Raised Garden Beds: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Improving Raised Beds in Your Garden

Raised garden beds are fast becoming the most popular way to grow vegetables at home. There are tremendous benefits to gardening in raised beds, including earlier harvests, more produce, less work, and easier access. Read on to learn more about the benefits of raised beds, plus detailed information about choosing a specific raised bed for your space, filling it with soil, and upgrading it with helpful accessories.

raised garden beds - Lettuce growing in a raised bed garden

Benefits of Raised Garden Beds

Here are some key benefits of raised garden beds:

  • Plant crops earlier in the spring due to quickly-warming soil;
  • Improve accessibility by raising up planting surface;
  • Choose ideal garden soil for growing vegetables;
  • Garden in urban areas like patios, rooftops, driveways;
  • Elevate veggies out of reach of small animals;
  • Keep garden space defined and tidy;
  • Provide good drainage;
  • Contain spreading plants;
  • Reduce weeds, compaction, and other detrimental factors;
  • Increase yield of vegetable crops;
  • Simple to track crop rotation from year-to-year.

“Raised beds aren’t a new invention, but they have certainly become more prevalent with this movement to grow fresh produce. And they’ve helped to modernize the way we garden. In bigger yards, raised beds seem to have replaced the typical expanse of a veggie plot.”

Raised Bed Revolution: Build It, Fill It, Plant It … Garden Anywhere!, by Tara Nolan
raised garden beds - grey wooden boxes planted with green lettuce, tomatoes, and garlic in urban backyard

Choosing Raised Garden Beds

There are three common materials used to make raised garden beds: wood, recycled plastic, and textile fabric. Let’s look at each type of raised bed, including the benefits and what to look for.

Wooden Raised Beds

Wooden raised garden beds are the most common type of raised bed chosen by gardeners. For the best type of wood, look for cedar lumber, which is both strong and resistant to rotting.

The simplest raised bed is simply a rectangular wooden frame laid on the ground. While it is completely possible just to nail some boards together, its best to invest in a strong fastening system that will hold the boards together long after the bed is filled with soil.

Some beds have half-lap joints, others have additional corner trim, and there are even “slot-and-peg” type raised garden beds. Here are three different types of these high-quality cedar wooden raised beds:

Recycled Plastic Composite Garden Beds

For urban environments and low-maintenance applications, raised beds made of non-toxic recycled plastic and plastic composites can be an excellent option. These beds are generally light, easy to assemble, and resistant to warping. Some are even available in different colours, like a modern grey or an old-fashioned dark green. Here are three great examples of recycled plastic raised garden beds:

Textile/Fabric Raised Garden Beds

Fabric raised beds are a newer option that is becoming popular due to its light shipping weight and ease of set-up. Most of these beds are circular and made of a felted utility fabric or woven geotextile. Here are a few examples of textile/fabric raised garden beds:

More Material Options for Raised Garden Beds

There are numerous options for materials to use for raised beds beyond lumber, plastic, and fabric. Here are some more ideas for raised garden beds, both DIY and store-bought:

  • Stacked timber logs (as opposed to sawn dimensional lumber)
  • River rocks or local stones
  • Bricks or cinderblocks
  • Wattle fencing
  • Metal stock tanks or even an old metal bathtub
  • Sheet metal with wooden corners
garden trowel resting on the edge of a raised bed

Upgrades for Raised Garden Beds

Here are some common upgrades added to raised beds as accessories to make gardening easier, more enjoyable, and more productive:

Irrigation

Irrigation is the most popular upgrade for raised garden beds. This key accessory can mean the difference between a struggling patch of plants and a thriving vegetable garden. Most raised beds are watered with drip irrigation, although there are also small sprinkler systems available and even self-watering beds that have a water storage basin.

Trellis

A trellis on a raised bed allows for growing crops vertically, maximizing use of space. Permanent trellises can also lessen maintenance for climbing crops like peas, which would otherwise require some sort of additional support structure. Here is an example of a popular raised bed garden kit that includes a trellis:

This kit (above) is nice because it also includes a little gate (very helpful if you have toddlers and/or pets around). Another bonus is the option for built-in automated irrigation.

Deer Fencing

If deer can get to your raised beds, they won’t hesitate to feast on your delicious produce. Deer-fencing places a barrier between the deer and your vegetables. While there are electric deer-fencing kits available, most gardeners opt for a simple physical barrier of high mesh-type fencing. Here is a raised garden bed that includes deer fencing:

The nice thing about physical deer fencing is that it also doubles as a trellis for climbing plants. You can grow peas, squash, cucumbers, beans, and all sorts of fruiting plants up the sides of the deer fence, which really maximizes space.

Cold Frame

Adding a cold frame to a raised bed turns it into a mini-greenhouse! You can either purchase a raised bed kit that includes a cold-frame greenhouse top, or you can add a separate cold frame on top of the soil surface of a larger raised bed.

Below is an example of a raised bed with a built-in cold frame. The 3′ x 6′ cedar bed includes greenhouse-panel walls and a lid. These panels protect tender crops from frost, allowing you to harvest veggies beyond the regular growing season. You’ll also be able to start your crops earlier in the springtime! The poly panels can be removed during hot weather (revealing trellis panelling for climbing crops):

For existing raised beds and larger gardens, a separate cold frame can be a wonderful investment. The frame sits directly on top of the soil, insulating it from cold surrounding air. Some gardeners are able to harvest greens and other veggies throughout winter with these wonderful devices!

The best cold-frames are double-walled, and some even include an insect screen for warmer weather. Here are two such examples:

Row Cover Hoops

Row cover hoops are kind of like an add-on, temporary cold-frame. These hoops go from one side of the raised bed to the other, making a mini “hoop-house” greenhouse out of the bed. Row cover is an airy, less-permanent solution to season extension and physical pest barriers. Here’s an example system from the popular VegTrug garden bed system:

Row cover hoop frames can be covered with different types of protective cloth. Poly row cover is a durable plastic that protects plants from cold weather. Fleece and floating row covers keep out tiny pest insects. Open mesh row covers protect precious crops from birds and other hungry critters.

Bed Liner

A garden bed liner is any type of thin material added to the inside of the bed as a lining between the outer material (generally wood lumber) and the soil inside the bed. Sometimes this is added to keep the moist soil separate from the wood, in an attempt to keep the wood from rotting too quickly. Other times this liner is added for aesthetic reasons such as keeping weeds from escaping through cracks or making thick, straight walls.

Liner materials for raised beds can be anything from plastic sheeting, geotextile, lumber tarps from the hardware store’s lumber yard, or even high-quality pond liner (expensive!). Beds can be lined with plywood if you like or reclaimed wood (we used old boards from our old cedar backyard fence).

Bottom Layer

While most raised beds are bottomless, there are some situations in which a bottom layer can benefit the gardener. A bottom layer can keep soil inside the bed (rather than escaping out the bottom, and it can aid in drainage and pest management.

Beds on the ground are sometimes given a bottom layer of landscape fabric or loose cardboard/newspaper. To deter small burrowing animals, sometimes hardware cloth (wire mesh) or chicken wire is laid on the bottom. Where drainage is a concern, a gravel bottom may be added (sometimes topped with geotextile), perhaps with drilled weep holes to aid drainage.

Ledge or Bench

Having a built-in ledge or bench is a really nice feature for a raised bed. Many raised beds that have an option for trim include a trim style that’s wide enough to perch on while you work. This is also a nice place to park your cup of tea or coffee while you pull out a few weeds or pick a couple strawberries.

Rain Gauge

A rain gauge is a little measurement container that you add to the side of a raised bed to give you some information about how much natural precipitation has fallen on your garden. This can be helpful when planning how much irrigation you need or even just with observing the patterns of the seasons.

Thermometer

A thermometer is a very helpful addition to your raised beds. A good soil thermometer will provide you with both the ambient air temperature and the temperature of the soil (generally 6″-8″ down into the soil). Knowing the soil temperature is very helpful in the spring when you’re waiting for the soil to warm to a specific level so that seeds can germinate.

Slug Tape

Copper tape for slugs is sometimes added to the sides of raised beds to keep the hungry, slimy slugs from feasting on your vegetables. There are flat copper tape options, wire options, and crazy tiny barbed-wire-like slug tapes for building a slug barrier to your raised beds.

lettuce growing in a raised garden bed

Creative Raised Bed Garden Ideas

Here are some raised bed accessories to make the most of your garden:

Tomato Cages

If you’re serious about growing tomatoes, you’re probably growing them in a raised bed. And that means they’ll need some kind of support system. Tomato cages provide support to the rambling vines of the most delicious types of tomatoes that we grow in our gardens.

The little wire cages at the hardware store are often not enough for the average gardener. Some hardware stores now sell more substantial tomato cages alongside the small standard ones. Alternatively, you can make your own from square wire animal fencing panels or from thin bits of leftover lumber.

Obelisk

A decorative obelisk can be used for any type of vining plant, from tomatoes to beans to sweet peas. Obelisks are like pretty tomato cages, generally made of wood or metal. Find one that suits your style and give it a place of honour atop your raised bed!

Water Feature

It is totally possible to add a tiny pond or water feature to a raised garden bed. This can be very helpful if you’d like to grow aquatic plants, have some little pet fish, or provide a water source for local birds and helpful pollinators. Head over to Pinterest for some ideas!

Pollinator Garden

Speaking of pollinators, why not add some perennials and other pollinator-attractants to your raised beds? While you’ll likely keep some areas for annual vegetables, consider adding some flowering culinary herbs or some native plants that the local hummingbird and butterfly population will love?

Table Legs

Like the popular VegTrug system, some raised beds are raised up so much that they are like tables! Head to Pinterest for ideas on repurposing table legs to raise up planters. And there’s always the option of adding a shelf down below to store your garden supplies. The possibilities are endless!

Cloche

Cloches are like tiny little cold-frames. They can be anything from an overturned mason jar to a large decorative glass bell. Either way, they’ll help protect your plant from temperature swings and other environmental stresses. You can also make your own cloche:

Birdbath

A birdbath is another nice option to add to a raised bed. Whether you place a solid pedestal concrete birdbath between the beds or place a simple basin on the top of the soil, a birdbath will make your garden the center of activity for your local feathered friends!

Solitary Bee House

A solitary bee nest will attract native pollinating bees, including mason bees, to your garden. These bees are non-aggressive to humans while boosting pollination of your crops. The nest provides a safe place for them to lay eggs. A single small bee house includes enough slots for over 100 beneficial solitary bees each year.

Heat-Activated Cold Frame Attachment

A heat-activated window opener on a cold frame is a very cool little gadget that senses temperature and adjusts the cold frame to ensure an optimal growing environment for your veggies. It keeps warm air in when its cold out and allows for ventilation as the temperature rises.

Soil mix in a raised bed garden - perlite and homemade compost

Soil for Raised Garden Beds

Soil for raised bed gardens is a major consideration when choosing and installing your raised beds. One nice option is to look for a local provider of garden soil and see if it can be delivered to your garden in bulk.

If choosing the pre-made delivered raised bed soil option, ALWAYS ASK exactly what is in the soil. Is it manure? What kind of manure? Does it contain biosolids? Is it OMRI-listed (organic certified)? Does it contain minerals? ….ask the questions before you commit to a soil choice.

In the (somewhat likely) event that you can’t find the perfect soil in bulk locally, its time to mix up your own raised bed soil. Most gardeners choose the standard “triple mix” or general “Mel’s mix” formula. While specifics vary, here is the general raised bed soil recipe:

  • 1/3 compost (homemade, composted yard waste, composted manure)
  • 1/3 peat moss or coconut coir
  • 1/3 perlite or vermiculite

“Originally introduced into areas of poor or heavy soil, raised beds were build above ground level and filled with new, better soil, so as to allow crops to grow well. However, over time this practical response to poor soil has almost become the norm, with more and more gardeners opting for raised beds to contain their productive gardening.”

Best Garden Design: Practical inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, by Chris Young

“If you’re building one or more larger raised beds for your yard, chances are it’s more economical to arrange for soil to be delivered to fill them than buying soil by the bagful.”

Raised Bed Revolution: Build It, Fill It, Plant It … Garden Anywhere!, by Tara Nolan
raised bed gardening - benefits

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is a home gardener who loves creating healthy, welcoming spaces (indoors and out!) - About Mary Jane (https://www.homefortheharvest.com/authors/about-mary-jane-duford/)

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