A Case for Raised Bed Gardening

Necessity is the mother of affection.

That’s the executive summary of my journey from disdain to delight about gardening in raised beds. Diy Wooden Bird Feeder

A Case for Raised Bed Gardening

Now the bottom line: Raised beds are better. More vegetables and flowers, less strenuous, more robust all around. The beds look nicer, too.

Hardscrabble, puny ground led me to this epiphany. The 27-acre farm I bought six years ago on a remote island north of Seattle is a beautiful expanse of old-growth woodland and hay meadow—on rock-ridden, clay-clogged glacial till. Saturated in water in winter, hard as a stone in summer. Perfect for perennial grass, shore pine, and rose scrub—but not beefsteak tomatoes and tender green snow peas. Not to mention fragrant lilies, garden phlox, and maybe most important, sweet corn.

So after installing the perimeter deer fence (a rural necessity), my wife Nicole and I built our first raised bed: four 2-by-12 planks nailed together to make a 5-by-10-foot rectangle; four sacks of compost mixed in with our clay/sand/gravel ground; one sack of chicken manure, and two posts at the back with a wire trellis.

Into this went 75 garlic cloves and, three months later, snap peas and carrots. We added grass clippings on top for mulch and the occasional weeding, before offering spiritual admiration, like you would devote to an especially fine pie in the oven.

The results were amazing—bigger and better garlic bulbs than ever before, bushels of peas in June, and carrots the size of zucchinis. Well, almost. And the relative input was marvelously modest—$50 or so for planks, nails, and such, and an afternoon putting it all together. Thus, I discovered raised beds are simpler, easier, and more fruitful than you would expect.

“The investment has been well worth it,” said garden writer and horticulture visionary Debra Prinzing, who moved into a new suburban Seattle home with very poor ground in 2017 and had four raised beds installed right away at $500 each.

“Having raised beds gave me ‘instant gratification’ to start growing my flowers in year one at a new property,” says the founder of the Slow Flowers Society (, a movement applying the local, sustainable, and seasonal ethic to flower production; and the author of “The 50 Mile Bouquet” and “The Abundant Garden.”

Although patience is the essence of horticulture, instant gratification is super when you find it. Our experience with first-year garlic, peas, and carrots mirrors Prinzing’s with her first-year flowers. In fact, my next bed was a bigger one, into which I planted my two favorite flowers, phlox and lilies, and enjoyed extravagant results in a year.

After that, the potato bed; then a separate bed into which I moved my lilies; then a strawberry bed with bean trellises at the back; then an heirloom rose bed … you get the picture.

It’s a picture with many advantages and few challenges.

You can engineer prime garden soil from the start. Best is half good loam and half sand, clay, and composted manure.

Once you’ve installed the base soil, simple amendments each fall keep fertility high, and I do mean simple. I just dump an inch or two of composted manure on top, let it settle and soak all winter, and lightly turn the ground in the spring when I plant. Presto: buried treasure a foot deep where you want the roots to go. Many gardeners don’t turn the soil at all, but I’m stubborn.

Raise everything by a foot and it’s all easier to reach. Pick a bowl of strawberries each afternoon, whisk away weeds and pests, and transplant tender basil starts.

Just as Manhattan’s high-rises enable more people to productively inhabit a small area, so do raised beds to enable ultra-high productivity for plants. Witness my strawberry bed with its bean trellises—last summer in this one 3 1/2-foot by 22-foot bed, I grew 20 gallons of berries (yes, really) and 25 pounds of beans. In a similarly sized bed nearby, I grew 80 bumptious ears of sweet corn, my best result ever for corn, plus cantaloupes, chiles, basil, and winter squash.

Nail upright posts to the back of the planks, hang up wire fabric, and you’ve acquired new territory straight up. Pole beans, tomatoes, peas, vining zucchini, even pumpkins—up they go. Again, easier to pick, too.

Raised beds drain better in winter and help fend off little monsters such as slugs much better than the laughable dish of beer. Chicken wire on the surface keeps cats and dogs off seedbeds, and bird netting is easy to mount on frames attached to the planks.

No need for fancy design or engineering. My beds consist of 2-by-12 planks nailed together and just set on the ground. You can use smaller planks, too, if you like—2-by-8 or 2-by-10, though the shallower beds may warrant some soil prep below surface level. After all, you do want those carrots and parsnips to reach their foot-deep majesty, right? The planks can be any length you want, sized to fit your space, although it’s difficult and costly to get timbers longer than a dozen feet or so. My beds vary widely (some might say wildly) in width and length, even shape, not all being exactly rectangular.

Fancy glistening corner brackets are nice but not necessary. A two-inch inset into the ground surface is nice but not necessary. Two inches of gravel for drainage at the bottom are nice but not necessary.

Treated wood isn’t harmless. If the chemicals are sufficient to repel micro-organisms, what are those chemicals going to do in your body? “Chromated arsenicals” sound terrible for good reason. Creosote is particularly egregious (the plant’s resins are a poisonous non-compete device) so don’t even think about railroad ties. And Trex is half plastic. Recycling is all well and good, but not for dinner. Metal … well, OK, but not the aesthetic I seek.

Yes, plain wood deteriorates eventually—after a generation or so, depending on the wood. Good-quality Douglas fir or ponderosa pine is best. My beds are just fine after six years, so at this rate, replacement will be a chore for my grandchildren.

Five millennia or so of cultural evolution have led humans to appreciate arranged landscapes—the “built environment.” Yes, there is a kind of woodland garden design that leaves things as close to natural as possible, but that’s not for beefsteak tomatoes. Raised beds provide a visually pleasing ordered design, and they need not be just boxed rectangles: I shaped mine to flow with the angles of the hill on which they rest.

Prinzing arranged hers in a cross with the paths between following the four compass directions, and an antique birdbath in the middle of the cross. “The overall backyard space is small, but this arrangement makes it pleasing to the eye,” she said.

Watering isn’t simpler unless you install very complex, engineered irrigation systems (whose pipes will fail long before the planks do, I promise). I do it manually, nozzle in hand. People are scandalized by this “primitive” approach, but I don’t want to use broadcast sprinklers and waste water on the grass between the beds. Hand watering is a meditative exercise that attunes me to the garden, and the garden to me.

Maintaining the space between the beds takes a little effort. Grass must be mowed, so be sure there is ample space for a mower. Gravel, paving stones, and wood chips will get weeds, but not many.

A Case for Raised Bed Gardening

Bird Feeder With Stand Can you have too much of a good thing? I think it’s hard to achieve excess when you’re growing food and flowers. I’ve got 16 raised beds now, with more taking shape in my fertile imagination every time I patrol the garden space at our farm. Surely, I need new beds for asparagus and zinnias and the infinite variety in between.