Gardening brings joy to so many people. It can be therapeutic, feed your household, and create a focal point of beauty in your outdoor living space. Garden beds can help create a designed and organized area for whatever you like to plant. The problem is, where to begin? Starting from a blank slate can be as overwhelming as a blackberry bush on an overgrown shed. Don’t worry, we’ve put together a compilation of ideas and general guidelines for establishing the ideal garden bed for your space.
In-Ground Beds Vs. Raised Garden Beds
There are plenty of pros and cons to installing raised beds vs. in-ground beds. In general, we like to think that any method of planting something is a great idea! In the big picture, in-ground beds are great because you are using the natural landscape with little manipulation. By planting directly into the ground, you are improving the soil quality of the landscape, which is always a plus! Through amendments and increasing the level organic matter in the soil of your yard, you are enhancing the soil quality and health for the long term benefit of your property.
However, Colorado doesn’t always provide people with the gift of a naturally fertile soil. Our guess is that most of you don’t look out your back window and say, “Look at all that lush grass and perfect soil, it would be crazy of me not to grow my vegetables there!” But rather, we find that most of us look out at our backyards and think “It doesn’t seem feasible to plant anything in this dusty, sandy, dry, desert of a yard.” Introducing the beauty of a raised bed!
Raised beds are a wonderful alternative, and often aesthetically pleasing option, for the at-home gardener. They are exactly what they sound like – garden beds that are elevated from the ground, most commonly constructed in a square or rectangular shape, and are usually made of treated wood. There are no specifications for how high your raised bed should be, but they can be advantageous in terms of easing the burden off your back and body from stooping over to tend your garden.
Compared to in-ground beds, raised beds do require a larger investment of work, time and materials to start (it takes more soil than you think to fill a raised bed!), but in-ground beds may require more work in soil amendment. There are many aspects of a raised garden bed that can be controlled, which makes them a vastly functional option.
Pros & Cons
Pros of Raised Garden Beds
- Weeding is not necessarily everyone’s favorite pastime and it’s nearly impossible to have a completely weed-free bed. However, with less exposure to the ground, grass and natural weeds in your garden, you’ll likely spend less time pulling out unwanted greenery. Keep in mind that you should line the bottom of your beds with landscape fabric as well to prevent any from coming up through the native soil! And, when you do have to pull a few weeds (sorry, you will have to), it’s less stress on the body if you have higher raised beds
- If you’re someone that entertains quite a bit, has curious kiddos, or maybe a few fluffy friends, raised beds create a well-defined space that makes it much more difficult for your plants to be squashed by paws and toes. Not only will this protect your plants from being trampled and damaged by the curious critters of your life, but it will also help reduce the risk of soil compaction which (trust us) your plants will thank you for.
- Soil quality control
- If there is one thing we know for certain, it is that without healthy soil there will be no healthy plants! Consider the soil at your garden bed site, especially if you are looking to use an in-ground bed design. Have you tested its pH? You may have overly acidic soil for what the plants you are trying to grow can handle. Or maybe your soil is composed of more clay than you’d like. Read more on why soil pH matters:
If you don’t want to rely on the soil you have, building raised beds gives you a lot more control over the quality and texture of your soil, which will help your plants all around. Your soil may have been previously treated with pesticides you don’t want, have poor drainage or have other undesirable materials in it.
Colorado soils, especially on the Front Range, tend to be heavier in clay content with low organic matter. So if you’re planting directly in-ground, it’s highly likely you will need to amend your soil with a top dress such as compost.
- Potential Pest Deterrent
- It would be nice if we could snap our fingers and know that all pests are repelled from our gardens. But alas, this is not the case. With raised beds there is a higher chance to deter our little bunny and snail friends without adding extra covers and fences.
- In-ground beds are limited to where your soil is, but raised beds can be put in a variety of places. This means that you can really customize how much sun or shade they get, how visible they are in your landscape, and their water situation.
- Hands down, raised beds just look lovely. With the variety of styles and materials available, it’s easy to make them your own and feel integrated into your landscape. Who doesn’t love looking out at your garden at a crop full of fresh veg or a bed full of flowers?
Cons of Raised Garden Beds
- Cost & Materials
- As we all know, landscape materials have gone up in price in the last few years, which makes raised garden beds a bit more costly than sticking some seeds in the ground (ahem, in your well-tilled, amended soil). And if you’re not construction-inclined, you may need to bribe a few friends with a pizza party to help you build them. Consider completing your project in stages – it will even out the cost and help you make adjustments along the way. There are many DIY raised garden bed tutorials online to get you started.
General Materials List for Raised Beds:
- Structure Material
- Landscape Fabric
- Power Tools
- Soil (A LOT)
General Materials List for In-Ground Beds:
- Landscape Fabric
- Soil Amendments
- Temperature fluctuations
- If you bring a whole bunch of soil up out of the ground and stick plants in a box, what might happen to the temperature of the soil? That’s right, it will be a bit more variable since there will be more surface area above the ground. This can mean a longer growing season (as the beds will warm up faster) but potential issues with cold weather. Keep that in mind when we have some late (or early depending on time of year) Colorado freezes.
- Moisture & Irrigation
- Raised beds will dry out a bit faster as well, which means you will need to add more moisture than you would if you had in-ground beds. It’s not so much that they will dry out faster, but they take significantly more water in order to fully penetrate the depth of the bed compared to that of an in-ground bed. Soil amendments can help with retention.
- Irrigation setups can also be more complex. Unless you plan on hand-watering all of your plants, map out your irrigation installation well before you start construction to ensure your crop gets adequate water. Different irrigation systems that are best suited for raised bed irrigation – drip lines.
- Crop Selections
- Some plants do better in-ground as opposed to in raised beds. Whether it’s due to a need for deeper roots, specific pollination or larger plants, (think corn, potatoes, watermelon and large squash), you may be better off sticking to in-ground beds as long as your soil composition is amended and tilled correctly.
- Deterioration & Maintenance
- Depending on the materials used, there will be some upkeep associated with raised beds. Wood panels can rot, be attacked by fun little termites or fall apart if constructed poorly. Proceed with the baseline assumption that you will have to maintain some part of the structure of your beds.
Garden Bed Materials
It’s best practice to build your raised beds out of materials that won’t break down over time. Wood is definitely a common bed material and extremely versatile. It’s easily accessible, beautiful and comes in many forms.
Try to avoid utilizing pressure treated wood if it’s going to come into contact with food. It will be more rot-resistant and termite-resistant, but there may be some unwanted chemical or hazardous material. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, lumber treated with ACQ (alkaline copper quat) is safe for garden use, but if you want to avoid that altogether, redwood or cedar naturally deters pests.
One massive benefit of establishing wood garden beds is that you’ll have full customization on the shape and size that you want to tuck your plants into. You can build tiered beds, construct beds with built-in benches, vertical beds….the options are limited by your imagination. If you’re going for a more rustic look, wood wood be a good way to go.
Galvanized metal has been used for raised garden beds as well and it’s increasing in popularity. It’s a fairly durable material and will likely outlast wooden beds, as the pieces are coated and won’t rust out. Though they’re more expensive than wood and likely pre-structured, galvanized metal beds can give you more options for organic shapes in your landscape if you’re less interested in the corners and hard lines. Unlike wood, galvanized metal won’t wick away water around the edges, resulting in better retention for your thirsty plants. If you go this route, you’ll have a nice farmhouse feel in your garden.
Wattle is another unique way to structure your beds. While it will require more work to maintain, it adds an interesting texture to your garden space and can be beautiful. Expect that you will replace it much more frequently than other materials. Wattle brings a nice, homely and cozy look to your garden.
Stone garden beds are a tried-and-true material for garden beds. They’ll stand the test of time with very little maintenance. They come in a variety of colors and styles and make designing a bed incredibly custom. The downside? The up-front cost is higher and you may not end up with the same materials later if you stagger your installation. Wood is much easier to go back to the store and source, but stone can go out of fashion if you want to build more later.
Your location for your beds will likely be fairly permanent as well – so make sure you know exactly what you want and where you want it before you start. Also consider the depth of stone – it’s thicker than galvanized metal and an inch or two of wood. If you have a smaller gardening space, stone may eat up more of it than you would like.
Many people have come up with other interesting ways to show off and care for their plants. Gutters, standing beds and various other containers are out there to explore. Just keep in mind the important basics of your garden: good soil, ample sunlight, proper watering and drainage.
Garden Bed Shapes & Designs
The world is your oyster (Rutabaga? Carrot?) when it comes to the design of your garden beds. With the shape, height and look you want, you can get deep into the soil to really customize every aspect of them.
When determining your layout, consider how accessible you need your garden beds to be. Standard, rectangular beds can be great, but what size are you going to make them? If they’re too wide, it may end up being difficult to reach the other side to care for the plants, especially if they’re nestled up against a fence.
Do you need them to be taller? Bending over for long periods of time can be stressful on the hands, knees and back. What would be an ideal height for you to efficiently and comfortably harvest those cucumbers? If you are planning to build multiple garden beds, or even larger in ground beds, make sure to include aisles in your design so you can easily access all sides and the middle of your beds without risking damaging the plant or yourself!
If you’re looking at narrower beds, keep in mind the spacing that you’ll need for whatever you’re planting. Some plants, like loose leaf lettuces, do well in close proximity, while a fully mature head of cabbage is going to need a little bit more breathing room. This may determine the dimensions of your bed.
Don’t forget, you want it to look good in your yard! If you have a uniformly shaped landscape, U-Shaped, L-Shaped or square beds might feel a bit more cohesive. If you have a funkier layout or you prefer more organic shapes, consider octagonal or oval beds.
Use the space
Do you have a smaller yard? Do you feel like you need to utilize every square inch of area that you have available? It’s understandable. You may think about smaller, thinner beds against the perimeter of your fence like these:
Photo from Lorraine Bamford
If that doesn’t provide enough garden bed space, go up up up! Vertical beds are common in urban areas that don’t have large lots. These modern ones give you vertical space for a small garden:
Do you have a sloped yard? Custom raised garden beds might be able to help level out your planting area:
Or check out some of these other creative ideas that people have come up with:
Photo from Rau Christine
You may want to establish some supplemental features depending on your climate and what visitors you might have to your garden.
Animals & Adventurers
Enclosed garden beds can help keep out deer and bunny friends that shouldn’t be munching on your vegetables. Taller beds with gates can help your dogs (and young kids) stay in their own areas so you don’t have to worry about Fido thinking your carrots are chew toys.
Some of your plants may need some extra assistance. Consider whether your beds will need tomato cages or trellises for your vined plants to grow to their fullest. If you have the space, constructing simple arbors across two beds can give space for your beans to grow while still adhering to the three sisters’ planting technique. It also adds a great deal of visual interest to have your own little green archway to walk through as you enjoy your garden.
Pay attention to your plant’s sunshine needs. Do you need to add any shade covers to them? What about a hailstorm? Here, they’re somewhat unpredictable and can come on fast. Lids like these might be the way to go if you won’t have a chance to construct something for an impending storm.
That Extra Somethin' Somethin'
Want some extra flair? Stone pathways between your beds can really tie your garden space together and provide designated areas for people to enjoy a stroll in your garden.
Adding lighting to your beds is another way to make them stand out, even at night.
There are so many options when it comes to planning out your garden beds. It’s really up to you, how you want your garden space to look and your budget limitations. Focus on functionality and the form will come together.