Recently, here on the blog, we had a discussion about lots of interesting and creative ways to build raised beds. Thank you all for sharing your great ideas, lots of really cool ideas. You can see that post and add any additional ideas here. But . . . do you really need raised beds? Let’s chat about that shall we?
Why raised beds?
There are three primary reasons for building raised beds.
1. For things like vegetable gardening having a raised bed can be take some of the stress off or your back if you have a weak back. But of course, building a raised bed usually requires some work so it’s not something that you want to do if you don’t have to. But if it’s next to impossible for you to get down that low, or not good for you to kneel, then having somebody help you build a raised bed could be the best thing in the world for you.
2. Poor soil! If you have really poor soil in your yard and plants just don’t grow all that well, building a raised bed allows you to fill that bed with rich soil that is loaded with organic matter. If you have really good soil in your raised bed that drains well you can water as needed and not be concerned about things getting too wet, or worse, staying wet for too long. When installing landscapes, and I’ve landscaped well over 500 homes in my career, I always raised the beds for these two reasons. In many cases the soil is poor, so I want nice soil to plant in so the landscape plants thrive. And secondly is the aesthetic appeal that a raised bed provides.
3. One of the primary reasons that we create raised beds when landscaping is because when the bed is raised you can do a better job of showing off the beautiful plants in the landscape. If you just mark out a bed around your house and plant the shrubs you lose the stair step effect of good landscaping. You should look at landscaping as a set of steps. From the street the first step is lawn, the second is the raised bed, the third the low growing shrubs in the very front of the landscape, the fourth the medium growing shrubs in the middle of the landscape planting and fifth being the taller shrubs in the back of the landscape.
The above photo is a stair stepped landscape planting in a raised bed. Notice that there is nothing around this bed to retain the soil. This is almost always how I build a raised bed for landscaping. I just taper the soil down to the lawn. Mowing around this bed with a riding lawn mower is a breeze, no trimming required. It’s less work, it’s less expensive and it’s still very attractive. And . . . and this is the big one, as the plants grow the bed is easily enlarged just a few inches at a time and no bricks or other retaining materials need to be moved.
Are raised beds always a good idea?
No they are not. I know that might come as a shock to a lot of folks, but raised beds are not always a good idea and sometimes they are a terrible idea. Why is that?
One of the things that we come to understand very quickly in the nursery business is that the during the winter, the earth is warm, the air is cold. The closer you can keep things to the earth, the warmer they area. We never put plants on pallets or any other raised area for the winter. We want the bottom of the containers touching the soil. It makes all the difference in the world.
In my nursery I actually have an under ground bunker that I dug out and I use it to store bare root plants during the winter. It’s not all that big, probably about 8′ long and 36″ wide and only 24″ to 30″ deep, but when I put things in there they do not freeze. I probably oughta show you that thing again huh?
So make a mental note of that. The earth is warm. The farther you get from the surface of the earth, the colder things are. And the drier they are!
During the winter dry is not a good thing.
That’s another thing you ought to know. During the winter plants need to be hydrated. That’s why they are always much better outside in a protected area than they are in a shed or a garage. Believe it or not, the air inside of a building is much drier than the air outside. And I’m talking about an Unheated Building. It’s still dry.
The closer to the earth the warmer plants are, and the more moist they are. They like that. It makes them happy.
Can a raised bed be too high?
Technically, a raised bed can be too high. It puts the plants at risk because they can dry out more easily and they will freeze harder, go through the freeze thaw cycle more often.
If these raised beds are too high why did I make them that high? The answer to that question is telling because it plays to what I’ve been teaching you here. Right behind the raised bed above is a container area that we created this year at the nursery. Because my soil drains well, please don’t over look what I just said, my soil drains really well, we dug out an area about 40′ wide and 70′ feet long. We removed about 8″ of soil so our small containers would be sitting 8″ below grade.
All of that excavation created quite a pile of dirt so I just round off the pile and turned it into a landscape planting. I had to do something with all of that soil! Given a choice I would not have made the bed that high.
Taking advantage of ground heat.
Don’t over look how much trouble I go to to take advantage of ground heat here in the nursery. All of our containers are below grade because I do not cover them for winter. But again, my soil drains, so I know they won’t be too wet. All of our containers sit on the ground, never up on a raised surface of any kind. I often buy plants during the winter that get shipped to me bare root, they go underground so they can’t freeze. I’ll get some photos of that bunker and show you.
Questions, comments, what did I leave out? Post them below.