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Raised Garden Bed Myths

So why haven't you heard anything from me about raised beds yet?

Because I don't really like them! For every advantage, there is a corresponding disadvantage. I find that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and the disadvantages are NEVER mentioned in the rave articles about them.

Many people still love them - but I've noticed that more people like the IDEA of raised beds, than actually want to take the trouble to MAKE raised beds. That tells us something right there. They don't feel the cost and trouble are worth it. Considering that they've only been popular in the last decade or two (except where they were a status symbol for ornamental plantings), in all the thousands of years of humanity growing gardens, they seem to me to be more of a fad than a truly beneficial thing.

For those who do like them, and think that is the way to go, you may have found a benefit that I do not appreciate. But for people who are exploring whether it IS worth it, you should know that there ARE two sides to it. And you should know what the disadvantages are before you dive in, because some of the disadvantages may be particularly irksome in your climate.

  1. You don't get any advantage unless the beds are raised up about a foot or more. Seriously! Putting in a 4" edging and digging your pathways down to heap up inside that edging isn't going to make a measurable difference to either moisture or temperature. So if you aren't going to really raise it, don't bother. You may have a trendy looking garden, but it won't make a bit of difference to your garden other than costing you extra time and materials. The only advantage it will give you is being able to say you have a raised bed garden to impress the kind of people who care about that.

  2. Proponents say that they heat up earlier in the spring. They may, if high enough. But they also cool off sooner in the fall to the same extent. They'll heat up too much in hot climates - the raised bed has a higher temperature in the midsummer heat than planting lower in the soil. They also are colder in the winter, since they are more exposed. I don't feel that I gain any advantage from them in any of the climates I've gardened in, from Washington, to Wyoming, to Texas, to Oklahoma. Planting in the ground gives me more temperature compensation advantages. If I need the ground to warm up earlier in the spring, I can lay a row cover over it, or even black plastic. It will warm faster than a raised bed. I can use the row cover again in the fall, to keep the heat longer. And that only costs me $25. The use of heavy mulch keeps it warmer in the winter, and cooler in the summer as well. And I can get/make mulch for nothing.

  3. Raised bed advocates also say that they dry out sooner in the spring, making the soil more workable instead of being muddy. This has also NOT been an advantage anywhere I've lived, and as water scarcity becomes more of an issue, this is less and less of an advantage even in areas where you'd think it might be. Most places we've lived have tended toward desert, with recent droughts. Raised beds DO dry out sooner. All year. They do not hold water as well as the soil holds it, and if you use a weed barrier, the roots of your plants won't be able to go down into the ground beneath to the lower water reserves. Deep mulch around in-ground plantings do a much better job of both avoiding spring mud problems, and keeping moisture in the soil during hot and dry spells.

  4. The third "advantage" that I've heard is that they are easier to work. I have not found this to be the case. Whether in a raised bed, or on the ground, I have to bend over and stretch, which hurts my back either way. I cannot sit on the edge of a high raised bed to work it, because sitting with legs pointing OUT, and body pointing IN, is just WAY too painful! I actually find it to be just as comfortable to work at ground level. Deep mulch and a no-till garden method keeps the workload minimal, so most of the work is actually thinning (for usable greens), and harvesting, with some weeding which involves harvesting weeds for our animals. There are fewer of those in a no-till garden too.

  5. Raised beds are time consuming to make. Sure, you can knock a fancy one together in a day or two. But a whole garden full? I have better uses for my time. I just find that the time it takes to build framing for garden beds can be better used on caring for a larger garden, caring for animals, or writing all this stuff down! I do love SOME containers around my house, and find it IS worthwhile to build a few of those, but I prefer movable containers for perennials that may have to move from location to location.

  6. Materials to make raised beds are either costly, or they do not last very long. In general, recycled or repurposed materials do not last more than a few seasons. Treated lumber lasts longer, but may leach chemicals into the soil. Not exactly what you want in your veggie beds. Redwood and Cedar are costly. This is another area where I feel that the resources are simply best used in other ways.

  7. The best dirt to grow things in is... dirt. Mother nature does a better job of making soil than people do. If you have poor soil, it can almost universally be corrected using deep mulch, and compost, with regular applications of manure (real manure, from animals - "green" manure isn't manure). It doesn't take long to do either. It can be done in 1 growing season, or less. (Put down mulch and scatter manure on it in the fall. By spring your garden will be ready.) Potting mix is nasty stuff, besides being WAY too expensive to fill garden beds. So is that artificial "garden soil" that many places now sell. It isn't soil at all. It is a mixture of various coarse organic stuff IF you get the organic kind. Otherwise it has manmade materials in there, which are NEVER the best stuff to produce thriving plants. The "topsoil" sold in garden centers is also poor stuff. Artificial soils are VERY poor at holding water (making the water retention issues with raised beds even more severe). They tend to dry out, shrink, and when you water them, they shed the water around the edges and it does not absorb in where the roots of the plant are located. Dirt, in the ground, is always better. Even where it seems there IS no dirt. Layer on the mulch, and plant anyway. You'll be amazed at what that mulch will do.

 

Like I said, I don't like raised beds. I do like a raised planter around the edges of the house, or around the edges of walkways or decks. But not for a vegetable garden.

To me, there are just better ways to get the job done with less work, less expense, and fewer drawbacks.

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