A few years ago, my husband and I bought land in the country. Being from the city area ourselves, this was new territory, literally. All of a sudden, we had all this space, and I did what any other impulsive woman would do; I got ahead of myself, got some boots, and became a self-proclaimed country homesteader who now grows, harvests, and cans her own produce. I learned some things, failed at a lot of things, and am here to share what I have experienced this past year, with you.
Being on the brink of the 2023 growing season, I believe it is a fitting time to talk about my experience starting my first garden ever, and perhaps I can inspire you to do the same. When we began planting, we built five raised beds and used them to grow the majority of our produce. Mid-summer, we added a 330sqft pumpkin patch (remember how I mentioned I was impulsive? I know, I'm working on it). We will save the pumpkin patch project for another day. For now, let's focus on the raised beds.
Why raised beds?
We decided on raised beds primarily because of our native soil conditions. We live in an area of heavy clay, and being an unexperienced gardener, I went with raised beds because I could control the soil my plants would grow in.
Note: You can absolutely plant in clay soil as long as you amend it. Clay soil is abundantly nutrient-rich, but the downside is that you will have drainage issues because it is so compacted. Tilling in organic matter is a great way to amend clay soil to help improve drainage.
Another reason we went with raised beds is because our land has not been worked for way over 30 years, at least. It used to be old farmland but has since been overgrown with prickly weeds. With no equipment yet to clear a space for a garden, raised beds were the obvious choice.
That winter, my husband went from office worker to homestead farmer! Our land is not completely flat, so he built me a level platform made from truckloads of gravel where I could place my raised beds. He really is a man of many talents.
How we built our raised beds
Our raised beds are made of cedar. We used nine 2"x4"x8' cedar planks per bed: three 8' planks per long side, and three, 8' planks cut in half to make six, 4' planks for the short sides. I used four 4"x4"x12" posts for stability in the corners and two 2"x4"x12" boards in the middle of the 8' sides for support. I then screwed in a bunch of screws and did that four more times.
Growing crops in raised beds is great! I do not need to bend down far, and for the most part weeds are never an issue. Because mine are about a foot tall, there is plenty of space for the roots to grow downward. I even grow potatoes just fine.
Raised beds provide structural interest to the garden space. They keep crops contained, and when the crops are in full production mode the garden looks lush and clean. In the winter they remind me of all the things I grew the previous season. Likewise, they cause me to think of what I want to grow in the spring, and I forget about the bitter cold and snow for at least a little while.
At the beginning of the growing season, tilling can usually be done by hand with simple garden tools. When you add compost or soil, there is less spread because the area you are covering is contained. Therefore, you do not need as much material to cover your growing area than you would if you had to spread it over the ground to get the same height.
Gardening with raised beds allows you to decide where you want to grow. I am particularly talking about small space gardening here, such as a small kitchen garden to grow lettuces and tomatoes, for example. You are not limited as to where to put your garden when you have raised beds. They even make raised beds that stand up off the ground, like this one from Gardener's Supply:
By not having your raised bed on the ground, you can put it on a back patio, a front porch, or any place where it would not make sense to have it sit on the ground.
These types of raised beds are ideal for people who cannot physically bend over easily, making gardening accessible for everyone.
It is nice to have a separate growing area for crops that are more delicate, like lettuce, rather than putting these seeds in thick clay soil that could damage or drown tender crops. Like I said before, if you do not wish to amend your soil, raised beds are a great way to create your own perfect growing environment.
Finally, pest pressure is very small with raised beds. We have a rock layer underneath our beds and have no issue with moles stealing our root crops.
If you live in a colder climate, one thing you will need to keep in mind with raised beds is
that your plants will stay cooler as compared to planting them in the ground. There is not as much insulation in raised beds as there is in the ground. For example, your plants are more susceptible to damage during a light freeze when planted in raised beds than in the soil because their roots can freeze more easily.
On the opposite end, I found the soil to dry out quite quickly during our hot summer. If you live in a place with very hot summers, you may need to water your raised bed crops more often to keep them happy. That being said, you'll want to make sure there is a water source nearby that you can use to water your garden to make it easier on yourself. While this may not be a problem if you only have one or two raised beds, if you are planning to have a bunch of them, you will want to make sure you place them within reach of a hose (unless you are okay refilling a water can over and over again).
But Mary, you just said you can put raised beds anywhere?
Yes, you CAN and you SHOULD. You just need to determine what is feasible and convenient for you. I believe the elevated raised beds are great for back porch gardening where you can step outside and grab a tomato while cooking dinner, but for large scale growing, it would be helpful to put your garden in a place close to a water source.
If you plan on filling your raised beds with soil that was either dropped off by truckload, or from another location on your property, such as if you are adding compost from your pile, and unless you have a very short raised bed, it is extremely difficult to load tall beds with soil. With ours, dumping wheelbarrows full of soil into the beds is difficult because the sides are higher than the wheelbarrow (My husband is able to fill the beds this way by building a little ramp for the wheelbarrow, but this is impossible for me to do). If I want to fill the beds, I have to load the dirt into my wheelbarrow, then shovel it from the wheelbarrow into the raised beds. This method is quite time consuming, but thankfully the hardest part is over and the only filling I now have to do is at the beginning of each growing season to top off the beds with a little soil and compost.
You can see how tall these beds are!
This next point may be a con for some more than others, and that is with raised beds, you are confined to a smaller growing space. If you plant directly in the ground, you have more room to plant things because you do not have to account for as much walking space between the beds. For example, you can grow more in a 10'x10' ground growing space than you can with a 10'x10' growing space for raised beds because you would need to account for bed spacing. This may not matter to you if you only plan on growing a few things, or if you have a lot of space and several beds.
Finally, it can be quite costly to make and fill raised beds, depending on how big you make them. If you find a good price, cedar planks can run you about $6- $9 each, and you will also need screws, power tools, and clamps for assembly. We had our dirt delivered, which was a couple hundred dollars. We used sticks and hay to partially fill the beds for bulk. If you need to buy your supplies up front, a raised bed garden can easily run you between a couple hundred to over a thousand dollars. That being said, I strongly suggest you look around and see what you can repurpose to create your raised beds to lower your cost. Good places to start looking for deals are Facebook Marketplace or your local hardware store for scraps or clearance wood (just make sure it is in good condition), or perhaps call around to family and friends for materials. That way, you can easily cut your raised bed garden price by a large amount.
NOTE: A raised bed garden does not need to be a big, fancy project. Even if you are able to make one bed out of an old wood palet and grow even a couple crops, that's amazing! The point is, you're growing your own food and that's exciting! There is nothing quite like healthy, homegrown food. It's good for you.
Why raised beds work for us.
After going over all the pros and cons, I want to explain why raised beds work for us.
As mentioned above, it allows us to control the soil conditions more, which, in turn, allows us to grow crops that would otherwise not do very well in thick clay soil. Things like lettuce that would get weighed down by thick clay, or carrots that would deform as they attempt to grow downwards through the clay are much easier to grow in raised beds, although they CAN technically be grown in clay soil. Like a mother with her children, I want the best for my crops, and I want to provide the best environment for them to grow and be strong, successful plants!
I grow a wide variety of things, and being able to group them together with companions is very convenient in raised beds. Again, you CAN do this in clay, but it makes sense to me to group them in beds, and I like the organization.
Raised beds look tidy. My husband is from Holland, which is flat land territory, and there is a satisfaction to him to walk around the garden through the straight, neat rows.
Our beds look so inviting in the summer when they are in full production mode. My favorite thing is when the plants really start to take off and the vines and leaves start to spill and crawl over the sides of the beds. So pretty!
We do not have to deal with sticky, gross clay on our shoes either. The cleanness that raised beds provide, visually and in practice, is probably the biggest reason why we do most of our gardening in them.
I absolutely do not regret having raised beds. As you can see, the pros far outweigh the cons! They are a wonderful way to maximize growing when conditions are not ideal, and they provide structural interest in the garden space. The only pest pressure we have to deal with is from flying insects, but we completely avoid any damage from moles or deer. On the flip side, they are quite costly to make or buy, and require quite a bit of dirt to fill. Dirt needs to be replaced that was lost during the previous years' growing season due to nutrient uptake and runoff, which is another expense. Using homemade compost or materials found around the property can help reduce the cost of refill.
Above all else, just grow something! Raised beds do not have to be expensive. In fact, raised beds are simply oversized pots! Even if it is one tomato plant, I encourage you to plant something this year. At least you won't have to rely on the grocery store and pay for overpriced tomatoes! You'll know exactly where your food is coming from, and that is a very cool thing!
What are your plans for your garden this year? Are you starting one for the first time? I'd like to know!
For us, we are planning to expand our raised bed garden footprint and add a few more beds.
Look out for my future posts about what we are planning to do with our garden in 2023! Sign up for our newsletter so you don't miss it!
See you next Monday!