By Alex Lyneel @theEnglishGardener
Garden designers, florists, school teachers and city gardeners alike swear by them — raised beds have transformed the way we garden and made gardening simple and accessible to all. Still on the fence about them? Read on for the top reasons why raised bed gardening might be right for you.
1. Raised bed gardening: easy to set up
The first step in setting up a raised bed garden is to give your plants a long-term growing medium. When you do this, you won’t need to dig the soil and refresh it constantly as with traditional gardening. If your beds are laid on bricks, paving blocks or concrete, it’s important to place drainage material beneath the liner inside your beds to allow rainwater to circulate.
If your raised bed is placed above soil, using a liner will prevent weeds from growing through and the raised bed sleepers (also called railway ties) from rotting over time. It will also act as a barrier against small critters such as moles. To protect your plants’ roots, spring bulbs or tubers against larger burrowing animals like badgers or gophers, you can also use a mesh or chicken wire underneath your beds.
Once your bottom liner is set, use the “no-dig” method by alternatively layering different organic materials over each other. Think of your bed as a lasagna. Lay successive layers of cardboard, drainage material, dead organic material such as leaves or branches, compost, and finish with top soil.
If you’re spoiled for choice with dead material, you can go the extra mile by using “hugelkultur”. This method consists of heaping up partially rotted wooden material (such as logs, branches) with compost and soil, starting with the largest branches. This will enrich the soil with nutrients for the following 8 to 10 years, directly accessible via the roots of the plants growing in the bed.
Over time and especially after rainfalls, the soil level in your beds will reduce as it soaks in water. You can prevent this by covering your garden beds with a membrane during winter. Or, by topping up the soil amount with fresh soil or compost each year, or when you plant in something new as you would in traditional gardening.
2. Perfect for small spaces
Often in small spaces, gardeners add more and more potted plants and containers over time. This can turn a garden space into a “plant theatre” which requires work to maintain year-long. Work (and time) adds up with changing the content of pots and transferring bulbs or dahlia tubers inside after they’ve finished blooming. And add to that the work and time involved with watering, cleaning and changing the compost in each pot throughout the year.
Raised beds take away all that hassle. If you can free up a corner of your garden, why not use one single raised bed rather than 10 pots? One bed with sufficient depth (18″ minimum) will retain water better and allow your plants to root more deeply than they would in medium-size pots.
Not only will you spend less time watering, your garden will be more resilient during hot spells or while you’re away. Added depth will allow for a greater variety of flowers to be planted, such as roses for example.
3. A versatile planting medium
Raised beds are often associated with vegetable growing or cut flowers. But, they can also be used to grow herbaceous borders using perennial and annual flowers, especially in paved gardens where planting a border directly in the soil is not an option.
My garden is composed of six raised beds. I use the first two to grow ornamental and pollinator-friendly perennials, and I add bulbs in autumn and annual seeding in the summer to give these beds a border effect.
The remaining four beds are used for cut flowers. One bed for shade-loving flowers and foliage like nicotiana or foxgloves. Another for dahlias, one for annuals such as cosmos or snapdragons, and the last bed is for any others that will thrive in dappled shade.
Whether you’re growing vegetables, flowers, fruit, or a bit of everything, the beauty of raised beds is that their growing medium can be changed to adapt to the plants you’d like to grow. Add more drainage and a less nutrient-rich soil and flowers like lavender, rosemary or salvias will thrive; add a richer compost and hungry flowers such as dahlias will grow in ideal conditions.
4. Adaptable to many situations
From community gardens to established gardens, small urban gardens, rooftop terraces and balconies — raised beds are a good idea just about anywhere you can imagine. The essence of their adaptability is that they don’t need to be laid over bare soil — for example, my garden area is made of paved blocks which would otherwise make gardening impossible.
You may be a similar situation. Parts of your home — side or rear extension spaces, unused parking spaces, balconies and terraces — could be used as a vegetable garden or flower garden, or to attract birds and pollinators. These make for ideal growing spaces, and terrific small garden ideas.
For instance, on rooftop terraces and balconies, low-maintenance perennials will thrive in poor soil and can cope with windier conditions (such as Mediterranean herbs, salvias, euphorbia, grasses). Make sure to use ample drainage and a liner to protect any decking underneath.
5. The health benefits of raised bed gardening
Gardening brings you closer to Nature and helps make you more attuned to changes in seasons and the environment. It’s also an effective way to reduce stress at the end of a long day, and it provides a decent amount of physical activity.
Gardening in raised beds limits back pain as you don’t need to reach as far back when planting or digging in the soil as you would with “traditional” gardening. Raised bed gardening also makes the practice of gardening accessible to wheelchair users as well as gardeners suffering from back issues. Vertical gardens in raised beds do this well also.
In a raised bed, the need to weed constantly is quite limited compared to gardening in bare soil, as a bed crammed full of plants leaves no space for unwelcome seedlings.
Regardless of whether your bed is set on concrete, brick or bare soil, adding a membrane beneath the bed and layers of cardboard will prevent weeds from growing through. You can also cover your beds over winter to prevent any wind-blown seeds from rooting. Finally, since the soil of raised beds is made of a mixture of compost and top soil, it is more workable than bare soil which makes your life much easier as a gardener.
Thank you for reading. I hope that if you’re contemplating gardening in raised beds this article will convince you to join me in becoming a convert to raised bed gardening. Let’s look for all those unused spaces in our gardens and turn them into green havens!