How to Make—and Fill—a Raised Garden Bed
If the conditions in your yard are less than ideal—hard, rocky clay soil; uneven terrain—raised beds are the ultimate work-around. These elevated mounds of earth, often contained by a rectangular frame, offer total flexibility: You can plot them wherever you want, fill them with your ideal blend of soil, and plant them more densely than a regular garden, which means fewer weeds. Plus, they warm up quickly in spring, so you can start growing earlier than if you were digging in the still-frozen earth. While the beds can initially be more expensive to set up and fill, they pay you back with productivity. Take this vegetable garden, above, for example; in Northern California, the Pine House Edible Garden landscape-design firm, in collaboration with Homestead Design Collective, filled two-foot-tall Cortensteel raised beds with a mix of produce and ornamentals. Plants with similar water requirements are grouped together. To recreate the look, see our step-by-step tutorial, below.
Scout out your yard and decide what you want to grow, then plot a bed where it will get the right light; for example, edibles need at least six hours of sun. The length of the box will depend on your space, but width is important: You want to be able to weed and reach plants without stepping in and crushing them or compacting the soil. Keep it under two and a half feet wide if it's against a wall or fence, or five feet wide if you can reach in from both sides. Plan for each bed to be at least a foot deep.
You can construct a raised bed from Corten steel, stones, or bricks, but wood planks are the most common material, and the easiest for beginners. Choose untreated lumber, such as rot-resistant cedar, cypress, or black locust. Avoid pressure-treated boards, which have been preserved with chemicals that can leach into your soil—this is especially important if you plan to grow food.
If your ground soil is healthy, leave it exposed. If you live in a city where soil contamination from lead or other chemicals is a concern, or want to plant on a patio or another concrete surface, staple heavy-duty landscape or weed-blocking fabric across the bottom of the bed before you place it. This water-permeable cloth holds off the bad stuff and keeps your soil from washing away. You can also choose a bed with legs that sits well above the ground.
Pour a mixture of top-soil and compost into your box (ask an expert or consult your county's cooperative exchange for advice on the right ratio), leaving about an inch of space below the top of the frame. A bed that is six feet by four feet and 13 inches deep, for instance, will need approximately one cubic yard of soil (for a handy calculator, go to gardeners.com). Remember, you need to top off your beds every year with more soil and compost. And now comes the fun part: Start planting!
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If you don't want to go the DIY route, there are plenty of garden beds on the market that you can order and assemble. Keep reading to discover several of our favorite options.