful to keep the area adjoining your beds well-mowed.

3. Because your new soil is loose (you’ll never compact it by walking on it), it’s a cinch to pull what few weeds do pop up.

4. Raised beds are much more neat and attractive than in-ground gardens. They can turn your garden into a landscaping paradise.

This pansy quilt at the North Carolina Arboretum demonstrates just how attractive raised beds can be.

5. Raised beds maximize garden space. With no need for paths between every row, you can plant intensively, resulting in higher yields.

6. Raised beds mean better drainage, especially important if your area is susceptible to summer downpours.

7. You never have to till or plow up a garden space again.

8. Raised beds minimize bending when you plant, maintain, and harvest your garden. If you build your beds high enough, you may not need to bend at all, a big plus for those with physical limitations.

9. Raised beds are an easy solution for a sloping gardening area, eliminating erosion concerns.

Using raised beds to terrace a garden on sloping land

10.The  soil in raised beds warms more quickly in the spring, allowing your seeds to germinate faster and your transplants to thrive.

Types of Raised Beds

You can find lots of online diy resources for building your own raised garden beds—including Mother Earth News articles, so I won’t go into the how-to details here. Instead, let me share some of the many types of raised beds you can build or purchase.

As I wrote in my last blog post, I recommend investing as much time and money as you can afford when it comes to your garden. The payoff will be worth it. But I know from personal experience that sometimes a person has neither. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, you can also go quick and dirty. 

 1. Simply mound new soil, preferably over a layer of heavy cardboard, where you want to plant. This may be the cheapest and quickest alternative but may result in the highest maintenance as your mound erodes.

2. Use limbs that have fallen on your property to outline your raised bed area. Another free (though more time-consuming) choice which also puts those downed limbs to good use. However, these borders will also require on-going maintenance.

3. Bricks and concrete blocks are long-lasting and don’t require construction tools or expertise, a good option as long as you don’t have to carry them too far. Using concrete blocks requires rigorous leveling of your soil or your border will be uneven, unsightly, and subject to deterioration. I recommend using the rectangular 8x8x16″ size. The larger square blocks take up too much valuable gardening real estate and force you to reach across a bigger expanse to get to your crop.

Marigolds planted in the openings of concrete blocks  add beauty and encourage pollinators.

4. Landscape timbers are an attractive but more costly possibility. Stay away from creosote-coated railroad ties, though. The EPA’s website states that “creosote is not approved to treat wood for residential use, including landscaping timbers or garden borders.”

5. You may prefer to use long-lasting composite or plastic lumber, another lasting but expensive possibility.

6. Buy a raised-bed kit. If you have only a small space to devote to gardening and money isn’t a concern, this choice is almost as easy as mounding your soil. Some of these kits are on legs, which makes them perfect for people with arthritis, osteoporosis, or other mobility issues.

7. A less-expensive choice for small scale gardening is to use planters, plastic or fabric grow bags, or even a child-sized wading pool—just be sure to puncture the bottom with lots of drainage holes. More and more veggies are being developed for patio gardening, including some root crops.

8. Lumber is the traditional choice for raised beds. You can opt for rot-resistant wood such as cedar, redwood, or cypress, depending on accessibility—and the depth of your pockets. Or you can build your beds from 2×8, 10, or 12” pine boards. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have access to scrap lumber. The most long-lasting choice in this category is treated lumber. Some people advise against using treated lumber, but their concerns are often based on outdated information (see below for further discussion on this issue) or at least on extreme caution.

What’s the Big Deal about Treated Lumber?

The treated lumber controversy centers around the potential of the preservative chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to leach into the soil and thus into plant material. However, CCA was banned for residential use in 2003. Research on products now used to treat lumber indicates they’re perfectly safe to use for vegetable beds.

As one blogger pointed out, though, there’s a difference in real risk and perceived risk. If you’re still concerned about leaching, you have a couple of choices. Don’t use treated lumber at all, or line the sides (not the bottom) of your beds with heavy duty plastic. If you’re unsure about the safety of treated lumber, my recommendation is to do your research so you can make an informed decision that suits you; that’s what we did. 

It may seem heretical among some natural living advocates, but our informed choice for raised beds was treated lumber. When we balanced the minimal risk with ease, treated lumber was a hands-down winner for us aging gardeners. We’re not interested in rebuilding our raised beds in a few years.

In Conclusion

Raised beds = high quality soil + fewer weeds + less bending + ease of use + long-lasting garden solution + higher yield + erosion control + more. An easy winner for easy gardening.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following thislink. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel, as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

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