The moment you set eyes on our garden, it is quite obvious that we love raised garden beds around here! We prefer to grow the majority of our veggies, flowers, and herbs in raised beds. As you read through this article, you’ll see that we have some dang good reasons to back that preference. However, perhaps raised beds aren’t ideal for you and your garden space – and that is absolutely okay! Let’s talk about the potential drawbacks and benefits of using raised garden beds (compared to planting directly in the ground) – so you can decide what suits you best.
If you decide that raised beds are right for you, learn how to easily build you own here!
What is a raised garden bed, or an in-ground garden?
In the simplest of terms, a raised garden bed is a container or box full of soil in which plants are grown. Raised beds (also referred to as garden boxes or planter boxes) are most commonly constructed of wood lumber, though they can also be made of stone, bricks, concrete, galvanized metal, logs, durable fabric or other materials. As I refer to raised garden beds through this article, I am primarily focusing on wooden raised beds – though many of the pros and cons we’ll discuss also apply to other types of beds!
In a home garden setting, raised garden beds are often used in lieu of planting directly in the ground. Yet some folks may grow plants straight in their native soil, as-is with no modifications at all. On the other hand, many in-ground garden beds are formed by tilling, amending, and adding to the native soil (such as adding compost). This creates a slightly mounded in-ground garden bed; a distinct planting area from the surrounding yard space.
Now let’s dig a bit deeper into their differences.
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THE PROS: 7 BENEFITS OF RAISED GARDEN BEDS
Here is a list of the notable benefits of using raised garden beds, including some of their advantages over in-ground gardens. A number of the perks of raised beds are undeniable, like the added ability to control burrowing pests. Admittedly a few other of the “pros” are slightly more subjective, such as aesthetics and style. Either way, raised garden beds are an excellent and popular way to grow food at home!
1) Control over soil quality
With raised garden beds, you have better control over the condition, quality, and texture of your soil. Rather than simply working with what you’ve got, raised beds can be filled with an ideal soil that your plants will love. After all, soil quality and composition is one of the most important factors (if not THE most important factor) that leads to a healthy and successful garden!
Ideal garden soil is rich with organic matter, has a texture that is loose enough to easily allow root growth, will readily absorb water, but is also well-draining. This essentially describes “sandy loam”, the best all-around soil type for growing plants. Healthy soil is also full of beneficial microorganisms. See this article to learn more about how we fill our raised beds with the “perfect” organic soil.
Perhaps the native soil in your yard or garden is near perfect already. That’s amazing! You’re one of the lucky ones. Yet many home gardeners find that their native soil is not suitable or desirable to grow food in for one reason or another. For example, the soil may have poor drainage or otherwise crummy composition – such as too much clay soil, silt, or very rocky. You’ll need to heavily work and amend those kinds of soils before planting. Even more, native soil may be contaminated, previously treated with herbicides or other pesticides. In that case, you’d likely want to avoid planting in it at all.
Our native soil is extremely silty. It lacks structure, air pockets for microbial life, and water runs right off the top – unless it is already thoroughly saturated, which takes a lot of effort to do. Therefore, we always mix in a good amount of compost and bagged soil when we plant trees or shrubs directly in the ground.
2) Deep soil for roots
Raised beds are usually deep, with ample space for roots to grow. Larger, deeper root systems equals bigger and more luscious plants! Now of course this benefit will vary depending on how deep you construct your raised garden beds. Also, what you install the beds on top of – if anything.
In general, I always recommend an absolute minimum depth of 1 foot tall raised garden beds. If the raised beds have a bottom, are blocked by weed barrier fabric below (we’ll get to that), or are otherwise sitting on a solid surface, I strongly suggest creating beds that are least 18 to 24 inches deep. Some plants will grow in only a few inches of soil, but most common garden crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale, and eggplant will be most happy with significantly deeper soil. Deeper beds also retain moisture better than shallow beds, and are more protected from flooding than in-ground beds.
An in-ground garden bed inherently has “deep” soil too. However, we’re back to considering the composition of the native soil. If you happen to have great native soil, then you’re good to go! Yet if you’re working with clay, large rocks, or other less-than-ideal soil structure – you’re either going to need to work really hard to till and amend the soil deeply, or the plant’s root space will be limited.
3) Raised beds are more ergonomic
Many gardeners really appreciate the comfortable ergonomics of raised beds over in-ground gardening. I know our backs and knees sure do! Raised garden beds are more accessible for people who use a wheelchair, walker, or otherwise have trouble bending over or stooping. Even if I occasionally do get down on my knees to work around the beds (with the help of a padded kneeler!) I am far less hunched over. Our 2-foot tall beds are also the perfect height to serve as an extra seat in the garden when needed.
If you do have limited mobility or back issues, make your raised beds no more than 4 feet wide; my recommended maximum width in general. Yet in the case of a bad back, a long three-foot wide bed is even better! The wider the bed, the further you’ll need to lean and reach to work in the middle. Some raised bed kits are elevated on legs for even better ergonomics!
4) Easier to exclude pests
Growing food (or other plants) in raised garden beds provides an extra layer of defense against pests. The frame and height of the raised bed serves as an obstacle and potential deterrent for pests like slugs, snails, and rabbits. That is, unless they’re quite determined – but then it is really easy to add hoops and floating row covers tucked neatly over the beds to block them altogether. This is also effective against rodents, squirrels, birds, skunks, neighborhood cats, and more.
You can use hoops and netted row covers to protect in-ground garden beds from certain pests too, but not the ones that dig! For us, this is one of the most important benefits of raised garden beds – an absolute life-saver really. The gopher issue here is REAL. It is nearly impossible to grow 99% of food crops directly in the ground in our area because the gophers will eat and kill it all.
With raised beds, destructive burrowing pests like gophers, moles, and voles can be blocked off from below, preventing access to the bed and plants completely. We line the bottom of all of our raised beds with galvanized hardware cloth to protect our plants. We even make large DIY hardware cloth gopher baskets to plant fruit trees in! This way, our plants are safe (ahem, survive…) without embarking on a constant battle or resorting to traps, poison, or other harsh means. Raised beds can also be built tall enough to dissuade dogs or chickens from getting into them, especially if you attach an easy DIY trellis that doubles as a fence!
Chicken wire is cheaper and sometimes used instead of hardware cloth to line the bottom of beds or create gopher baskets. However, chicken wire disintegrates with time, has slightly larger openings, and some pests can chew through it. Therefore, I highly recommend hardware cloth for under raised beds when burrowing pests are a known issue.
Edit: Check out this new article about non-toxic gopher control, with even more ways to gopher-proof your garden!
5) Less weeds
Similar to blocking out pests, raised beds have the advantage of allowing less weed intrusion than in-ground gardens. First and foremost, if you fill your raised garden beds with fresh weed-free soil, they’re far less likely to grow weeds inside them at all. In contrast, native soil and in-ground beds may contain weeds and weed seeds. Though good mulching practices can help suppress weeds in either setting.
The tall borders created by a raised bed prevents weeds from creeping in from the garden pathways around them. You can also prevent invasive weeds from sneaking in from below by providing some type of weed barrier under the raised bed, before filling it with soil. Examples of weed-smothering materials include weed barrier fabric or cardboard, depending on the severity.
When installing a raised garden bed on a fairly weed-free or only slightly weedy area, lining the bottom of the bed with unwaxed cardboard will help smother and kill most weeds. Yet some situations call for something a bit more long-lasting and effective. Our yards were once full of super-weedy crabgrass “lawn”. Even though we removed the lawn before installing the raised beds, we knew from experience that it would come back. Consequently, we lined the entire area with commercial-duty landscape fabric* to prevent the crabgrass from growing in our raised beds or surrounding gravel.
*Note: I highly recommend using a commercial-grade weed barrier fabric (like this one we have always used, or this other highly-rated option) over the really thin black plastic-like material commonly sold in garden centers. That stuff easily rips, doesn’t last long, and makes a hot mess!
6) Raised garden beds look nice
Not that in-ground gardens can’t look nice as well! Personally, I love the added visual interest that raised beds bring to a garden space. They create dimension and a well-defined growing area. Planter boxes of different sizes, heights and shapes can be placed to create unique and attractive garden designs. Not to mention that wood planter boxes can be quite beautiful in their own right – even when they’re empty. Especially if you wrap them in solar string lights!
Finally, it is easier to keep raised garden beds looking tidy than in-ground garden beds. The distinct edges and borders prevent pathway ground cover like gravel or bark mulch from spilling into the planting area itself.
7) Put them anywhere
The final benefit of raised garden beds (for this list anyways!) is that you can install them virtually anywhere. Just like pots and other containers, raised garden beds are very versatile – and some are even mobile! On the flip side, your in-ground garden is limited to where you happen to have open available soil. And that space may or may not be level or receive full sun – both preferred characteristics for a garden.
You can add raised beds to a patio area, balcony, terraced into the side of hill or slope, or even create a rooftop garden. Basically, anywhere that is structurally sound and has good sun exposure. For instance, we plan to add a couple raised beds along our asphalt driveway this spring. We are always on the lookout for additional growing space, and the driveway area receives excellent midday to afternoon sun.
When installing a raised garden bed on top of a solid surface, such as a patio or balcony, there are a few things to take into consideration. First, it is important that the bed has adequate drainage for water to escape. However, it also is best if the bed has some sort of bottom to contain the soil. Otherwise, it will slowly seep out of the bottom and create a huge mess. One option is to line the open bottom of a wood frame planter box with geotextile fabric. Or, you could simply use a “fabric” raised bed – like a giant grow bag! Other raised bed kits have built-in drainage systems, designed for use on a patio.
THE CONS: 5 DRAWBACKS OF RAISED GARDEN BEDS
As you can see, there are numerous respectable benefits to raised garden beds! Yet just like anything in life, there are some potential disadvantages that are worth considering. Let’s talk about some of the drawbacks of raised beds.
1) Raised beds require more materials & upfront cost
Unfortunately, beautiful raised bed gardens don’t just appear out of thin air. They require lumber, screws, tools, and a hefty amount of soil to fill the beds. The cost of materials and soil can really add up, particularly if you’re building and filling numerous raised beds at one time! In-ground garden beds are far more simple and affordable, though you may still wind up purchasing at least some compost and amendments to get started.
A few ways to make filling raised garden beds more economical is to source local quality soil and compost in bulk. We created our gardens and added raised beds in stages, staggering mini-projects over several years to spread the cost out. Another way to lessen the cost of filling beds is to embrace an emerging trend in gardening: the concept of hugelkultur! In hugelkultur, you fill some of the bottom empty space in the bed with logs, branches and/or bark from around your property before adding a good foot of soil on top. Learn how to fill a raised garden bed hugelkultur-style here.
2) Require some basic handy skills and tools
If you want to build your own raised garden beds, it does require a bit of handy work, muscle, and tools. You’ll also need to be able to work through some basic calculations to design the beds and purchase the appropriate size and amount of lumber. If you don’t have a saw at home, many lumber departments will cut boards to your desired lengths for you. When we built our first raised beds, we didn’t even have a power drill… so we resorted to nailing it together! I don’t suggest that.
Creating in-ground gardens requires some muscle as well, but is far more straightforward and requires little-to-no tools.
Thankfully, putting together a rectangular planter box is just about one of the most simple and straightforward DIY “building” projects out there. Don’t be intimidated! To make it even easier, I have created this step-by-step tutorial (video included) on how to design and build a raised garden bed.
Not feeling up to building your own? There are some really excellent, durable, beautiful cedar raised bed kits available out there. These ones from Gardener’s Supply get great reviews. They come in a variety of sizes, and at 15″ deep, will provide a nice amount of root space for your plants.
3) They won’t last forever
Unlike in-ground garden beds, most garden boxes will eventually need repairs or replacement. When that time comes, it means a lot of work to move soil, replace boards, or replace the bed entirely. The lifespan of a raised garden bed depends on the materials it is made of. For example, stone or block raised garden beds will last longer than wooden planter boxes. Well-made wood beds will hold up far longer than poorly-made wood beds.
I always suggest building raised beds from high-quality 2-inch thick hardwood lumber such as cedar or heart redwood. Both of which are naturally rot- and termite-resistant, and can last well over a decade. Here on the west coast, heart redwood (what we use) is readily available and just as affordable as cedar. Cedar is most common on the east coast. To make wood garden beds last even longer, consider sealing the wood with a non-toxic wood sealer such as Garden Seal. We applied several coats to the inside of our newest raised beds.
However, cedar and redwood do cost more than cheaper pine wood, douglas fir, thinner 1-inch boards, fence boards, plywood, or repurposed scrap wood. However, those materials can quickly rot, bow, or otherwise degrade. Never use pressure treated lumber – it is full of toxins! The upfront cost of quality lumber is a worthy investment when you’re building raised beds.
4) Raised beds are more permanent
Once you build and install raised garden beds, it is relatively difficult to move them or change the layout of your garden space. Not that it can’t be done! We have dug the soil out of many raised beds to relocate or re-design them over the years. We even bagged up soil and moved wood boxes from a rental house to this home. I can’t say it is fun to do though.
In contrast, you can modify an in-ground garden space with far less effort! All you need to do is dig up a new area. If necessary, you could even plow it all over and re-seed the area with grass to please a landlord. Damn landlords.
5) Limited shapes and curves
Perhaps you enjoy the feel of a more soft, natural, and flowing garden. In-ground gardens provide more flexibility for creative shapes and form fewer hard lines than raised beds. Unless you’re particularly handy and have the right tools, planter boxes are usually limited to square or rectangular shapes. However, we’re able to add flow and softness to our garden space in other ways. For example, our cobblestone-bordered planting areas, curved pathways, and billowing shrubs and flowers bring balance to the structured raised beds.
And that concludes the potential drawbacks and benefits of raised garden beds.
As you can see, the potential benefits of raised garden beds or in-ground gardens largely depends on your unique garden space, native soil, budget, aesthetic preferences, and prevalence of pests. For us, the benefits of raised garden beds clearly outweigh the cons. Yet both styles of gardening are worthy and wonderful! I hope that this article gave you some “ah-ha” moments as you narrow down which type of beds are best for you. Who knows, maybe you can do a little of each!
Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below, or add input about what type of garden you prefer. Spread the garden love and knowledge by sharing or pinning this article!
Check out these related articles:
- How to Design & Build a Raised Garden Bed
- How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed: Build the Perfect Organic Soil
- Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home
- How to Amend & Fertilize a Raised Garden Bed Between Seasons
- How to Build a Trellis: Inexpensive & Easy DIY Designs