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With more and more people now growing their own fruit and veg at home, raised beds have become a common sight in gardens up and down the country. But are raised beds a good idea?
Raised beds are a good idea if you are looking to improve the aesthetics of your garden, overcome problems with poor soil, extend the growing season or improve accessibility by reducing the need for bending. However they can be expensive to install and fill, may require annual maintenance and have a finite lifespan.
Read on as we find out more about the pros and cons of raised beds, how to resolve common problems that you may encounter, and evaluate alternatives to raised beds for growing tasty home grown produce.
What are the Pros and Cons of Raised Beds?
Pros of raised beds
A neater garden – Raised beds act as barriers to physically contain the planting within. When working on raised beds you are much less likely to have to step on the soil within the bed meaning less chance of compaction.
Due to their semi – permanent nature raised beds are often an integral part of a garden design and they can help make a space feel more structured and ordered.
Accessibility – The height of raised beds can mean a lot less bending down when gardening – a lot easier on the back and knees! Raised beds can be installed at pretty much any height you want – from only a few inches of ground level through to sitting or standing level. For people with mobility issues especially this can make a massive difference.
Soil type and quality – Raised beds offer a solution to poor soil quality. Soil in residential gardens can often be of very poor quality and it is not unusual to find it littered with building materials from years gone by. A raised bed gives you full control over the soil that that you are using to grow in.
And if you want to grow a variety of crops over multiple beds you have the option of using different soil types in each.
Drainage – If you have a garden with poor drainage and waterlogged soil a raised bed may be just what you are looking for. By raising the level of the soil using a raised bed you can create an better planting environment which is freer draining. Although this may mean more frequent watering!
Springtime soil temperature – Because the bed is raised, the sides will usually absorb heat from the spring sunshine which in turn will increase the temperature of the soil within. Warmer spring soil is beneficial for earlier planting.
Slugs and snails – To some extent a raised bed can help protect your planting. People and animals are less likely to walk over and damage them, meaning the soil is also likely to be less compacted. Raised beds can help protect against slugs, snails and pests if you take precautions such as using copper tape around the perimeter of the bed. I have used copper tape around my raised beds for years and am happy to report no slug or snail issues.
If you do have problems with large amounts of slugs in your garden then be sure to read and follow our 7 top tips to keep slugs under control.
Cons of raised beds
Space – Raised beds are semi permanent structures and can take up a fair amount of space. It is not just the physical size of the bed alone that needs to be considered – if you have more than one bed or relatively deep beds you will need to leave sufficient access space around the edges for crop maintenance. I made this mistake and placed one of my beds too close to a wall and a fence which makes access very difficult, especially when the bed is full and growing!
If you have a small garden there will be competing priorities for limited space: an area taken up by raised beds means that it cant be used for something else….
Cost – Raised beds can be costly to initially buy and fill. The raised bed shown above is (H) 42cm x (W) 180cm x (D) 90cm and holds approximately 530 litres.
As a rough guide you should aim for a mix of around 30% compost and 70% soil to ensure healthy plant growth. So in this case you would need around 159 litres of compost. You would need to ensure that the topsoil used is weed free. It would be worth speaking to your local garden centre as many sell topsoil in bulk.
The bottom line is if you are growing fruit and veg using a raised bed to try and save money it may take a while to pay for itself!
Lifespan – Raised beds will not last forever! Most raised beds are constructed from wood, although it is perfectly possible for them to be made of other materials such as metal or brick. Raised beds are inherently damp on the inside. Over time, wood will rot and and metal will rust. A pressure treated wooden raised bed will usually have a longer life expectancy of around 15 years. Untreated wooden beds can have a significantly lower lifespan.
Contamination from wood treatment – Many modern beds are safely pressure treated with chemicals during manufacture for a longer working life meaning that they do not need an annual treatment. Where this has not been done an annual treatment will be needed. This could present issues as there is a potential for chemicals from the treatment to leech into the soil or compost of the bed and contaminate it. If you are concerned that this may be the case, lining the internal walls of the bed in protective polythene will protect the soil and compost within.
Soil temperature – As we mentioned earlier, in springtime the heat from the sun is absorbed by the sides of raised beds and this helps bring up the temperature of soil within. At other times of year raised beds can have a negative effect on the soil temperature and the soil can become too hot in summer (which can mean dry soil and a lot of watering) and too cold in winter.
What are the Alternatives to Raised Beds?
If you decide that raised beds are not for you, two alternatives worth considering are in – ground beds and containers. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of each!
In – Ground Beds
Pros of in – ground beds
Flexibility – In – ground beds are easy to adjust and change should you wish to modify the layout of your garden design.
Cost – There is less of an up front cost compared to raised beds when creating an in – ground bed.
Soil temperature – Less fluctuation across the seasons means that your soil will be cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Cons of in – ground beds
One of the primary drawbacks of using in – ground beds is accessibility. A lot of bending down will be needed. Other disadvantages include:
Weeds and stones – Perennial weeds and stones will be more of an issue if you are growing in – ground rather than using a raised bed.
You will need to make sure that all annual and perennial weeds (such as bindweed) are removed when preparing the bed initially. Once this is done it is beneficial to leave the plot for a few weeks prior to planting as this will allow any remaining weeds to germinate so that you can clear them. It is almost impossible to get rid of all weeds entirely so going forward from this you will need to keep on top of any new ones as and when they appear!
Digging – Especially if you are starting a bed from scratch, the soil is likely to be fairly heavily compacted. In general, in – ground plots will need a lot of digging to keep the soil broken up and free draining. Doing a good job with the initial dig on a new plot will give the new crops a better chance of establishing and thriving!
Soil contamination – If you are considering growing edible crops in an in – ground bed it is good practice to carry out a soil test beforehand to ensure that there is no contamination present.
Soil preparation – You will have less control over soil quality when growing in – ground. Try to use an area with free draining soil. Your soil will need the right nutrients so that your crops will grow successfully. You may need to adjust soil consistency, nutrient levels and PH. Soil test kits are available from most garden centres.
A second alternative to raised beds is to use containers. Grow bags, potato planters, vertical garden towers, ceramic pots – there is a container out there suitable for growing most types of fruit and veg!
Pros of containers
Ideal for small spaces – If you have limited outside space then containers are a good way forward! Small yards and balconies can be transformed by the addition of planting. With containers available in so may different sizes, colours and varieties there is sure to be something out there to suit!
Portability – One of the beauties of container gardening is portability. It is easy to move pots around to achieve optimum shade and sunlight, group them together for aesthetic impact, or position them for convenience. You can move herbs and spices right next to your kitchen door so that they are right on hand whenever you need them! If you find pots too heavy when filled with compost and soil then pot mover trolleys can help.
Accessibility – In many ways containers can be better than raised beds when it comes to making gardening accessible. The right sized container can be placed at virtually any height and location to allow for easy access.
Containers share many of their other advantages with raised beds – they give you complete control over soil type and it is easy to use different soil types in different pots. They will tend to be more free draining than in-ground beds and you can even use special feet to raise pots slightly off the ground to help with this!
If you are using compost you will have very few weeds to deal with, and you are likely to have less snails and slugs – especially if you place copper tape around the container edge as a deterrent.
Cons of containers
Watering – the smaller size of containers and lower volume of soil and compost they hold mean that they will dry out quicker than in-ground or even raised beds. It is worth considering water retaining granules as they can help reduce the amount of watering needed.
Feeding – The smaller volume of soil and compost held in containers also means lower nutrient levels – something that can be further exacerbated by frequent watering. This can often necessitate extra feeding to ensure enough nutrients are available.
Soil temperature – Fluctuations in soil temperatures will also be more extreme in containers than raised beds. This means temperatures will be warmer in spring but hotter in summer and colder in winter.
So Now You Know…..
We have seen that although raised beds can offer some significant benefits there are also some drawbacks. Having taken a look at alternative options, your decision on whether a raised bed is a good idea will ultimately come down to a combination of your specific circumstances and personal preference.