Raised bed veggie vs. right into the dirt ... preference?

estreyaDecember 29, 2008

Hello everyone, and happy winter!

This coming Spring, it's my intention to work on the vegetable garden component of my home and garden. One of the more pronounced questions in my mind is whether to create raised beds, which seem so popular now, or simply plant directly into the ground. Although i plan to take a few books out of the library for inspiration, i thought i'd ask for feedback here as far as what your individual preferences are.

I have to say, i'm not really looking forward to the expense of wood framing materials and filler dirt/compost. Unless there's a compelling reason for raised garden beds, i'm leaning towards planting directly into my soil.


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The reason most often compelling gardeners to utilize raised beds is soil condition. Heavy soils and poor drainage are most easily overcome by this method. Other good reasons are the ability to locate raised beds wherever light conditions and accessibility are ideal - not always the case with inground planting opportunities - the ability to easily customize soil conditions for specific plants, the ability to grow crops more intensively than traditional, inground row plantings and the ability to access and tend the crops easily without needing to walk on or compact the soil. Plus the soil in raised beds tends to warm faster in spring, affording earlier planting and faster growth than if planting in the ground.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2008 at 1:33PM
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I use raised beds because I don't have to bend as far to plant, weed, etc. But I don't frame them with wood. I just rake the soil into a raised bed with sloped sides. It works fine. And I can plant stuff on the sloped sides.

Something to consider: ordinary soil tillage equipment like tillers will only dig to 5" deep or so. If you till, then rake the soil into raised beds, you can end up with a soil depth of 10" or more. I can tell you from a lifetime of experience that just about everything grows extremely well in raised beds, especially plants that need good soil depth, like carrots.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2008 at 3:04PM
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I am reading Steve Solomon's book Gardening When it Counts -Growing Food in Hard Times. He makes a case for returning to less "intensive" gardening. We were in the process of removing 20 year old raised beds and redoing them. This year it may be a trial year to try out the row system before replacing the beds. I really like having beds, pathways and a place for perennial vegetables. I can be better about rotation with beds.
After reading Solomon's book, I may be ready for a change.
I have never been a serious food grower. We grow at least 60% of our fruits and vegetables, but in with the edibles are a lot of herbs and flowers. Straight row gardening is not as friendly to mixing it up. I may compromise with "wide row" gardening.
Steve Solomon's book is recommended for winter reading.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2008 at 12:29AM
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Hmmm ... food for thought, yes? Thank you for your feedback, you two. This will be a very visible spot, so i'm really wanting a neat, almost manicured look. I suppose that might be easier to achieve (and maintain!) in raised beds also. I'm vacillating, as you can see!

thanks again ...

    Bookmark   December 31, 2008 at 12:30AM
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Cedar_wa, we both posted at the same time, so i missed your words. Thank you for that book recommendation. I'll look for it in the library. And if you have photographs of your gardens, please feel free to post them as well! I find it so helpful to have visuals ...


    Bookmark   December 31, 2008 at 12:33AM
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I have a pretty strong opinion about raised beds. I think gardeners have been sold a bill of goods on the benefits, at least in the way in which most people create raised beds-- that is in big wooden boxes. Mounded earth, yes; elaborate wood planters, no. Why?

-Pressure-treated arsenic-infused wood is usually used
-Becomes a haven for slugs
-in the NW's dry summers have to water more
-wood rots, eventually, carpenter ants, etc.
-high maintenance
-difficult to culivate without bringing down the boards
-expensive to create

If you want a raised bed, mound the earth and build it up with amendments and go that route and leave the pressure treated wood for your new front steps. ;-)

    Bookmark   December 31, 2008 at 12:06PM
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CCA treated wood has been off the market since 2004, so that is no longer an issue. And there has been no significant scientific documentation to support the notion that CCA-infused lumber leaches excessive amounts of arsenic into the soil anyway - modest levels of arsenic tend to be present in most soils.

Raised beds do not have to be created from lumber - inexpensive concrete blocks work just as well and can be assembled into raised beds and disassembled at will. Or use recycled concrete chunks, often available for free. And using these or any recycled wood products like Trex eliminates any rotting issues as well as any insects that may be attracted to wood. Slugs are slugs and in the PNW they will be present regardless of planting situation - in ground, in raised beds, even in container plantings. Baiting will control the worst of the slug damage in any case. Any mounded or raised planting area will require at bit more frequent watering than inground or nonmounded/bermed areas - that is just the physics of drainage and water movement.

There is nothing specific about constructed raised beds that would make them any more higher maintenance than mounded or inground row plantings other than the use of materials and even untreated cedar or redwood will last 5-10 years before needing to be replaced, longer if they are lined with plastic to limit contact with damp soil.

And problems with cultivation is a non-issue. Once they are filled with soil, additional cultivation in the way of tilling is seldom necessary and generally not recommended anyway. Additions of compost or other OM can be made easily in the offseason or before planting. There is no need to disassemble a raised planter to renew or refresh the soil.

We all have our preference on what we like best, but there is nothing innately inherent regarding constructed raised planters that makes them less desireable than inground plantings other than personal choice.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2008 at 1:14PM
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toad_ca(z7b Bellingham, WA)

When we moved here 1 1/2 years ago, the area we wanted for a kitchen garden was filled with blackberries, thistles, and other undesirables gone wild. Once we dug them all up, we could see just how rock-hard the ground was. So we borrowed a friend's small roto-tiller and dug up a few inches wherever our raised beds were going to go. Then we build 3, untreated-wood frames 3' x 12' x 3" beds and filled them with 5-way topsoil and compost. The veggies (tomatoes, peppers, sugar-snap peas, lettuces, kale, carrots and chard) all did beautifully with very, very few weeds or critters.
Early November, we added a huge, raised, unframed, lasagna garden to the space. We're eager to see how starts and seeds do there and compare the results to the framed, raised beds.
As far as aesthetic appeal goes, the Master Gardener vegetable demonstration garden up here at Hovander Homestead Park is part mounded, unframed raised beds and part framed square-foot. The paths between the beds are kept weed-free and are fairly wide. So the result is very attractive, especially when everything is growing.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2009 at 2:01PM
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dottyinduncan(z8b coastal BC)

We had raised beds and they dried out so fast it was impossible to grow much in in them. I actually do the opposite: plant into the ground by making a shallow trench and plant in the bottom. I can use an open hose to water and just wet the area where the seeds are planted. I think this saves water and the trench stays damp for almost a week instead of needing water daily. It all depends upon your soil. I have also been experimenting with lasagna gardens (check out the soil forum on g/w) with wonderful success. I believe that we should be using more veggie gardens in the landscape. Many of the plants are very attractive and being able to pick a tomato from a handy plant is a super treat. Remember those days?????

    Bookmark   January 2, 2009 at 8:46PM
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still_kris(z17 NoCA)

I would love to be able to plant right in the ground, but the gopher problems here don't allow that. The only way I can get anything from my vegetable garden is to plant in raised beds which are lined with hardware cloth.

If expense were the only consideration then I could just buy my produce at the grocery store, eh? But quality, convenience and pleasant free time activity are higher on my list than the cost of what I grow.

I use stock fencing rings lined with landscaping fabric with a hardware cloth bottom for my raised beds. They seem to last for many years and are very easy to move if necessary.

And, yes, they do dry out more easily in summer which is why I am a three (well, really 2-1/2) season gardener and don't bother to grow vegetables much during the dry months.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2009 at 4:55AM
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sinfonian(U8b A2 S5 SeaWA)

I agree that soil conditions could be a major deciding factor. In my case, my ground was in the worst possible condition; dry, hardpan, 1 foot deep root weeds, morning glories galore, you name it, I had it. So I went landsape fabric, 3 inches of gravel and then raised beds, but I had a small space to work with. I wouldn't do it any other way, but that's me and my situation.

If you're leaning toward raised beds, sans wood, then go for it. Just make sure you augment your soil correctly. Steve Solomon's book is good on that.

Good luck and enjoy your garden!

Here is a link that might be useful: Sinfonian's garden adventure!

    Bookmark   January 9, 2009 at 11:43PM
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Thank you for your additional thoughts everyone!

I must say, that trench idea intrigues me. The site i have outlined gets very very dry and it's far from the house (which means lugging a 200 foot length of hose to water). On the other hand, Sinfonian, your raised beds are just so gorgeous! Even with all the insights here, i still haven't decided.

Just watch. I'm going to end up with nothing but potted tomatoes on the deck next summer. :)

Thank you again everyone ...

Cheers for now,

a vacillating gardener

    Bookmark   January 9, 2009 at 11:57PM
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I have a lot of raised beds. 12" tall. All of the 2x6's used to make them was free. I went to new housing construction neighborhoods and asked if I could raid their scrap piles.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2009 at 10:43PM
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I also have some raised beds 12" tall built with 2x6 untreated pine (which have lasted 5 years but will probably be replaced in the 6th year) filled with compost, chicken manure and topsoil. The veggies do great! I prefer the raised beds because they define the garden and keep it clean instead of having to trek through a muddy mess. I also like to put bark mulch down on the paths to keep the weeds down. And my guests enjoy walking out to view the garden without worrying about ruining there shoes in mud and/or dirt.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2009 at 4:49AM
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We used to plant in the ground but went to raised beds with fir boards. They last for years before rotting. The soil warms up faster in the spring so we can sow earlier and work the soil easier without having to wait for it to dry out enough to get a tiller on it. Be sure to go to the garden center and check the soil you buy before ordering it. Ours was mostly sand which will not hold water. We have amended with compost and went to a drip irrigating system on a timer that is wonderful. It puts the water where we need it and we don't have to remember to do it as it comes on whenever we program it for. Both systems are very reasonable and easy to install from Home Depot or Lowes. Also love not have to hoe the weeds out of the paths and the boxes have less weeds than out old garden did. Put heavy duty weed block cloth on the paths and have it there for years.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2009 at 4:46PM
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